Content warning: child murder, suicide attempt.
All spring, Portlanders peered into an abyss. We were looking for clues about a mom who went over the edge.
When Jennifer Hart drove her family's SUV off the side of a California cliff into the Pacific Ocean on March 26, with her wife and six adopted children inside, her actions seemed unfathomable. Could she really have murdered her family? Why did child-welfare officials ignore signs she was abusing the kids? And how could a mother decide to destroy the lives she was supposed to nurture and protect?
These were familiar questions. This city had asked them nine years before.
In May 2009, the mother was Amanda Stott-Smith, a 31-year-old woman who stopped her car halfway across the Sellwood Bridge, took her sleeping children from the backseat, and dropped them over the railing into the Willamette River. Her 7-year-old daughter survived. Her 4-year-old son drowned.
This incident also gripped Portland, with the same cascade of headlines and fury that followed the Harts' deaths. Yet its significance might have been forgotten—except that a reporter kept looking.
Nancy Rommelmann's new book, To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder, revisits the case of Stott-Smith. For much of the last decade, long after Stott-Smith pleaded guilty, Rommelmann has pursued the details of the murder. She dug through police records, spoke with the people who loved the killer, and even found Stott-Smith's own words in the last days before she drove to the railing.
The result is a remarkable work: not a whodunit but an inquiry into why. Rommelmann doesn't find an easy solution, but neither does she settle for platitudes about the unknowability of the human heart. Instead, she keeps pressing, and finds a mother who destroyed herself—with plenty of help—and then turned on her children.
Here, WW has excerpted key passages from To the Bridge. They are a reminder that even the unspeakable is worth examining. —Aaron Mesh
Want an audio version of the excerpts? Listen to us read them here:
At 1:17 a.m. on May 23, 2009, Pati Gallagher and her husband, Dan, were having a last after-dinner drink on the patio of their waterside condo in Portland. Their chairs were angled toward the Willamette River, not fifty feet away, when they heard something hit the water. The couple did not become alarmed. Lots of things fell from the Sellwood Bridge: shopping carts, bottles tossed by hooting teenagers.
Then they heard a child yell, "Help me!"
There was no moonlight that night and few lights onshore. The couple scrambled to the river's edge but could see nothing.
"Where are you?" Dan shouted.
Pati called 911. She told the operator someone had fallen from the bridge and was in the water yelling for help. It had been more than two minutes.
"Can you hear that?" Pati said, and she held the phone toward the river.
The view north from the Sellwood Bridge at dawn. (Vikesh Kapoor)
The voice floated north with the current, past a recreation area, past an old amusement park. It was a clear night, and had someone in the water been looking toward the river's east bank, they would have seen the outline of a Ferris wheel and a thrill ride called the Scream-N-Eagle.
The screams continued. "Help me! Help me!"
David Haag, who lived in a floating home along the river, heard the cries for help. At one thirty, he and his companion, Cheryl Robb, motored their boat onto the Willamette to find whoever was screaming. It was twenty-five minutes before they saw the partially submerged form of a young girl. Haag jumped in the water and grabbed her. He was swimming her back to the boat when Robb called out, "My god, there's another one!"
Haag went after the other child, a boy. The girl, who had been in the fifty-six-degree water for more than thirty minutes, was sobbing. The boy was not. He had been facedown in the water and was not breathing when Haag got him into the boat. The boy was still not breathing by the time Haag motored the boat to a yacht club on the river's eastern shore.
It was now 2:10 a.m. Officers were waiting. The water beneath Portland's southernmost bridge was now cut by rescue boats, lit by searchlights, beaten by helicopters, the river's banks trampled by police and residents who could not or did not want to go back to sleep.
Two miles downriver in Milwaukie, twelve-year-old Gavin Stott could not sleep. He had decided to stay home when his mother Amanda went to pick up his two younger half siblings. At midnight, and again at twelve thirty, he woke his grandparents, asking why his mom was not back.
Kathy and Mike Stott called their daughter Amanda. She did not answer their calls.
At 1:33, Kathy Stott called Amanda's estranged husband, Jason Smith, asking if he had spoken with Amanda.
Amanda had in fact phoned Jason at 1:22 a.m. He had not picked up her call. But after speaking with Kathy Stott, he tried calling Amanda back. For more than an hour, she did not answer.
At 2:49 a.m., Amanda answered.
"Help me," she said.
"Are the kids okay?" Jason asked. "Where are the kids?"
"Why have you done this to me?" she said. "Why have you taken my joy away?"
Around 7:00 a.m., a news report: two children were found in the river. Jason called the police. He told them the kids in the river might be his. He and his mother headed to the Portland Police Bureau. As they were speaking with detectives, they received confirmation that the children found in the river were Jason's.
His daughter, Trinity Christine Kimberly Smith, age seven, was in the hospital in serious condition. His son, Eldon Jay Rebhan Smith, had drowned. He was four years old.
At 10:25 a.m., Portland police officers approached a battered blue 1991 Audi parked on the ninth floor of a downtown Portland parking garage. The car matched the description of the one they were looking for. A woman's hand, holding a cigarette, rested on the open driver's-side window. Officer Wade Greaves climbed a retaining wall to get a better look. The woman spotted him and opened her car door. She bolted. Officer Greaves ran after her. The woman made it to the garage's outer wall, climbed through an opening, and dropped. Greaves grabbed her. He and another officer hauled Amanda Jo Stott-Smith back up and placed her under arrest.
News of the incident dominated the front page of Sunday's newspaper, though only the barest details were available. The children had been in the water more than 30 minutes. Onlookers shared disbelief and grief.
The article included Amanda's mug shot. Her forehead was creased with tension, but except for her dark hair in disarray, she looked…how did she look? Dazed? Spent? In surrender?
I could not tell, standing at my kitchen counter, holding the morning's first cup of coffee. What did I expect a mother who had just dropped her children off a bridge to look like?
What had brought her to the bridge, to a place where she thought the right decision was to murder her children?
The breakup of Amanda Stott-Smith and Jason Smith's seven-year marriage did not seem out of the ordinary. They were arguing about money and stressed out about the kids.
Jason moved out of the family home in Tualatin in June 2008. Amanda stayed in the house, which one of her classmates later described as "the color of throw-up," with Eldon, Trinity, and Gavin, Amanda's 11-year-old son from a previous relationship. Jason moved in with a buddy for the summer, and by fall he was living in one of his mother's rental properties in Eugene.
As he had throughout his marriage to Amanda, Jason relied on his mother, Christine Duncan, to pay for what he could not. She helped with the rent on the Tualatin home and made sure the children were cared for when they visited their father. She saw her daughter-in-law's increasingly poor mothering skills as a reason why Jason should pursue custody of the two younger children in the divorce.
Amanda's husband left her on June 5, 2008, her thirty-first birthday. There was no plan for when Jason would see the children.
Amanda was able to use her old car from college, the beat-up 1991 Audi. Still, she couldn't concentrate when she was away from the house; she wanted to be there in case Jason came by, and never knowing when he would was making her jittery. Amanda knew her husband was probably using drugs, if not what kind.
Sometimes he would show up just to take Eldon; he would not tell her where they were going or when they'd be back. Eldon would come home in clothes belonging to the son of Jason's drug friends. He told her Eldon was his son, and he would take the boy when he wanted or Amanda could face legal action.
And then he'd be gone again, telling her his being away was probably temporary and that if she stopped smoking, stopped drinking, lost weight, and got a job, he would come home. She wanted to do what he wanted her to do, but it was hard. Jason and his mother demanded contradictory things: She needed to stay home with the kids, she needed to get a job, she needed to let Jason keep control of the finances, she needed to take control of her own life.
September 2008 was a lousy time to be looking for a job. Amanda did not find work. Jason did not return home.
On Sept. 21, 2008, Jason Smith smashed a rented Ford F-150 into the rear of a parked van—with three-year-old Eldon in the passenger seat. He went to rehab, and checked out in less than a month.
Amanda thought she did well the first few months. She got the children to school. She took them to church. She kept asking Jason when he was coming home; he kept putting her off. He started taking the children to Eugene for a few days at a time. Amanda did not know why they could not be together as a family.
Eldon and Trinity would bring home stories about Daddy and his friend Keli. Amanda accused Jason of becoming involved with his former girlfriend. He told her she was being paranoid.
For the Thanksgiving holiday, Amanda and the children went to Southern California with Jason and his mother. Amanda continued to think her husband was being unfaithful to her. Jason's mother Christine Duncan said Keli Townsend was an old family friend and that was all there was to it.
In December, Jason told Amanda that Eldon and Trinity would have Christmas with him and his mother in Eugene.
An arctic blast moved through the Pacific Northwest in late December 2008, dumping 19 inches of snow by Christmas Eve. The city of Portland was not prepared. Wind blew traffic lights sideways, lights no one needed to heed because motorists were told to keep off the roads.
Amanda decided to drive to Eugene anyway. The drive south on 1-5 would have been difficult, and without knowing how, she cut her hand. Jason met her at the front door of his mother's home. He told her she was not welcome to come in. Amanda asked to use the bathroom to wash the blood off her hand. Jason's mother allowed her to do so. Christine Duncan called Amanda's mother and complained about her daughter showing up uninvited. Amanda spent the night in her car across from the house, watching her children celebrate Christmas.
When Amanda first met Jason, she believed that she was or would become a good mother, a good wife, that she was beautiful and desirable and smart enough to work with her husband-to-be's changeable sense of the truth, with his drug habits as well as her own drinking and pot smoking. As 2008 turned to 2009, most or all of these things had failed to be true.
Amanda had lost one identity after another. Just as her children were almost wholly out of her grasp, so too was her sense of self.
In the months after Jason left, Kathy Stott, Amanda's mother, checked Amanda into the hospital twice for depression, once to an eating disorder clinic. Amanda was either released early from the programs or walked out.
Amanda's grandmother, Jackie Dreiling, said Amanda did not want to give up her eating disorder, and that Jason would buy her size-two clothes and say, "Fit into that."
"She could throw up the most expensive meal in town," Jackie said, and that the only food she saw Amanda consume in the months leading up to the bridge was ketchup; that Amanda's car was littered with hundreds of fast-food ketchup packets, which she would suck on as she drove.
Amanda was also drinking heavily. She was a woman who drank herself into oblivion in front of her children. She was a woman stalking someone she believed to be her husband's lover. She was a woman who, once her house had been emptied of furniture, sat on the floor picking little craft beads out of the carpet.
"Mandy told me one day, she was sitting right where you are talking. I said, 'Mandy, if you would just get yourself together and straighten out, you will get your kids,'" Jackie said. "'It doesn't matter how much money they've got, no court is going to take children away from their mother unless you give them cause to do so.' She said, 'Grandma, no one wins against Jason and [his mother] Chris.' She truly believed it was going to be however they wanted it to be, and there was nothing she could do about it."
It is unlikely anyone looked at the coordinates of Amanda's increasingly disordered life and calculated how she was at risk for killing her children. If her sister knew Amanda had previous mental health and alcohol issues, she nevertheless told police, who asked whether she thought Amanda capable of harming the kids, "I didn't believe she could."
Of course she didn't. The eventuality was unthinkable to Amanda's family. But they did see it coming; they just didn't know what it was.
At 10:50 a.m. on May 23, the handcuffs were removed. The log said Amanda was wearing a red floral top, size-thirteen white shorts, a black belt with white stitching, and sandals. She had two one-dollar bills in her front pocket.
Photographs showed "scrapes on her arms, legs and right hand," wrote Detective Bryan Steed. Steed's report offered no opinion as to whether the fingernails of her children might have caused the scrapes.
Between 11:00 and 11:39, Amanda squatted in the corner. At 12:30, she was taken out of her cell to be interviewed. Detectives asked what happened the night before; Amanda told them they must know.
"You can just kill me," she said, and began to sob.
Amanda said she had "told everyone to just lock her up." She had lost too much. She said in response to Detective Michele Michaels asking about what happened the previous night, "I went a little crazy."
Amanda stressed she wanted no media attention, that she did not want to be on the news. This was at odds with the opinion that, by dropping her children off a bridge in a major American city, Amanda had pretty much forfeited her right to privacy.
"I hurt the children. I mean, I didn't hurt them, I just let them [go]," Amanda told detectives. Asked where she let them go from, Amanda said, "You guys probably know."
Amanda said she let the children fall from the bridge and did not try to stop them.
Amanda described being in and out of hospitals all spring, of "going nuts and thinking she could just die." She said Jason had "taken her joy," which detectives surmised meant "she was going to take his so he would know what it felt like." They asked whether she thought she and Jason might get back together, without the kids.
"No," she said. "He'd kill me."
Told by detectives that the children had been found, Amanda again began to cry. "I am so dumb," she said. She went on to say she had heard two splashes. When detectives asked her to further pinpoint events, she said she had planned to jump. She asked about the children again and asked for a cigarette. Her statements further fragmented. She remarked that the chairs in the interview room were hard.
Detectives nudged her back on topic. They wanted to talk about the bridge.
"STOTT-SMITH admitted to dropping the children over the concrete part of the bridge," Steed wrote. "She stated she dropped TRINITY first and then ELDON and that ELDON had asked, 'Did you just put her in the water or something?'"
Here is the image: a four-year-old boy, woken from sleep, outside at night in a windy place, seeing the black line of the river run into the distance, seeing his sister drop from view. I see Eldon, as unfamiliar as he was with his surroundings, showing remarkable focus and logic. He asked a grown-up, what is going on here? He was using what coordinates he had to make sense of where he was.
Amanda added to the sequence of events, saying that Trinity was asleep when she dropped her, and that Eldon was awake. I am not sure his mother's recollection can be trusted, but it is the only one we have (but for those scratches). She repeated what Eldon said upon seeing his sister drop from their mother's arms: "Did you just put her in the water?" Eldon's question had not stopped Amanda from dropping him in turn.
An excerpt from To the Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann. Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Rommelmann. Reprinted by permission of Little A, New York. All rights reserved.