Former bridge tender pleads guilty in death of woman who fell from Florida drawbridge

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A Florida bridge tender arrested in connection with the 2022 death of a 79-year-old woman who fell when the drawbridge opened pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Tuesday, prosecutors said.

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Artissua Lafaye Paulk, 44, of Greenacres, pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter and was sentenced to two days in prison and eight years of probation, WPTV reported. Paulk also must serve 200 hours of community service, according to the television station.

Paulk was accused of lifting the Royal Park Bridge that connects West Palm Beach with Palm Beach at about 1 p.m. EST on Feb. 6, 2022, causing the death of Carol Wright, the Sun-Sentinel reported. Wright, a retired Palm Beach County journalist, was walking her bicycle on the bridge when Paulk lifted the drawbridge for a passing boat, according to the newspaper.

Wright repeatedly yelled for help as the bridge lifted her skyward, the Sun-Sentinel reported. A motorist stopped behind the bridge gates heard Wright’s cries and honked his horn, hoping to get Paulk’s attention. A man on a skateboard saw Wright trying to hold onto the bridge railing and he grabbed her arm, according to the newspaper.

However, he lost his grip when the bridge railing began to loosen, and Wright fell to her death, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

Court documents obtained by WPBF-TV indicated that Paulk worked for Florida Drawbridge, Inc. for more than a year and had been assigned to the Royal Park Bridge for two months before the incident.

According to a probable cause affidavit, Paulk originally told investigators that she walked onto the balcony of the bridge tower to check for cars or pedestrians several times before opening the bridge span, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

Bridge tenders are required to leave their tower and walk around the balcony three times to be sure the movable sections of the span are clear before raising it, according to the newspaper. Court records state that Paulk did not even circle the balcony once.

Police said text messages also showed that Paulk’s supervisor, Kathie Harper, allegedly encouraged her to lie.

“When they talk to you, make dam sure you tell them you walked outside the balcony 3 diff times to make sure no one was past gates n delete this msg,” was one text Paulk received from her supervisor, according to WPTV.

Both Paulk and Harper were fired on March 22, 2022.

Paulk was arrested on March 17, 2022. Harper was not arrested, WPTV reported.

An $8.2 million settlement was reached in July after Wright’s family filed a lawsuit against Florida Drawbridges Inc.. according to the television station.