Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Utah officers help suicidal woman on flight back from New York

SALT LAKE CITY — Before the flight got off the ground, one of the flight attendants acknowledged all of the police officers on the plane and noted to passengers, "You will never have a safer flight." 

Turns out all of those officers were needed.

A little more than 30 minutes into the flight, as Unified detective Cody Stromberg noted, "It was very much a street fight at 30,000 feet."

Three Unified police officers flying home late Sunday into early Monday after attending the funeral of slain New York police officer Wenjian Liu were unexpectedly called into duty on a Jet Blue flight to Salt Lake City.

A couple who were having a heated disagreement had to be separated.

The 32-year-old Long Island woman was reportedly intoxicated before getting on the plane and was having an intense dispute with her husband, said Unified police detective Robert Odor. At one point, the flight attendant, knowing that Odor was a police officer and that he had an open seat next to him in the front row, asked if it would be OK if they moved the woman next to him.

As soon as she sat next to him, Odor said he could tell she "was obviously having emotional distress." Then the woman started taking prescription medication out of her backpack and putting pills into her mouth.

About 30 minutes later, when the woman started writing in a notebook and putting a second bottle of pills in her mouth, Odor decided he needed to take action.

"She started writing a note on a spiral notebook. It was in large letters. It was kind of in shaky writing. And what it turned out to be was a suicide note. So I was reading it as she was writing it. She tried to take the remainder of the pills, I don't know how many. She tried to take the whole bottle. So at that point I intervened and took the bottle away from her, took the note away from her," he said.

"There's a fine line between intervening with someone's medication and knowing that they're overdosing. She wrote on the note how many pills she had taken."

But as soon as Odor grabbed the notebook and pills, the woman became violent.

"She was yelling, she was kicking at us, she was quite combative," he recalled Monday. "She's emotional, she's crying, she's kicking, I mean she was quite distraught to say the least."

Several officers, and a doctor from the Huntsman Cancer Institute who was also on the flight, tried to get the pills out of her mouth. The woman bit down on the doctor.

"We had to actually open her jaw so she would let go of his hand," Odor said.

As Odor and Stromberg held the woman down, Unified Police Sgt. Terry Wall attempted to talk to her, letting her know that she did matter. Wall is a Crisis Training Intervention specialist who is typically called into action when officers have to deal with a mentally ill person.

"Each individual has a stake in what goes on in the world and we need her here," Wall told her.

The woman's husband tried to walk to the front while the officers were trying to restrain her, but "she was very adamant he was not anywhere near her," Stromberg said, noting that "he was clearly making it worse" by being there. The husband was asked to go back to his seat.

Over the next 90 minutes, as the flight was being diverted to Chicago, the two officers held the woman as Wall talked to her. They felt that handcuffing her would have further exacerbated the situation.

One of the problems they faced was that she would calm down so much that she would fall asleep and become semi-comatose, he said. The officers, fearing the worst, kept waking her which would cause her to get angry again.

But the time the plane landed in Chicago where paramedics were waiting, Wall said the woman's cries of, "I want to die, I want to die. Let me die," had significantly changed.

"She was very calm and asking for help at that point. She wanted her stomach pumped and she wanted her daddy, is what she kept saying," he said.

The woman also wanted her husband.

By the end of it she was asking for him again. We had got her calmed down so much that she wanted to take her life in a different direction," Wall said.

In Chicago, the officers got cleaned up and the flight crew bought them snacks in the airport. Most of the passengers applauded with appreciation for the officers as the woman was taken off the plane.

"I can only speculate what would have happened if we hadn't noticed that and the flight would have continued for four more hours," Odor said.

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