Public Suicide Stuns Portland -- Bridge Hangings Force Community To Focus On Drugs
PORTLAND - As afternoon traffic rumbled by, a young couple in grunge clothes and combat boots climbed over the rail of the downtown Steel Bridge, slipped twin nooses from a single rope around their necks and jumped to their deaths.
For nearly an hour, the bodies dangled side by side about 50 feet above the Willamette River. Cars slowed. A crowd gathered on the banks. Workers in office buildings rushed toward the windows. Amtrak passengers were warned to close their curtains as their train drew near the lower level of the bridge, where the bodies hung at eye level.
The couple, 29-year-old Michael Douglas and his 25-year-old fiancee, Mora McGowan, were heroin addicts whose habit left them broke, tormented and hopeless.
"I think I've decided on an old-fashioned public hanging," Douglas wrote in a 13-page journal found in the book bag slung over his shoulder. "The Steel Bridge shall be my gallows. . . . Mora and I go together on the Steel Bridge."
The very public suicide July 1 shocked this city, at least for a moment, into the realization that many of the young people who live on the streets here are addicts and there is little help available for them.
"A lot of us really took this to heart," said Donna Mulcare, a volunteer at the Oregon Partnership's drug and alcohol HelpLine.
Heroin is responsible for more deaths in Oregon than any other drug, according to Dr. Larry Lewman, state medical examiner. In 1997 there were 221 drug-related deaths in Oregon; of those, 161 involved heroin.
In a study released this month by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, nearly 14 percent of the men arrested in Portland and 27 percent of the women tested positive for heroin or related opiates. The rate among the Portland women was the highest of all 23 major U.S. cities studied. Just over 1 million people live in the metropolitan area.
Oregon has the nation's 10th-highest suicide rate, at 17 suicides per 100,000 population.
Douglas had once worked as a tattoo artist and landscaper; McGowan as an assistant manager for a downtown hair salon. They got engaged and moved in together 1 1/2 years ago, and had been responsible about paying their rent until last August.
Those who knew Douglas said drugs were always a part of his life. When he and McGowan began using heroin, they started pawning their valuables to feed their habit. They eventually were kicked out of the friend's apartment and put out on the street.
At least once, McGowan tried treatment but failed. In despair, she tried suicide by cutting her wrists, but her mother rushed her to a hospital. Douglas tried to come up with the money to buy enough heroin for an overdose, but he couldn't.
Police Sgt. Kent Perry said Douglas wrote in his journal about the grind of having to raise $200 every day to pay for his fix and how he considered other ways of ending his life, including shooting himself or lying down on the train tracks.
"It was a waste of life," said Isaac Frankel, an analyst at Northwest Natural Gas who saw the twin suicide from his office building. "I thought it was just a prank, until police came."
Every weekday morning, on the scrubby fringe of Portland's downtown, where black-tar heroin sells for about $50 per quarter gram, at least 20 people line up for a chance at the few daily slots in the Hooper Center for Alcohol and Drug Intervention, the city's biggest detoxification clinic.
"There are far fewer treatment resources than are needed - probably for every 10 addicts that have wanted treatment, only one is admitted," said Richard Harris, executive director of Central City Concern, which oversees the clinic.
Some of those who waited in line said news of the double suicide spread quickly, but any effect it may have had was overshadowed by their own daily struggles with heroin.
"It seemed like people should have taken it harder," said a slender 22-year-old heroin addict who asked to be identified only as Margaret. "When you are a junkie, your options are limited. You just have to keep doing what you are doing."
For three years now, Margaret has been scrounging for the $50 a day she needs to stay high, selling everything she owns, even her body. She and more than 10 others were turned away at the treatment center.
"Once you start, it's one of the hardest things to get off of," she said. "If I don't quit, I'll end up dead."
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