Florida Bridgetender Arrested After Woman Fell to Her Death from Drawbridge

The operator of a drawbridge where a woman fell to her death last month was arrested Thursday, five weeks after the incident, according to South Florida news reports.

Artissua Lafay Paulk, 43, of Greenacres, was charged with manslaughter by culpable negligence, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported. She had told authorities that she checked for pedestrians four times before raising the Royal Park Bridge in West Palm Beach on Feb. 6, according to a Florida Department of Transportation report on the incident that was released earlier Thursday.

The bridge is operated under contract by Florida Drawbridges.

It was not clear from the FDOT report whether the bridgetender had followed proper procedures, the Palm Beach Post reported. No procedures were outlined in the report and a redacted operating manual for the bridge does not show the procedures a tender must go through.

West Palm Beach resident Carol Wright, 79, was walking her bike across the bridge about 1 p.m. that day when it began to open. Witnesses said she tried to hang on but could not, and fell more than 50 feet to the base of the bridge, according to news reports.

The FDOT report noted that Paulk had told investigators that she had checked for people on the bridge and waited until a runner had safely passed before turning on warning lights and raising the bridge for a boat to pass beneath. Authorities gave her a drug test and sent her home after the fatal mishap. The prosecutor’s office also had requested a warrant to seize the woman’s cell phone records, the Post reported.

A lawyer for Wright’s family said the family had been waiting for the results of a police investigation before deciding whether to file suit.

“Neither my clients nor myself took a position as to whether an arrest should or should not be made,” attorney Lance Ivey said Thursday in an interview with the Sun Sentinel. “But the fact that an arrest was made today seems to cast doubt on the veracity of the bridge tender’s post-incident statement that she did everything by the book.”

Wright was a retired journalist who was the business editor of the Palm Beach Daily News at one time. Later, she was a spokesperson for the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office.

Photo: The Royal Park Bridge connecting Palm Beach to West Palm Beach, after the woman fell to her death Feb. 6. (Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Post via AP)