This past Saturday morning, at around 1 AM, Amanda Jo Stott-Smith, 31, apparently threw or otherwise caused her two children to fall off the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon. The children, four-year-old Eldon Jay Rebhan Smith, 4, and a 7-year-old girl landed 75 feet below in the Willamette River. People living along the water heard moans, and at about 1:30, residents David H. and Cheryl R. took their boat onto the river, and found the children. H. jumped into the water and retrieved the boy, who was dead, and the girl, still alive despite having spent up to 30 minutes in the 56-degree water. She was taken to the hospital, where her condition continues to improve.
Stott-Smith was found later that morning, around ten, on the ninth floor of a downtown Portland parking garage. When the police confronted her, she threatened to jump, but was talked out of it and taken into custody.
The following Tuesday, she is to be arraigned at 2 PM. I arrive at 1:30, and walk in just behind a photographer for the Oregonian. Doug and I are the only two people in the gallery. When one of the women working on the other side of the divider ask if we're with the Oregonian, Doug says yes and I say, "Not yet." I am there simply because I am compelled.
Doug and I are joined by James, a cameraman for Channel 12. We talk about whether Stott-Smith will appear with her face down or facing forward; what her condition might be and what caused her to do this; we talk about other cases, other murders. We talk about the helplessness of schizophrenics, and the coolness and calculation of psychopaths.
"When they start letting people in, it's going to get really crowded," says Doug, which is when I realize, I'd ridden his draft; I am not supposed to be in the room yet at all; that they let in the photographers early in order that they might secure good angles.
At 2:10, the room fills, with 22 people on four rows of pew-like benches. One of the deputies in city-park-green uniform tells people, no cells phones, no cameras, or we'll be asked to leave. I see only one laptop. There are perhaps four reporters there, tops. I am not sure who the other people are. But I think perhaps the young man in the back row, the one flanked by two women and snuffling loudly, is related to Stott-Smith in some way; he looks as though he's been crying. If he is here because of her, or is some relation to her, I think, I want to speak with him. I glance back. He meets my eye.
There are a dozen people on the other side of the divide, women filing and talking and using computers. Something one of them says makes them laugh, and I think, this seems an affront, in light of what's happened; it seems almost cruel, but then I think, it's another workday for them, and how, in fact, I'd like to write about one of them, perhaps the heavy-set one drinking a diet Shasta. I'd like to know how she lives through her days.
I look back again at the young man. I give a very small, hopefully respectful smile. He gives me one back. I think, if I can get him in the hall later, I will say, do you want to talk? And then we will talk, or I can walk him over to the Oregonian; I can stand in the lobby with him and his mother and who I think is his sister, and I can ask the receptionist to call upstairs to the Sunday Opinion editor, whom I know, and I will say to him, can you walk this young man upstairs to talk with whomever is writing about Stott-Smith? I will do this not for glory, but for the story.
A DA comes in and reads off ten names of people who are not facing criminal charges right now. I don't know what this means. The young woman next to me audibly exhales.
At 2:27, Judge Julia P. enters. We all rise. The DA tells her, she will be seeing three defendants today, whom I will call AH and NJA, in addition to Stott-Smith. They call AH. The young man in the back row, my snuffling boy, gets up -- he is AH. He's accused of third degree assault. He pleads not guilty. He's ordered to come back on such and such a date and then, he leaves. His tear-creased mother meets my gaze before she joins her son, and they all walk out. I think, they have no idea who they were on the docket with.
Next, from the back of the room and led in by a guard, is NJA, in prison blues. He's charged with murder. The judge asks if he can afford an attorney; he answers in the affirmative, but it seems he has misunderstood the question. She appoints him an attorney and instructs that he will reappear on June 3rd, 9:30 AM.
The judge is informed that Stott-Smith is not yet ready to appear. Instead, it's W, also in prison blues, tall, lanky, with rocker-boy hair. He's accused of possessing heroin; the judge asks if he understands this.
" 'K," says W.
He is told, he can go to the STOP program, and then come and report back to her. W says to a woman near him, who speaks for him to the judge, "Will I be released today." She says, he will.
"Cool," he says.
Next is another young man, charged I think with second degree assault, though some priors may move it up to a felony. The judge asks whether he can afford a lawyer.
"It depends on how much it costs," he says.
"Do you have a bank account?" asks the judge.
"And how much is in it?"
"Well, it's overdrawn," he says. The judge assigns him a lawyer.
All four have been dispensed within maybe eight minutes.
Stott-Smith is led in by two guards. She is wearing a sleeveless forest-green top; it's hard to tell, because she's in the corner and flanked by the guards as well as a tall attorney, if this is prison issue. She is not looking down. She has a wide, coffee-with-cream-colored face, and her thick glossy hair is loose and not untidy. Her expression is unreadable from this distance, besides to see, she is not smiling, nor is she crying. What she is going through, where she finds herself now, is as yet unnameable. I imagine it's like being pinned in chaos, no release, no relief, no hope of being let go.
The judge reads the charges: aggravated murder and attempted aggravated murder. She asks the lawyer to speak.
"I am James ______," he says, and adds that he is here as a courtesy for attorney somebody G; I wish I heard the first name but I am too busy looking at Stott-Smith. She looks worn. She looks as though standing is taking some effort, as though the weight of her shoulders is dragging her forward and down.
"Do you understand the nature of the charges against you?" the judge asks. Stott-Smith does not answer. The judge says again, "Do you understand the charges against you?" This time, Stott-Smith appears to move her lips, but all that comes out is a syllable that sounds like, "Muh."
The judge orders Stott-Smith to remain in custody until she reappears on June 3rd, 9:30 AM. Stott-Smith is physically turned by the guards, and moves back out the door as though she were moving through deep water.
Part II: On the Bridge
Part III: "Honeymoon's Over"
Part IV: The Mom Next to You