PORTLAND, Ore. - This is a story with a happy ending.
As Portland Police Officer Tyrone Willard will quickly tell you, it’s not always like that.
The 29-year-old seven-year veteran of the force was on patrol Wednesday evening when he heard dispatch announce there was a man climbing over the railing on the Glisan overpass apparently getting ready to jump on to I-205.
“I wasn’t far,” he said. “I put on lights and sirens to get there as quick as I could.”
As he approached, he turned off the siren.
“I didn’t want him to know I was coming,” Willard said. “I didn’t want to give him any reason to speed up what he was planning to do.”
Willard got out of his car and could see the man with his hands on the railing, holding tight, looking out to the horizon. A woman was standing near him, pleading, crying, praying.
“He was looking away from me,” Willard said. “That gave me a chance to start getting closer to him. I hoped to be able to get close without startling him.”
If anyone has grown up with law enforcement in their blood, it might be Willard. He’s a fourth-generation officer – his great-grandfather was a Portland Police Officer in 1920. Willard has aunts, uncles, cousins who have served or are serving in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington counties.
“I know these things can go either way,” he said. “I’ve been there when they’ve lived and been there when they haven’t. I much prefer when they live.”
The man was on the north side of Glisan. Had he jumped, he would have landed in the southbound lane of the highway.
“It’s amazing how quickly the mind works in these situations,” Willard said. “I was talking to dispatch. I was trying to figure out if we needed to close off 205. I was telling them to get medical staged in case he decided to jump before I could get to him.
“Most importantly, I was trying to figure out how to make sure he stayed with me.”
Things quickly sped up. The woman – later identified as Bonnie Holtgrew; she just happened to be bicycling by when she saw the man, clearly in distress – called out, “Officer. Please help me.”
The man, whose name has not been released, turned around and saw Willard and looked back out over the highway.
“He had a blank stare, a blankness to him,” Willard said. “If you saw that expression, you would know that something was not right. I tried to engage him in conversation.”
Willard said he’s not sure exactly what he said but knows it wasn’t of much consequence.
“It was all small talk, just simple things," he said. "I wanted to keep him engaged. I was asking what’s going on, just anything to keep him talking.”
That’s when Willard saw another officer pull up.
“I knew there was someone there to cover me," he said. "I knew there wasn’t a lot of time.”
The man looked at Willard again and then out to the freeway.
“He lets go of the rail and starts to lean forward," Willard said. "I’m about six feet away and lunge as fast as I can, grabbing his forearm with one and grabbing the rail with the other, using it as leverage to pull myself and him to the ground.
“I wasn’t going anywhere and neither was he.”
Willard got him cuffed – “I needed to make sure his choices were limited” – and then they started talking.
“He admitted to me he had been having issues. He was seeing things and hearing things that led him to think a judge had signed an arrest warrant for him and that he was going to have to spend the rest of his life in prison where he would be beat up every day.
“He believed if the choice was being beat up every day for the rest of his life or death, death was the better choice.”
Willard took him to the computer in his patrol car and showed him there were no warrants for his arrest. The man asked to see it again. And then again.
“I told him there were no arrest warrants for him, that he was not going to jail," Willard said. "I told him he was going to go to the hospital. And he was going to receive help. He broke down and started crying.”
For Willard, who grew up in Northeast Portland, who has spent his life here, it’s all about moments like this.
“I actually thought I was going to be a businessman,” he said. “I got a business degree and really thought that would be my path. But this kept calling to me.”
The man kept thanking Willard for saving his life.
“It’s not my time to go, he told me,” Willard said. “That really struck a chord.”
If you or someone you know needs help with suicidal thoughts or is otherwise in an immediate mental health crisis, police urge you to please visit Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, which is open every day from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., or call them at (503) 963-2575.