Suicide by train: Bill’s “mental problems were exacerbated by decades-long steroid use.”
On the day he died, Bill Brotherton Jr. couldn’t find anything for breakfast. Usually, he was a protein guy. Six eggs mixed into a bowl of oatmeal. Microwaved. If he had toast, it didn’t have butter.
A body builder and personal trainer since his 20s, Bill Jr. treated his body – a ripped 250 pounds until the last few months of his life – as if he wanted to live forever.
But that morning, Bill Jr., 54, was alone in his Dana Point home overlooking the harbor. A plaque in the living room read: “Your life is happening right now. Make it amazing.”
His wife, Kristi Hugstad, had left him the previous night. She’d gone to stay with her sister. She left because for the first time in the seven months he’d been showing signs of mental illness, she was afraid of her husband.
Later that day, Bill Brotherton Jr. ran up a graveled embankment in Capistrano Beach, stood on the train tracks that run near the ocean and looked at the engineer of the northbound 808 Metrolink train – more than 1,000 tons of steel bearing down on him at about 60 mph.
Bill Jr.’s choice altered dozens of lives, from the engineer and conductor on the train, to the passengers they served, to the bystanders who happened to see the carnage.
Nationwide, about 400 people a year commit suicide by train, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
In Orange County, where nearly 68 miles of track snake through neighborhoods from San Clemente to Anaheim – and where 58 people killed themselves on train tracks from 2002 to 2012 – the rate of suicides by train is slightly higher.
And where the train runs from the San Diego County line to Dana Point, where there are few fences and many pedestrians, the deaths are clustered. Since 1986, at least 19 people – including Bill Brotherton Jr. – have died on that 6-mile stretch of track.
Bill Jr.’s death devastated people who loved him, his acquaintances – even some people who didn’t know him at all.
A close friend, years sober, fell off the wagon.
A witness, a total stranger, sought counseling.
His aging father eventually shut down, not speaking with some relatives and turning off his phone.
And his widow has embarked down a new path.
More than a year later, the ripple effect of Bill Jr.’s final act still runs wide and deep, as it often does when a person chooses suicide by train.
At 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2012, the day he died, Bill Jr. called his father in Texas.
Bill Brotherton Sr. retired from a successful career in the oil and gas industry. The 80-year-old was planning to spend the rest of his days on his farm, near Houston, raising goats.
“Dad, there is no food in the house,” Bill Jr. said. “We used to have enough food for a week. Now, there is nothing.”
Bill Jr. sounded helpless.
Bill Sr. was worried.
“My head is scrambled,” Bill Jr. told his mother, Bess, when Bill Sr. passed the phone to her.
Bill Sr. quickly put together a plan. He would bring Bill Jr. home to Texas, help him land a new job; get him to a mental health clinic to get his head straight.
He also booked the first flight he could get to Southern California.
It was cheaper to land in San Diego and take the train to Orange County. He had done it many times, and he told Bill Jr. to pick him up at the San Juan Capistrano train station, as usual. He would arrive just after 5 p.m.
Around 7 a.m., Bill Jr. got a text from Aaron Carlow, a longtime friend and workout partner.
“No gym,” Aaron wrote, canceling their workout session.
“OK,” Bill Jr. texted back.
In recent months, Bill Jr. had battled a muscle pull in his chest, limiting his once herculean weight routine.
“I had to spot him carefully when he did dumbbells,” Aaron said. “I could see his strength was fading.”
At 9 a.m., Bill Jr. went to the Bank of America in Dana Point.
Kristi later would find an envelope addressed to Bill Sr. with a note that said “Cashier’s check for $65,000,” though there was no check inside. She believes Bill Jr. went to the bank that morning intending to withdraw everything they had and send it to his parents in Texas.
No one knows why Bill Jr. never completed the transaction. No money was withdrawn. No mail went to Texas.
As Bill Jr. was walking away from the bank, he bumped into a friend, Debbie Preble, a hairdresser he had dated years earlier.
Debbie noticed that he didn’t look like his former self. His once-glowing tan now just made his skin look weathered. His once action-hero muscles sagged.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, giving him a hug.
“Preble,” he said upon seeing her. He always called her by her last name.
“How’s your marriage?” she asked.
“Over,” he said.
She made small talk about meeting for lunch soon.
Then Bill Jr. walked away.
• • •
Every train engineer and conductor refers to something known, simply, as the “number.”
It’s the number of people their trains have hit while they’ve been on duty.
Amtrak, which employs the people who run Metrolink trains, declined to allow the engineer and conductor from the train that Bill Jr. stood in front of be interviewed.
But the Register was able to talk with an Amtrak engineer and conductor who deal regularly with what is known in the transportation industry as “trespasser strikes.”
Both said two things.
First, train suicides are part of the job. There is absolutely nothing an engineer or conductor can do to prevent a train from hitting someone determined to throw themselves in front of one.
Second, every one of those deaths is devastating.
“You never get used to it,” said Amtrak Engineer Douglas Busler, 57, who said he stopped counting but estimates his number to be as high as 20, most of them suicides. Busler, railroading for nearly 35 years, almost always was forced to watch the final act from his seat in the front of the train.
At Amtrak, engineers and conductors on trains involved in fatalities are required to take at least three days off. They also are offered psychological counseling.
Conductor Kirk Lewis, 52, who has worked for Amtrak for 20 years, estimates that his number is 17 or 18. When a person is struck, it is the job of the conductor, who usually roams the train and deals with passengers, to call for emergency help and then run outside to help the injured.
Trains are equipped with defibrillators, and conductors are supposed to use them on survivors. But survivors are rare.
“The more incidents you are involved in, the more it affects you,” Lewis said. “It’s just as traumatic every time.”
Lewis recounted one of the more recent suicides he handled, in July 2012. As he stepped out of the train, he saw horrific carnage and had one thought:
“Five minutes ago, this was a human being.”
About 2:30 p.m. on the day he died, Bill Jr. got a phone call from Bill Sr.
The plane had arrived in San Diego, and Bill Sr. asked how his son was doing. “Fine,” Bill Jr. said.
But Bill Sr. remained concerned. So after he arrived from the San Diego Airport at the Metrolink station in Oceanside, he called Bill Jr. again.
“(I’m) en route,” Bill Sr. said, settling into his seat on the train.
“I’ll pick you up in San Juan Capistrano, just like I always have,” Bill Jr. said, reassuring his father that everything was fine.
By train, the ride from Oceanside to San Juan Capistrano is 36 minutes.
Bill Jr. and Kristi met through a mutual friend in 2005.
“We were together every day after that,” said Kristi, who, in July of that year, became Bill Jr.’s second wife.
At first, they thrived, personally and professionally. Kristi, like Bill Jr., worked as a personal trainer. They pooled their money to buy the Pulse gym in Dana Point. Everything, she said, was going great.
Then, in 2009, the economy tanked.
By October of 2011, Bill Jr. and Kristi were facing financial difficulties. They moved from Dana Point to Rosarito Beach in Mexico. There, they lived on the fifth floor of the Califia Resort condominium complex, a beautiful gym in the basement and the Pacific Ocean just outside their window.
But Bill Jr. was anxious. Kristi said women no longer approached him and asked to touch his muscles. He was getting old.
“He was not being validated,” Kristi said. “There was no fan club. He wanted to be noticed. He left his identity in Orange County.”
On March 24, 2012, Bill Jr. couldn’t sleep. What followed was a four-day break from reality. Kristi said her husband turned mean and began pacing, threatening to throw himself off the balcony.
He sat on the couch and rocked.
Kristi believes his mental problems were exacerbated by decades-long steroid use.
“Something, chemically, went wrong in his brain,” Kristi said.
Bill Sr. visited the couple in Rosarito, and he could see his son was hurting.
They talked about Bill Jr. returning to California and getting work as a personal trainer for senior citizens. They talked about Bill Jr. and Kristi moving to Texas. Bill Sr. said he could introduce Bill Jr. to oil men who needed inspectors for their offshore rigs.
After his father left, Bill Jr. told Kristi there was no way he was going to Texas.
In April of 2012, Bill Jr. and Kristi moved back to Dana Point.
Kristi quickly set up Bill Jr. with a carousel of psychologists, psychiatrists and other physicians.
On April 21, Kristi found a note on the kitchen table.
“Baby, you need to move on with your life and find somebody better. I can’t do this anymore, Love Bill.”
It read, to Kristi, like a suicide note. But Bill Jr. was not dead. He was in the bathroom.
He told her he had tried to kill himself by taking 20 Ambien tablets and drinking half a bottle of Nyquil.
Kristi took him to Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach. He was placed on a 5150 involuntary hold, meaning he would be required to spend the next 72 hours under psychiatric evaluation. He was transferred to a facility in Santa Ana. Without explanation, Bill was discharged in less than 24 hours.
Kristi felt her husband was falling through the cracks in an inadequate mental health system.
On May 27, Bill Jr. disappeared. Kristi called Bill Sr., who, from Texas, filed a missing persons report with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
But Bill Jr. was only gone for about eight hours. When he came home, his bald head was so badly sunburned Kristi could see blisters. She asked him where he had been.
“Walking next to the train tracks,” Bill Jr. said.
On the day he died, Bill Jr. parked his white and black Toyota FJ Cruiser on Coast Highway across the street from the Riviera Resort in Capistrano Beach.
On the train, Bill Sr. thought about what he would say to his son to get him to come back home to Texas.
The Metrolink train, carrying a relatively light load of about 50 passengers, hit a top speed of 90 mph between San Clemente and Capistrano Beach. It was 5 p.m., 63 degrees.
As it passed through Capistrano Beach, the train was in the process of slowing to 45 mph so it could negotiate a right turn as it headed inland, near a bend at mile marker 200.3.
• • •
In his White Jeep Cherokee, Chris O’Neill, 57, drove along Coast Highway, scouting the best break for an evening surf.
He heard a train whistle and glanced in its direction.
He saw a large, bald man run up the rocky embankment and stand on the train tracks.
“His arms were stretched to the sides, like Jesus on the cross,” Chris said.
The windshield of the Metrolink train is made from Federal Rail Administration-approved 223 glazing safety glass. It is 3/8 of an inch thick, built to protect the engineer from projectiles like rocks, B.B.s and bullets.
And from trespassers.
Bill Brotherton Jr. looked straight through that glass. The train’s brakes squealed, kicking up dirt and rocks.
It was 5:10 p.m.
As Chris O’Neill watched a train hit a man his car was showered with rocks and blood.
“I saw a man turn himself into a thousand pieces of gore,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘Did this really happen?’ ”
He kept driving, fumbling with his cellphone to dial 911.
Twenty minutes after O’Neill got home, the police called. They said they couldn’t find a body. (Eventually, they found a torso about 75 yards from where the train stopped.) Momentarily, O’Neill thought he had imagined the whole thing.
But when he walked outside, he knew he hadn’t. His car was covered with debris from the collision. The police had told him to wash it off immediately because it was hazardous material.
As he washed his car, he saw the debris snake down into the street’s storm drain. He dried his car and threw the towel away.
Then he rinsed the street.
Over the next few days, O’Neill was unable to sleep. He missed work and started seeing a psychologist.
• • •
Just before mile marker 200.3 – which measures a historic train route that runs from San Bernardino to downtown Los Angeles to south Orange County – Bill Sr. felt the train come to an unplanned stop.
Within a few minutes he called his son to tell him about the delay. But there was no answer, just a recording: “The person you are calling cannot be reached.”
He overheard a passenger across the aisle, talking on the phone with her daughter. She said there’d been a death on the tracks.
But Bill Sr. didn’t put two and two together.
He had no idea his son had stepped in front of the train he was on.
• • •
Bill Sr. and all the other passengers were delayed, many for several hours.
Four other trains also were delayed for varying periods. In all, about 560 people traveling on Metrolink trains in Orange County that evening were forced to take buses to get where they were heading.
The stretch of track where Bill Jr. died didn’t reopen until 8:15 p.m., when trains were allowed to travel only at restricted speeds. Even then, cleanup crews still were on the scene. When Bill Sr. finally got to the station in San Juan Capistrano, he got off and carried his luggage through the parking lot, looking for Bill Jr.’s car.
He assumed his son had grown tired of waiting and returned home. He flagged a taxi and went to the Marina Inn in Dana Point. He kept calling, but Bill Jr.’s phone kept repeating the message saying he wasn’t available.
Bill Sr. thought his son had taken a sleeping pill. The next morning, at the hotel breakfast, he heard a couple talking about a suicide on the train tracks.
Bill Sr. went back to his room and called the coroner.
• • •
At 7:40 a.m. on Oct. 11, the county coroner informed Bill Sr. that Bill Jr. had died after being hit by a Metrolink train.
They’d found a $100 bill, a Visa card, an AAA card and a driver’s license, but had checked fingerprints before making a positive I.D.
Like Bill Sr., Kristi had no idea what had happened the evening before. She met with a client that morning and went for a long training walk.
When she checked her phone she had eight messages from her mother-in-law in Texas. Kristi soon called Texas and learned that her husband was dead.
She immediately drove to find Bill Sr.
“As I was driving in the rain to the hotel, my first thought was that this is more than I will ever be able to handle,” she said.
“I contemplated slamming my car into the light pole ahead.”
At the same time, word was spreading through Dana Point that Bill Brotherton Jr. had stepped in front of a train.
Debbie Preble, the hairdresser who chatted with Bill Jr. outside the bank a day earlier, canceled her appointments. She had been sober for years, but Bill Jr.’s death left her so shaken, she said, that she took to her couch and drank for two weeks.
“I felt responsible,” Preble said. “I saw him that morning. I could have done something. I shouldn’t have been in a hurry.”
That feeling was shared across town.
Dr. Souhail Toubia, who was a workout partner and (because Bill Jr. didn’t have health insurance) Bill Jr.’s primary care physician, began questioning himself.
“Why didn’t I do something?” Toubia recalls asking himself. “Why didn’t I know?”
Another workout partner, Aaron Carlow, couldn’t believe the details of his friend’s death, particularly the part about Bill Sr. being on the train.
“How could he do that to his father?” Aaron asked.
Guilt and anger are common reactions after suicide – even among people who don’t know the person who killed himself, said Dr. Richard Granese, a psychiatrist who works at several hospitals in Orange County.
And witnessing a graphic death can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Still, Granese stops short of describing a public suicide as a hostile act. He believes a person who commits suicide, even in public, seldom does it for attention or to traumatize witnesses.
“They’ve gone to place of no return,” he said. “They just want to end things.”
Bill Sr. refused to say that his boy committed suicide.
In his hotel room, after the coroner told him about Bill Jr., he told Kristi that his son had poor eyesight; that he must have misjudged the approaching train.
Kristi didn’t argue.
• • •
Helen Shirley, a mail carrier and a longtime friend of Bill Jr., asked if she could keep the giant picture of Bill Jr. that they’d used at his memorial. She placed it at the top of her stairs, next to her father’s ashes.
She said Bill Jr. had changed her life for the better with his constant reminders about diet and exercise.
Sometimes, she talks to Bill’s photo.
“I say, ‘Oh my God, you’re an idiot,’ ” Shirley said. “I hate you so much.”
More than a year after his death, the ripple effect hasn’t entirely subsided. Kristi took up public speaking, going to high schools and anyone who would listen to her talk about mental health and how to handle depression. Recently, she became a certified grief counselor.
Kristi said Bill Sr. has never been the same.
He’s fallen twice in recent months, and he was unable to continue tending to his goats, so he sold the farm. He cut off his phone service.
“He gave up on life,” Kristi said.
Bill Jr. was cremated. His remains are buried at the Evergreen Free Will Baptist Church in Iola, Texas.
In his last interview with the Register, Bill Sr. said he visited his son’s grave site every 10 days or so.
“I guess I raised him wrong,” Bill Sr. said.