Proof of Angels CHAPTER 1
An Occurrence on Spanish Fork Bridge
Ten years ago I had what could only be described as a nervous breakdown. I was thirty-three and depressed. I was afraid of dying and all the other symptoms of this illness. I was alone one day and a voice spoke to me. The voice came from within but was clear and distinct. It simply said, “Carry on as you are and you are dead.” From that moment I started to get better and grew strong in mind and body. I feel a new person. I find I am able to help others with similar problems. The strange thing is though I have not heard the voice since, I feel that something or someone is watching over me and having a large influence on my thoughts and life. I also have this very strong feeling that we, mankind that is, are a part of something far beyond my comprehension. My life has new meaning and purpose.
—SEEING THE INVISIBLE
IN SEPTEMBER OF 1776, two Franciscan friars searching for a route from Santa Fe to Monterey, California, happened to stop at a spot in northern Utah where a canyon met up with a small river. This little confluence of canyon and river eventually began to go by the name of Spanish Fork.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, when the influx of Mormons into Utah was in full swing, Spanish Fork had become a town in earnest—a small but solid “X” on the map of potential destinations for Mormon pioneers from the Eastern states or outside the country (Spanish Fork still has a particularly high number of Mormon immigrants with Icelandic blood).
Today, Spanish Fork is a town of some forty thousand people with a reasonably good economy (thanks in large part to Provo, home of Brigham Young University, where many of its residents work) and which hovers, like a thousand other towns like it across the country, somewhere between the old America and the new. Last spring, a Walmart opened on U.S. Route 6 outside town, consigning to doom the already teetering Kmart that had killed off a good portion of the downtown’s older businesses when it itself went up in the late eighties. On Main Street and its cross streets, the mishmash of shops with local Western character that hung on till the early eighties has now been replaced by the mini-mall shop fronts you see in every town across America. There’s a Verizon store, a Sonic drive-in, a Taco Bell, and (proof that the town has truly made the jump from then to now) a Starbucks.
Main Street runs north to south through town. Then, without changing its name, it leaves its stores and gas stations behind and gives way to flat farm country, fields of wheat and corn and alfalfa punctuated by an occasional clutch of houses: landscape that hasn’t changed for decades. To the east, the Wasatch Mountains stand as they have for millions of years, their particularly hard, granular snow drawing thousands of skiers to the area every winter.
About a mile outside town, Main Street crosses the Spanish Fork River, the source of the town’s name but now little more than an unassuming, domesticated runoff that empties into Utah Lake some ten miles farther west. Before white settlers arrived and drove them out, a nomadic Native American tribe known as the Ute, or “fish eaters,” used to camp on the river’s banks in the summer months to take advantage of the plentiful fish that crowded its waters, and which, though in much smaller numbers, still lure fishermen to its banks. The first Western-style house went up in Spanish Fork in 1850, and the last of the Ute were driven out by the late 1880s, when Mormon settlers were pouring into the area in their greatest numbers, following Brigham Young’s resolution to take the religion given to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni to the virgin lands of the West.
The new arrivals set to turning Spanish Fork into the place it remains today: a small, friendly town, still largely Mormon but (sins against the Ute committed in the previous century notwithstanding) amicable to members of other faiths as well. The town is a genuine community, built in the spirit that America was founded on: faith in a common God, expressed in different ways.
Narrow (about fifteen feet at its widest point) and sluggish save for the spring months when it comes to life with runoff from the Wasatch Mountains, the Spanish Fork River captured media attention only once, in 1983, when it briefly made headlines across the country after a massive spring landslide caused by excessively heavy rains sealed it off some ten miles upriver from Spanish Fork, just below the little town of Thistle. Foreshadowing the kinds of water disasters that are regular business in the West these days, a lake formed from the backed-up water, deep enough to drown out Thistle and kill it permanently. It took two weeks and two million dollars before a tunnel could be bored through the sludge and mud and the river set to flowing again, making it at the time the nation’s costliest water disaster on record.
At around 10:00 p.m. on Friday, March 6, 2015, Jennifer Lynn Groesbeck was driving her 2009 red Dodge Caliber home from dinner with her dad in Salem, a town some five miles south of Spanish Fork, to her home in Springville, a town to the northeast situated about halfway between the mountains to the east and Provo Bay to the north. Traveling on Main Street at or close to the speed limit of 45 miles per hour, Jennifer veered inexplicably to the right just before reaching the Spanish Fork Bridge and went into the river.
The car left the road with a strange and tragic accuracy. Had Jennifer swerved just a foot or two earlier, she would have struck a small stand of trees: trees that were big enough to stop her car but small enough, and with enough give in their trunks, that they most likely would have brought it to a halt gently enough not to harm anyone inside. Likewise, had Jennifer traveled just a few feet farther before swerving, the right side of her car would have struck the graduated divider that runs the length of the bridge. In that situation, too, her car most likely would have ground to a halt before going into the river.
But Jennifer went off the road right between those two barriers. When her car swerved, her right front wheel missed the graduated divider, while her left front wheel caught its edge and rode up it, causing the car to flip as it sailed over the water. It landed upside down with brutal force in the shallows three-quarters of the way across the river, blowing out the windshield and bringing the roof down like a mousetrap on Jennifer’s upper body, killing her instantly.
Unlikely and unlucky as Jennifer’s crash into the river was, people who knew her were quick to say that Jenny Lynn had no reason to end her life. She was young and well liked, and she was enrolled at Provo College in the medical assistant program. She also had a new baby: eighteen-month-old Lily, who was in the car with her the night of the crash and whose unlikely survival (not only of the crash itself but also of the long hours before the car’s discovery) was soon to become news all around the world.
Unseen and unnoticed, the car sat as it had landed in the river for the next fourteen hours, the 45-degree water entering through the shattered upstream passenger’s side window and flowing back out the driver’s side, accommodating with ease and indifference to the new obstacle in its path. Behind Jenny, still strapped snugly in the car seat in which Jenny had placed her less than half an hour earlier, Lily lay suspended upside down in the dark, some twelve inches above the flowing water, which for the remainder of the night and into the first several hours of daylight drifted past beneath her like the gently moving cloudscape of an upside-down sky.
Jenny had dressed Lily in tights, a leopard-print jumpsuit, and a pink sweatshirt for the chilly early spring evening. Against all odds, her clothes remained dry during the crash—a crucial factor in keeping her alive through the night. Had her clothes been splashed with water from the river in the impact, or had the car landed just a few feet shorter in a deeper section of the river or at a slightly different angle, or had her car seat been improperly secured, or had a thousand other small details differed from what did happen, Lily would have gone the way of her mother. But all things worked in her favor. Even the cold temperature of the water played a part, for by cooling the air in the car, it most likely keyed Lily’s metabolism to slow down to conserve her body’s heat. At eighteen months Lily also still had her full layer of baby fat, which combined with the clothing Jennifer had dressed her in to seal her off from the chilly, 55-degree night around her. She was a lucky baby.
Four cops were on duty in Spanish Fork that March Saturday, in charge of keeping the peace among the town’s forty thousand inhabitants. Though Spanish Fork has its share of petty thefts, marital squabbles, public drunkenness, and the other mild but manageable mishaps of any town its size, Saturdays tend to be slow. One of those on-duty cops was Tyler Beddoes, then twenty-nine years old and a ten-year veteran of the Spanish Fork Police Department. At about eleven, Tyler’s wife, Brittany, called and asked if he wanted to meet her and their kids—Gunnar, three, and Gracie, nine—for his lunch hour at Zupas, a soup-and-salad chain at a mini-mall a few blocks east of Main Street, right next to where the Starbucks had recently gone up. Tyler told her he’d see her there at noon.
Tyler was about halfway through his Nuts-About-Berries salad when his handset went off. A fisherman had called in a report of an abandoned car under the Spanish Fork Bridge.
Seconds later, another voice came over the radio. “This is 6J18. I’ll take it.”
That was Bryan DeWitt, another of the four officers on duty that day. With DeWitt heading over to check the scene out, Tyler wasn’t obligated to respond. But as officer in charge that Saturday, Tyler figured he’d better go, too. He knew the water under the bridge was about five feet deep that time of year, moving fast and cold with runoff from the mountains. DeWitt might need help. Tyler apologized to Brittany and the kids and pressed the speaker button on his shoulder mike. “This is 6J16. I’m en route as well.”
Tyler switched on his lights and siren. Driving over, he started thinking on what a strange place the bridge at Spanish Fork was for an abandoned car to end up. If the car hadn’t just gone off the road but had been there for a while, why had no one phoned it in earlier? Main Street was a well-traveled road, even out there at the edge of town, and there were several houses not too far from the bridge that would surely have been within earshot of the crash.
In the midst of these thoughts, Tyler’s radio went off again. “Officers responding to Spanish Fork Bridge: the caller now says he sees what looks like a hand sticking out of the car.” Tyler pushed the accelerator down.
Pulling up just before the bridge and leaving his lights going, Tyler stumbled down the steep, rocky embankment to the water, where he could see DeWitt peering into the crushed mess of the driver’s side window, trying to make sense of what was inside. Tyler joined him and saw the pale, bruised arm of what appeared to be a young woman. It wasn’t moving.
The Spanish Fork Police Force had just recently been outfitted with body cams, and on the drive over Tyler had switched his on. Unfortunately, still fairly new to the equipment, he failed to push the switch the full way, and as a result his camera recorded nothing of what happened in the river that morning. DeWitt’s camera, however, was working, as was Jared Warner’s, who, along with Officer Jason Harward, arrived just seconds behind Tyler. DeWitt’s video footage, the longest and the most detailed, records what happened next.
“What do you got?” Warner says as he enters the water and joins the other two.
“Looks like there’s two of them,” Tyler responds. And to Tyler, staring into the upside-down wreck of the car, it does indeed look, from the splay of limbs visible through the crushed frame of the driver’s side window, as if there might be two, not one, persons in the front seat. Breathing hard from adrenaline and the shock of the freezing water, the men move back and forth around the car, trying to figure out the best way to right it. Meanwhile, the voice of a police dispatcher can be heard on the officers’ radios, laconically discussing the need for more traffic control at a nearby intersection.
“We don’t need any help for traffic control,” DeWitt finally responds, exasperated. “A car’s in the river.”
By now more support vehicles have pulled up on the bridge overhead, and responders are making preparations to right the car mechanically. “Where’s the winch at?” someone asks up above, and we get a brief glimpse of the back of Tyler’s head as he peers into the car, still trying to figure out, from the incoherent mess of limbs inside, how many people are in there. Warner shouts, “Here, get over here, Beddoes”—a comment that Tyler later told me “wasn’t rude or nothing. The adrenaline just really starts going in a situation like that.” The officers all crowd over to the driver’s side, and the men ready themselves to heave against the vehicle.
It is just then, at exactly two minutes into DeWitt’s body cam video footage, that another sound can be heard. It sounds unmistakably like a human voice. It is high and female, but what it says is indecipherable, at least on the video.
“We’re helping, we’re coming,” Warner responds, emotion in his voice. A car that until then had contained at least one body, most likely deceased, has now become, for these officers, a car containing life. Galvanized, the men crowd up against the car, and DeWitt’s body cam image dissolves into a red blur as the men heave mightily, pushing the car up onto its side.
Incredibly, given that they are pushing a 3,189-pound car with at least one passenger that is also half-full of water, they succeed in getting the vehicle propped up onto its right side. But unknowingly, in doing so they have plunged Lily, still in the back and still strapped in her car seat, fully into the lightning cold river she had managed, for the previous fourteen hours, to evade.
Just under half a minute later, at 2:26 on the video, Officer DeWitt says, “We gotta keep going with it if we can.” He has, of course, no idea just how right he is. The men, all of them up to their chests in the foaming water, continue to maneuver around the car, shouting into it, encouraging whoever called out for help to hold on. Finally, after a full two minutes, we catch another glimpse of Tyler’s head as he again peers into the rear of the car.
“Oh God,” he says. “There’s a baby.”
By this point firemen have arrived, and one of them pulls open the rear passenger door, now pointing skyward, and sinks down into the car. We hear him call for a knife or pair of scissors to cut the straps of the car seat, and a moment later Lily emerges, stiff but apparently alive. The fireman passes her to Tyler, who in turn passes her to Warner, who, with body cam still running, scrambles breathlessly up the incline and hands her to a waiting paramedic. Warner and his camera ride with Lily to the hospital, and we watch as Warner and other emergency workers delicately peel Lily free of her freezing clothes, gently massage her tiny rib cage, and insert a short tube down her trachea to get her breath going. The ambulance arrives at the hospital, Warner rushes her inside, and we watch from his still-running camera as she vanishes into an operating room.
Meanwhile back at the river, Harward’s camera, which was also on hand to capture the mysterious voice and DeWitt’s response, records the action as the remaining officers and firemen push the car upright. There is, after all, still someone alive in the vehicle. The officers know as much, because they all heard her.
With a final groan from the officers and firemen, the car heaves back onto its tires, and Jenny’s body at last comes fully into view. Though we don’t see her face on camera, it is clear that the sight is devastating. The impact of the ceiling has crushed the back of her head completely, all but decapitating her, and removed the skin from her face right down the middle. While the left side of her face is more or less intact, the right side lies like a mask against her shoulder. She is the only person in the car, and she is very clearly dead.
With the main drama over, the officers’ adrenaline levels begin to drop. Slowly shifting their attention from the car to themselves, they become aware of their own condition, their own discomfort. Moving in and out of view of Harward’s body cam, Tyler staggers out of the water and up the incline to where Brittany, who has since driven over, is waiting with a change of clothes. Rubbing the back of his head, Tyler notes dazedly that he’s cut himself back there somewhere and that his leg, too, is bleeding. An EMT tells him he’s hypothermic, wraps him in a blanket, and loads him into the back of an ambulance to take him to the hospital.
“It’s funny,” Tyler told me later about that ride to the hospital. “I was going a mile a minute when we were in the river, but once I got in that ambulance, my mood just plummeted. I knew we’d saved the baby—at least for the moment. I saw her eyelids flutter just a little as I passed her up out of the car, so I knew she was still alive. But somehow I didn’t think she’d make it. Especially after that last two-minute dunk she’d gotten in the water because of us. And I couldn’t get the way her mom looked out of my head. Her face was so destroyed. I’ve seen plenty of dead people, but for some reason it was just a real blow to see her like that. I had been so sure she was alive. I don’t know. It just brought me down real hard.”
As to why he had been “so sure” Jenny was alive, Tyler pushed that question out of his head for the moment.
Tyler was released from the hospital one hour later, and Brittany drove him back to the bridge to pick up his squad car. Tyler found Harward, who hadn’t gotten hypothermia and had stayed at the scene the whole time over at the north side of the bridge, finishing up the initial report of the incident. He’d sketched the accident scene and filled out forms, giving the basic details of the event: forms that Tyler knew by heart from filling them out himself thousands of times. Soon DeWitt joined them. Released from the hospital, he’d also decided to make his way back to the scene of the accident. In the way officers do after something big has happened, they gathered together where Harward was finishing his forms.
“Normally,” Tyler told me, “this would be the point where you’d start talking with the other officers, getting their idea on what happened and just kind of going over it, kicking it around. Stuff happens so fast. When you bounce it around with the other officers later, you get a clearer picture in your head. That’s especially true when something really upsetting has happened. It just kind of helps.”
But this time, all four officers were strangely silent. Down below, a county truck was hauling the wreck of Jennifer’s car from the water. While Tyler had been at the hospital, firemen had pried Jennifer’s body loose from the wreckage with a Jaws of Life set, and she lay, barefoot but still in her shorts and T-shirt, most of her body and all of her face covered by a tarp to protect her from gawkers or photographers on the bridge above.
Looking down at the flinty green water, Tyler found a question forming in his head. It was, he realized, a question that had already been there, in the back of his mind, on the ride to the hospital. It was a crazy question—one that, he knew, he’d probably be best off not asking, because if he got the wrong answer from the other officers, he figured they’d think he’d gone crazy.
At length, he asked it anyhow.
“When you guys were down there in the water,” he said, “did you all hear a voice?” For a moment no one said anything, and the question hung there awkwardly in the air above the river.
Then Harward spoke. “Yeah, I heard it.”
“Me too,” said DeWitt.
“So did I,” said Warner.