The very different lives of a Claremont optometrist and Lempster construction worker with identical names became entangled this week after one of the men leapt off a bridge and plummeted to his death.
Jason M. Fulton was sitting in an excavator Tuesday morning when his 64-year-old mother called in a panic.
“She said, ‘Oh my God am I glad to hear from you.’ She thought I was dead,” Fulton said.
“It’s ironic because just before she called I was thinking about how lucky I am. I couldn’t possibly be in a happier place in my life right now. The last thing on my mind would be jumping off a bridge.”
On Monday afternoon, Dr. Jason M. Fulton left the Brattleboro Retreat — where he was being treated for depression, according to a colleague — and walked about a mile and a half to the West River Bridge on Interstate 91.
Passing motorists called 911 when they saw Fulton, a successful optometrist with a young daughter and pregnant wife, leaning over a guardrail near the center of the bridge.
Vermont State Police Sgt. Michael S. Sorensen arrived with other troopers, who stopped traffic and attempted to talk Fulton out of jumping.
“I just asked what his name was. He said, ‘Jason.’ He wouldn’t say anything else,” Sorensen said. “Then he just jumped.”
Fulton fell approximately 110 feet into the West River. He was pulled from the water by Brattleboro police officers, but died hours later at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
When Sorensen returned to his barracks later that afternoon, he searched the Department of Motor Vehicles records database for a Jason M. Fulton. The results indicated that one lived in Lempster.
Sorensen distributed reports of Fulton’s death, which included the erroneous address, to newspapers and television stations throughout the region. A correction was issued Tuesday afternoon.
The other Fulton had already been inundated with phone calls from distraught family members and friends.
“I had to recharge my cell phone a few times,” he said. “It’s definitely made for an eerie day. It’s just strange.”
The situation went from bizarre to infuriating when officials at the Goshen-Lempster Cooperative School pulled his daughter, 9, and son, 14, out of a field trip and gym class, respectively, Fulton said.
“My daughter was standing there and overheard them telling my ex-wife that they’d confirmed I was dead,” Fulton said. “They took my son out of class and had him sitting for 45 minutes in limbo.
“Not once did they try to call my parents or call me or anyone in my family,” he said. “Not once did we receive a phone call, which I found a little upsetting. I just can’t understand what they could have been thinking.”
Principal Thomas J. Fitzgerald said he tried to call Fulton’s mother and other family members, but could not reach them.
Fitzgerald was told about the death by mutual aid dispatchers.
“I had the unenviable task of calling the children’s mother,” he said. “I was the one that broke the erroneous news to her that her ex-husband had committed suicide.”
Fulton’s children were never told by school staff that their father was dead, Fitzgerald said.
He defended the school’s actions and blamed local media and police for any stress or trauma Fulton’s children may have experienced.
“If it’s released by police and it’s in print, what do you expect us to do?” he said.
Tammy L. Jackson, Fulton’s sister, said their mother has been “absolutely traumatized” and their family was still recovering from the shock.
“My mother was getting calls of sympathy,” she said. “It was pretty horrible.”
Jackson questioned why police didn’t contact Fulton’s next of kin to confirm his identity and address.
“It’s pretty disappointing that the state police could be that far off,” she said. “It just seems absurd to me that they could be that lackadaisical.”
Dr. Fulton’s family found out about the suicide before it was reached by authorities, which is why reports of his death were relayed to local media, and there was no reason to suspect a mix-up, according to Sorensen.
“If we had known there was another Jason Fulton walking around we would have tried to deal with that,” he said. “In my 18 years of being a trooper, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this happen.”
Dr. Fulton’s age is still not clear. Initial reports from state police said he was born Dec. 27, 1973, which is the other Fulton’s date of birth.
“That would just be too bizarre,” Fulton said. “I mean, we were thinking that this could be some sort of identity theft, but it doesn’t look like that at this point.”
Although the two Fultons lived in nearby towns, their paths never crossed. They never even received each other’s mail.
Sometimes, though, other people would mistake Fulton for a doctor who lived in Claremont.
“It’s come up in conversation a couple of times. I kind of joked about it the first time someone asked me if I was a doctor. I enjoyed it, you know, because I’m just a construction worker,” Fulton said. “I just want his family to know that I feel horrible about what happened. I’m sure they must be suffering terribly.”
Dr. Fulton’s wife, Roberta, is expected to give birth to a baby boy in about a month.
He also left behind a daughter who will celebrate her second birthday in July, said Dr. Frank E. Reed of Reed Optical in Claremont.
“This is a very sad, sad thing,” said Reed, who worked with Fulton for the past two years. “Jason was probably the most decent, kindhearted man I’ve ever met. Maybe he was too kind. He was very sensitive and, I don’t know, I guess he just became overwhelmed with life’s issues.”
Roberta Fulton is staying with friends, according to Reed, and could not be reached for comment.
The Fultons were religious and very active in their local church group. Dr. Fulton also enjoyed playing tennis and golf, Reed said.
“On the outside, he seemed pretty normal to me. It was my hope that he and his wife were going to buy my optometry business some day,” he said. “I did know he had been struggling for three or four months with depression. Apparently he had struggled with depression in the past, which recently came to light and was unbeknownst to me.”
Fulton had sought mental-health treatment at the N.H. State Hospital and, a week before he committed suicide, checked into the Brattleboro Retreat after experiencing a relapse, according to Reed.
“The last time I saw him was the Friday before he went to the retreat. He had a washed-out look,” Reed said. “His eyes had almost become black. It was a sad and difficult thing to see.”
Reed and others who knew Dr. Fulton will likely be grappling with his death, and the series of events that led him to the edge of the bridge, for years.
“He had such a bright future. He was making a good living. He had a beautiful wife and a beautiful little girl and a son on the way,” Reed said. “It’s almost like you can’t believe that someone can sink to that depth and commit such a final act. It’s hard to fathom.”