The first note was just four words long.
I need a gun.
Art Davies was confused by his sister's text message to his mobile phone. He tapped out a one-word reply.
The response came a few moments later.
I choked myself. Hung myself. I cut my throat. I am ready to go.
Hill Air Force Base leaders say they can't explain a recent spike in suicides among civilian employees at the northern Utah military facility -- but they say they're doing everything they can to lend help to those in crisis.
Joni Berriochoa's family isn't so sure. The 55-year-old Hill maintenance worker tried several different ways to kill herself on March 29, finally succeeding in hanging herself from a bathroom door before her brother was able to get help to her Syracuse home.
In their final phone conversation, right after the shocking text-message exchange, a distraught Berriochoa complained to her brother about the way her Hill supervisors had been treating her. And a journal she left behind indicates she'd felt she had been mistreated by managers at the base for years.
Labor advocates say Berriochoa's story is just the beginning. They believe Air Force leaders have greatly undercounted the number of suicides at the base -- and vastly underestimated the effect that troubles between workers and management are having on employees' mental well-being.
Base commanders have put together a task force of military officers, civilian "wellness advocates" and mental health officials to address suicide among members of "Team Hill."
But two years into the effort, Hill officials can't answer a fundamental question: How many suicides has Hill suffered in recent years?
The base is host to thousands of military and civilian workers from several parent commands, all of which track suicides separately. More than a month after receiving a request from The Salt Lake Tribune, Air Force spokesman Rich Essary said he still hadn't been able to track down a number he agreed should have been easy to pinpoint. It took weeks to find a base office that tracked suicides, he said, and even then it didn't have data from the base's large reserve wing.
Base officials did confirm that at least 16 employees have killed themselves since 2006.
At least two were airmen assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing. The deaths were acknowledged after The Tribune recently reported a Hill claim that it had lost no military personnel during that time.
Friends of the airmen challenged that assertion. Hill officials apologized for neglecting to check with the commanders of several units at the base.
While tragic, the airmen's deaths were not unusual. Nationally, the rate of suicide last year among military personnel in all four military service branches was slightly higher than the general public. That is attributed in part to the mental-health troubles military members often face after returning home from combat.
But family and friends of Hill employees who have killed themselves say the over-representation of civilian workers is a troubling sign. Hill's rate of civilian worker suicides in 2008 was, at a minimum, more than double the rate in Utah -- a state that already has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
So far this year, Berriochoa was at least the second Hill worker to commit suicide.
'That is not right'
Even if the Air Force tallies an accurate count of confirmed suicides, that won't reflect the magnitude of the problem, worries labor advocate Carl Wright.
That number won't include Hill workers whose self-inflicted deaths can't be proven to have been intentional -- for instance, those who overdose on alcohol and sleeping pills, but don't leave a suicide note. Wright believes those deaths number in the dozens over the past several years.
The base's figures also don't include people like Don Luff, 45, who killed himself in 2006 just days after being fired from Hill -- in what Wright considers a wrongful termination over a relatively minor violation of workplace rules involving taking undeserved sick time.
"He should have fought it," Wright said. "But maybe he just didn't have it in him."
Former Hill union steward James Lorredo helped Luff file grievances before Luff was dismissed. Lorredo said Luff isn't the only person who has taken his own life after standing up to base managers and facing a backlash.
"If they're saying that people killing themselves has nothing to do with work, I can tell you straight up that is not right," Lorredo said.
Lorredo and others say the problems at Hill include verbally abusive managers, pressure not to take sick time to deal with injuries and a command culture that lionizes uniformed military members but often ignores the contributions of civilians.
Almost all of the suicides at Hill have occurred in the 309th Maintenance Wing, which employs about 7,500 workers, mostly civilians. Brig. Gen. John Cooper, who leads the 309th, said he takes immediate action on substantiated allegations.
"Whenever allegations of inappropriate or unacceptable behavior come to light, we take them seriously and we investigate them thoroughly," he said.
Cooper said his command is trying to establish "a culture where management and employees work together to look out and take care of one another" and is hiring additional workers to look out for struggling employees.
"Everyone deserves a work environment where they feel safe and respected," he said.
Cooper said he has traveled around the wing to talk to employees about helping to end the crisis. Employees who have attended those meetings -- which Cooper closed to managers -- say the general has gotten an earful about harassment, managerial misconduct and workplace-safety violations.
'It's a huge blow'
No one is claiming that the climate at Hill is singularly to blame for the deaths.
But several current Hill employees who were colleagues of suicide victims said they were confident that work issues were paramount. Some said they had also had thoughts of taking their own lives -- and in all of those cases, working conditions at the base were a key issue.
"I'd be lying if I said I haven't considered it," said one male worker, in his mid-50s. He insisted that his life is fulfilling in every way but one -- work. And he may have touched on a key factor in the equation when he described feeling "handcuffed" to Hill.
"With the economy the way it is, you can't just stand up and walk away," he said. "Most of us get paid pretty good money up there. We have obligations like anyone else. So if you're being treated poorly, you can't just do the old 'take this job and shove it' thing."
While there are no rules prohibiting Hill employees from speaking about problems at the base, every current base employee interviewed requested their names not be used, saying they feared managerial retribution.
One employee, a man who has been working at the base for more than a decade, said he recently injured himself on the job. He complained that no one in the personnel office would help him file worker's compensation paperwork.
"They just acted like it was my fault that I'd hurt myself -- like I meant to do it," he said. "When you take pride in your work, like I do, and you hear something like that, it's a huge blow...It did make me think, 'Well, if this is what people think of me, then what's it all worth anyway?'"
Cooper acknowledged there are "pockets of my organization" that "seem to be less satisfied than I want." But he maintained, as did several other Hill officers, that investigations have shown the victims had plenty of problems outside of work, too.
"When someone commits suicide, there are many factors in their lives, to include their job, which contribute to such a dramatic choice," he said.
The suicide note Berriochoa left behind was fairly simple. She told her family that she was missing her mother, who had died when she was a teenager, and asked them not to be angry with her.
For Vicki Booth, that was initially enough to explain her sister's decision. She also knew Berriochoa sometimes drank too much and had unpredictable ups and downs.
But at the funeral, several of Berriochoa's co-workers approached Booth. "They said they knew it wasn't a good time," she said, "but they wanted to know if I knew about everything that had happened to her at work."
That conversation led Booth to her sister's journal, labeled "Joni's Hell," where she described her supervisor as arrogant, quick-tempered, mean-spirited and intimidating. The journal indicated that she'd complained to superiors, but no changes were made.
"He never does any work," she wrote. "He just harasses us and pushes us around... I'm so unhappy."
On March 27, fellow workers say Berriochoa had an explosive confrontation with that same manager, after Berriochoa asked for time off to deal with personal issues.
The manager did not respond to a request for comment. Hill officials declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Berriochoa left that day in tears, fellow employees said. Two days later, she was dead.
Booth said she knows that her sister's troubles weren't limited to Hill. But she's troubled by the numbers. She wants Hill's commanders to make an "honest" effort to account for all the deaths and to acknowledge its work environment may be part of the problem.
And if that helps others avoid the heartache her family is suffering, Booth said, perhaps her sister's death won't have been in vain.
Civilian suicide rate at Hill rises unabated, while a program to curb deaths gets mixed reviews and doesn't seem to be effective. › sltrib.com