2 found dead under deflated balloon

Police say there does not appear to have been any foul play in the pair's death.

Published June 3, 2006

LUTZ — The son of a prominent Tampa jeweler and young woman from Lutz were found dead Saturday morning inside a deflated promotional balloon used to advertise condominiums at LakeView at Calusa Trace.

Jason Ackerman, 21, a junior at the University of South Florida, and Sara Rydman, 21, of Lutz, were found by a maintenance man around 9:45 a.m. when he  noticed two bodies protruding from the deflated balloon, which was spread out across the grass near the complex entrance. Sheriff’s deputies said the two were fully clothed and were not victims of foul play.

“It does not appear that anybody did anything to them,” said Maj. Bob Schrader, adding that there was no evidence to suggest anyone put their bodies in the balloon to hide them. “The deaths appear to be accidental.”

Investigators would not speculate on the cause of death, but Sara Rydman’s mother, Linda Rydman, said the Hillsborough Medical Examiner suggested that inhaling helium had contributed to their deaths.

“It was more of a fun thing they thought they were doing,” she said. “You know how you blow up the balloon and suck the helium…”

Inhaling helium can cause brain damage and death, according to the Compressed Gas Association, which develops safety standards in the gas industry. When the lungs are filled with helium, oxygen is removed from the bloodstream. Depending on how much helium is inhaled, a person could lose consciousness quickly and die from lack of oxygen.

An 18-year-old died in 2003 in Vancouver, Canada, after inhaling the helium he was using to blow up balloons for a toddler’s birthday party. And a 48-year-old software consultant died in 2002 in Morrisville, N.C., after inhaling helium from a 20-pound tank.

Euthanasia experts have advocated the use of helium in ending lives without physician assistance.

A complex manager saw the balloon, which is about 8 feet in diameter, stretched high into the air, at 6:45 p.m. Friday, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

Sometime later — Friday night or Saturday morning — after parking the Lexus ES300 Ackerman was driving near the complex’s clubhouse, the two apparently pulled the balloon out of the sky and squeezed themselves inside, where they died.

Carter said a fan is used to fill the balloon, and the opening in the bottom is large enough to allow the pair to crawl inside.

Ackerman lived in the Calusa Trace apartment complex, and Rydman lived with her parents on nearby Kingbird Road, in Lutz.

As sheriff’s deputies shielded the bodies from view with a tarp, residents of the lake-front condo complex exchanged puzzled conversation.

“This is not the kind of place where this happens,” said Torrance Saunders, 30, who moved here from Richmond, Va., a few months ago.

“All upper-class here,” said Don Hassee, 40, a business consultant who has lived here a year. “You look around and it’s all trees and good neighbors.”

Sheriff’s deputies removed from the Lexus a bag filled with clothes and pulled a wad of money from a wallet found inside. Carter said no drugs or alcohol were found in the car or on the two bodies.

“It’s very sad that such a tragedy could happen,” said Jeff Ricketts, the developer who built the complex of upscale condos. “To lose two kids like this is beyond sad.”

Ackerman’s friends covered his MySpace Web site with messages by Saturday evening.

“I’m in shock,” one person wrote. “Complete shock.”

Laura McFarlan said Ackerman was fun-loving and quick with a joke.

“He was fabulous,” said the 21-year-old who kept in touch with him when she moved from Tampa to Miami. “Funniest person I knew.”

Ackerman graduated from Sickles High School and loved Quentin Tarantino movies and watching Inside The Actors Studio. On his Web site he boasted to his friends of drinking and partying, and also said he was majoring in advertising at USF, with a minor in creative writing.

“He’s been through a lot but he had things together lately,” McFarlan said.

His father, Ron Ackerman, has for years owned North Tampa’s popular Ackerman Jewelers. A sign taped to the entry Saturday afternoon said “closed early for inventory.” The family could not be reached for comment.

Rydman also graduated from Sickles. Her mother said she had attended Hillsborough Community College and worked at Paesan’s Seafood Italiano on Dale Mabry Highway.

“I think she was mischievous to be honest with you,” said Linda Rydman, who blotted her eyes with a tissue. “She just liked fun and I think it cost her.”

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813-661-2443.