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Forecaster's suicide stuns co-workers, fans

He suffered from depression, a friend says.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published April 7, 2007


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Co-workers and fans across the Tampa Bay area knew John Winter as the gregarious, hard-working backbone of WFLA-Ch. 8's morning news crew, always ready with a practical joke and zingers in his "morons in the news" segments.

But one of his closest friends, a colleague who talked with Winter by phone Thursday before the 39-year-old shot himself, said the meteorologist also had "dark clouds" in his life that came from a long struggle with depression.

Bob Fontaine Jr. and Winter's wife, Karen, talked with the forecaster by telephone Thursday. Later, Fontaine met sheriff's deputies at Winter's FishHawk Ranch home, watching as they forced entry and heard a single gunshot.

And although Fontaine wouldn't discuss further details of the suicide with the St. Petersburg Times, he said he had accompanied Winter as he visited doctors a few times years ago, noting that there was at least one other time when he was concerned Winter might take his own life.

"Individuals need somebody to listen to them, and I think that's what I was for John," said Fontaine, an 18-year employee of WFLA who works as a director on the station's morning and midday newscasts.

"I would tell him how I felt. ... I would share with him my faith," he said. "I think that would help John through the dark times. ... Sometimes people at work may be smiling and laughing, but inside, they're hurting."

WFLA aired a report Friday detailing the events leading up to the suicide in which Fontaine said Winter called him from home several times Thursday.

"He was telling me he wanted to end it," Fontaine said in the WFLA report. "He was asking for forgiveness for what he was about to do."

Winter's wife declined to speak with the Times. His stepmother, Grace Winter, said family members were too distraught over the circumstances and also chose to limit their public comment out of respect for the personal privacy Winter had maintained in his own life.

Co-workers shocked

Fontaine met Winter in 2000, when he began working as a director on WFLA's morning newscasts. In 2003, the pair formed a side business, Big U Media, that produced TV commercials and promotional projects.

Winter was tiring of the grind of early morning work and looked forward to a time when Big U Media might grow large enough to allow him to leave the job, Fontaine said.

The forecaster had been working evenings, filling in for colleagues on vacation, and Fontaine had planned to visit him Thursday night.

"That's why I'm hurt and disappointed," said Fontaine. "I can only say, if you're working with a friend and see them hurting, try to get them help."

Fontaine's comments about Winter's depression came as a surprise to WFLA news director Don North, who - like most of the forecaster's colleagues - saw him as the last person who might have problems with the disease.

"He was about as level-headed a guy as I could deal with," said North, who called in a counselor Friday for employees who felt the need to talk about Winter's death. "I've never noticed anything like that - never once. I would have never thought that."

Susanne Homant, executive director of the Florida chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that depression is often masked.

"People have a public face," she said. "Think of all the movie stars you think are wonderful, and then the next day you hear they took an overdose. ... It's human nature to have a public face and a private face."

Sometimes, Homant said, a person with depression may seem to cheer up in the days or weeks before a suicide attempt because he or she has finally made a decision to do something.

She said 90 percent of suicides can be linked to mental illness and/or substance abuse - a risk that grows even more dangerous when combined with firearms.

"Don't have guns in the house with someone who has depression," Homant said. "It's the leading means of death for suicide."

Winter's death hit WFLA staffers hard: Morning anchor Gayle Guyardo stayed at home Friday, while co-anchor Bill Ratliff delayed his own vacation to come in for that morning's tributes to Winter. And because the forecaster had taken time to befriend technicians who worked behind the scenes, many of them were also struggling to make sense of his death.

"Everyone is going through their heads, wondering 'Did I miss something? Was there something I could have said today to make sure he was having a better day?' " said Shannon Liston, a producer on WFLA's morning newscast. "A lot of people were saying to each other today: 'Let's all make a pact. If even a bad thought enters your mind, you call someone. Anyone.' "

A tribute to Winter

Longtime WFLA reporter Mark Douglas hoped to pay tribute to Winter by assembling a story on suicides, noting that local news outlets rarely cover them, for fear of encouraging copycats - but the numbers are often double those of homicides, or more. (In 2005, Pinellas County saw 154 suicides and 61 murders, according to the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition.)

Indeed, the news media's typical reaction to suicide - ignoring average occurrences, but providing extended tributes to well-known people who kill themselves, such as Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain - may still encourage copycatting while keeping the public ill-informed.

"When I start pulling up numbers, I see this happens every day," said Douglas. "Every day, somewhere in the Tampa Bay area, somebody is killing themselves."

Family members, including Winter's father, John F. "Jack" Winter, director of engineering at WFTS-Ch. 28, had not yet decided on funeral details by press time. But Grace Winter said family members expected that the funeral would be private, and they would not organize a public memorial.

North said WFLA staffers remain amazed at the amount of public reaction to Winter's death; by midday Friday, more than 4,000 entries had been posted to the station's online guest book, according to Liston.

But the outpouring of sympathy left some colleagues wondering: If Winter had known how much fans loved him, would it have made a difference?

"When you're doing this every day, sometimes you lose sight of the fact that what we do matters to people," North said. "This is clearly incredibly personal for a lot of people who don't work here. You can't read some of these e-mails without realizing this is incredibly emotional for them. And sometimes, we forget that."

Times staff writer S.I. Rosenbaum and Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com.

 

 

Warning signs

- Depression (and depressive symptoms), despair, hopelessness - Obsessive thinking (including death fantasies) - Mood swings - Extreme guilt or shame - Extreme anxiety (panic attacks) - Acute loss of energy - Change of habits, curtailment of enjoyable activities - The giving away of prized possessions - Insomnia/excessive sleep - Risk-taking behavior: speeding, drunken driving, self-mutilation - Frequent alcohol or drug abuse

 

How to help

These are some ways you can help a suicidal person, according to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay:

- Never ignore a suicide threat. If someone confides in you or if you recognize warning signs, confront the person in a gentle way. - Be calm and reassuring when talking to someone who has expressed a desire to commit suicide. Avoid giving advice or making comparisons such as "You'll feel better tomorrow" or "Think about how much better off you are than most people," which can make the suicidal person feel even more worthless or guilty. - Urge the troubled person to call a crisis service, or help him arrange to talk to a counselor, clergy member or other trustworthy person.

Source: Crisis Center of Tampa Bay

 

[Last modified April 6, 2007, 23:36:02]


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