Cries for Help, a Haunting Death

updated 10/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Two mornings a week, after dropping her kids at school, Carol Anne Gotbaum would attend a yoga class on Manhattan's Upper West Side. To the class regulars, Gotbaum—petite, stylish and married into a prominent New York City political family—was the soul of serenity. "Gentle and calm but strong," says her teacher Pam Reece. "She was always willing to try a new pose and laugh at herself when she wasn't getting it." But those who knew the mother of three say that maintaining that graceful facade was the most challenging pose of all for Gotbaum, 45, who had battled depression and alcohol abuse. "She was very unhappy," says one friend. "She didn't go around telling everyone her problems, but it was so obvious."

What is less clear is how that unhappiness came to end in tragedy at the Phoenix airport on Sept. 28 as she was on her way to rehab. Unable to board her flight, Gotbaum became enraged, screaming and flailing. Police were summoned, and she was taken to a holding cell, where she was later found dead.

To her family there seems little doubt that the Phoenix police bear much of the blame. While that remains an open question, it is only one among several troubling mysteries that surround the case. "She was the least confrontational person I've ever met," says Dr. Jacob Lalezari, a longtime family friend. "It is inconceivable how someone so sweet ends up in such a violent death."

Carol's emotional problems had been brewing for some time. Her husband, Noah, 48, works in finance, and the couple had three children, Ella, 8, Nathaniel, 6, and Tobias, 3. (Contacted by PEOPLE, Noah declined comment.) She had struggled with depression and drinking in recent years. But the first some family members knew of her alcohol problem came last November when Noah returned home and found his wife passed out drunk at their apartment, prompting him to call an ambulance. According to Noah's stepmother, Betsy Gotbaum, who is New York City's public advocate and is widely considered a future mayoral candidate (Noah's father is the famed labor leader Victor Gotbaum), Carol seemed chastened by the experience. "I'm so ashamed of myself," Carol told Betsy at the hospital. Carol took antidepressants and did two stints in rehab at a residential facility near New York, but they didn't seem to help much.

Carol and Noah had met at an aerobics class in London when the South African-born Carol was working as a buyer for Harrods. At his wife's funeral Noah spoke movingly of how he felt "the glow of her love every day." In 2002 they relocated to New York City. The death of Carol's father, a naval commander, in 2005, was "a tremendous blow," says Betsy.

All the same, one of Carol's closest friends says that she never saw Carol intoxicated. As Noah's brother Josh observes, Carol also had a naturally stoic demeanor. "She used to say, 'I am the commander's daughter,'" says Josh. "She was a person who believed she had to be the perfect mom and the perfect wife."

Ultimately, says the close friend, a combination of factors, including separation from a sister in London and Noah's frequent business travel, could have each played some role in stoking her troubles. "I think her life felt very out of control," says the friend. "She was feeling so lonely. It was a lot of things happening at a time when she couldn't manage it."

Yet Carol did realize she needed to get help. "I'm really down," she told Betsy during one walk in Central Park earlier this year. "I know my behavior is self-destructive." With the support of her family she decided to enroll at the Cottonwood de Tucson clinic, where a month-long stay costs $42,000. She was due to leave on a direct flight to Tucson, where a driver from the clinic was scheduled to pick her up. Plagued by guilt over leaving her children for a month, she skipped that flight so she could see them off to school, even taking the time to write notes to them on their snack bags. Instead she caught a later flight that required a changeover in Phoenix. Her family insists that despite her instability, she was determined to travel alone. "She wanted Noah to be with their children, and she was fiercely independent and private," explained Rabbi Robert Levine at Carol's funeral. "She believed she could do this on her own."

But friend Sara Savage scoffs at that notion. "No way in the world do you leave a girl like that to go by herself," she says. Family friend David Watson, who lives in Arizona, spoke to Carol before she got on the later flight and told the New York Daily News that she sounded apprehensive. Watson tried to calm her, saying, "This is the first day of the rest of your life."

Instead it turned out to be the last. She landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in plenty of time to make her connecting flight to Tucson. She stopped in at an airport restaurant-bar for food, and in an official report, a police officer said she detected the strong smell of alcohol on her breath. She showed up at the US Airways gate minutes before her flight was to depart, only to be told the plane was closed and that she would have to take a later one. At that point, according to witnesses and the police report, she started to unravel. She became abusive with the agent—"borderline hysterical," according to the agent—and called her husband, screaming into the phone. When she then hurled her BlackBerry, the agent summoned airport security.

An airport surveillance video shows her running up the concourse and behaving erratically. According to the police report, she was sobbing and shouting, "I'm not a terrorist! I am just a sick mom! I need help!" Within minutes three Phoenix police officers showed up to confront her. A Gotbaum family lawyer, Michael Manning, contends the officers mishandled the situation by not calling for medical help immediately. The airport surveillance footage offers only a murky view of the handcuffing. But once in the holding cell, her emotional pain was obvious. She told an officer that she was just a "depressed, pathetic housewife," according to the police report. Shackled to a bench in the cell with a 16-in. length of chain, she was left alone screaming for a few minutes. When she fell silent an officer checked on her and found her unconscious. She was found sitting on the floor, her head and hands on the bench, with the chain stretched across her neck. She was pronounced dead less than 40 minutes after being taken into custody.

Unaware of what was unfolding, Noah first tried to get Watson, who lives in the vicinity, to drive to the airport and assist Carol. He also tried at least three times to contact airport officials, saying that his wife was potentially suicidal and imploring them to treat her gently. By then, however, his wife was already dead, a fact he did not learn until several hours later.

The results of the official autopsy won't be known for weeks, but doubts are being raised about the handling of the incident. The Phoenix police may face questions about why she was left alone in the cell, since departmental procedures stipulate that "violent or self-destructive" detainees be kept under constant supervision. (The police say they had no way of knowing at the time she was suicidal.) For her loved ones all that is left is emptiness and an awful sense of futility. "I'm very upset," says Savage. "There was no reason for her to die like that."

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