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Sister: Woman who died after fall from I-94 overpass had left psychiatric unit hours earlier

In this photo from Christmas 2011: Back row from left: Julie Garden-Robinson, Thomas Robinson and Will Robinson. Front row from left: Maddie Robinson, Mel Fredricksen, Kristi Garden and Grace Robinson. Photo special to The Forum

Kristi Garden's lifetime of private mental health struggles came to a sudden public end Saturday night when she apparently jumped from the 34th Street overpass here and was struck by a westbound vehicle on Interstate 94.

Just hours earlier, the 55-year-old Moorhead woman was released from a psychiatric unit where she had been for the past three-and-a-half weeks, say her sister and longtime live-in boyfriend.

Younger sister Julie Garden-Robinson said Garden had dealt with mental health issues since she was 19, relying on medications and occasional hospitalization to get better. But it wasn't something she talked about with most of her friends and family, especially the residents of Gary, Minn., where they grew up.

"In fact, even my kids didn't know, so this was just a shocking thing for them," Garden-Robinson said. "She didn't want anyone to know that she had depression and anxiety other than the ones she chose to tell, and the fact that this became so public is what is just shocking to me."

She said her sister was "enormously talented" and, for the most part, kept her mental health struggles in the background.

She received a master's degree in vocal performance from the University of Texas at Austin, landing roles with an opera company as a soprano and earning a spot as a soloist with a symphony while performing in Austin and Dallas.

Since moving to the Fargo-Moorhead community in 1999, she had worked at several public schools in Fargo as a substitute music teacher.

But Garden-Robinson said the disease "would get a grip on her" from time to time. The most recent struggle started in July, when she followed her doctor's advice and went off antidepressants.

She said her sister was scheduled to go in for a checkup with the doctor Sept. 19. But things took a turn for the worse before that appointment and, on Sept. 11, Garden-Robinson brought her to an emergency room because she was concerned about her condition.

Garden-Robinson said it seemed that her sister was determined to get back to the healthy, happy person who loved to spend time with her nieces and nephew and enjoyed fashion, decorating and the beautiful things of life.

"She kept saying, 'I'm going to get better,'" she said. "All along, she said, 'I'm going to fight this; I'm going to get better.'"

Trying to get better

Garden was hospitalized and put on new medications to try to get her problems under control, said boyfriend Mel Fredricksen.

Fredricksen said it was clear to him that his girlfriend, who he met 12 years ago and lived with in a house on 33rd Street South in Moorhead for the past four years, wasn't ready to be released. He said he often took her out of the hospital for a few hours at a time to go shopping or get dinner, but she complained about not being able to sleep, and her new medications hadn't fully taken effect.

"It's really a shame what the poor girl went through," he said.

The Forum is choosing to not name Garden's medical provider because it cannot at this time substantiate the family's version of events. When contacted by The Forum, a top executive for the medical provider said the specifics of a patient's case can't be discussed because of privacy laws, but mental health issues are "incredibly complex."

Garden-Robinson said doctors were able to get Garden's panic attacks under control, even if she said she felt "so drugged I can't think." Garden made appointments for this week to see a new doctor and therapist and on Saturday she was released after about three and a half weeks of hospitalization, her sister said.

But Fredricksen said he was worried that it was too soon.

Garden-Robinson said she and her husband on Saturday picked up Garden at the hospital, taking her to the house she shared with Fredricksen at about 1:30 p.m. and staying with her until they went home around 7:15 p.m.

Fredricksen said Garden told him she was feeling "tense" and wanted to go for a quick walk to calm down. He said that wasn't out of the ordinary - she liked to go for evening walks near their south Moorhead home, often taking their dachshund Lilly.

He insisted that she take a cellphone and his heavy-duty flashlight, just in case something happened, and told her he would call in a few minutes.

"She said, 'I should be fine,'" he said.

Garden left around 7:30 p.m., and Fredricksen later tried to call but she didn't answer. That's when he saw the lights of an ambulance pass by their home, and he tried to call two more times before getting in his truck to look for her.

But instead of finding his girlfriend, he noticed the westbound off-ramp of I-94 was closed and saw an ambulance and squad cars on the interstate.

"I had a gut feeling then that there was something seriously going on," he said.

Minnesota State Patrol investigator Rod Eischens said authorities received a report of somebody on 34th Street running in and out of traffic around 8:20 p.m. A caller soon reported that there had been a collision between a pedestrian and a vehicle on the interstate below that overpass, he said, but no eyewitnesses have come forward to say they saw Garden either jump or fall from the overpass.

The Minnesota State Patrol is still investigating the incident, and an autopsy is being done.

Fredricksen said he called the Moorhead Police Department when he saw what was going on, describing Garden to officers to see if she matched the description of the pedestrian who had been struck by an SUV driven by Benjamin R. Deraas, 25, of Fargo.

"But then it was kind of a waiting game," he said.

About 30 minutes later, two Minnesota State Patrol troopers showed up at his door to confirm Garden had died in the accident.

Overcoming the stigma

Fredricksen said Garden gave no warning that she was suicidal that night.

Garden-Robinson said her family, as well as her brother Craig who lives in Burnsville, Minn., are still in "total shock" about what happened on Saturday night.

"I never in a million years would have expected this," she said. "This is the shock of my life. She had so much pain, and I think she felt that medical help just wasn't available to her."

Still, Garden-Robinson said sharing her sister's struggles with mental illness could prompt more discussion on the issue and help families avoid this type of tragedy.

"I hope that her legacy can be that it's OK to talk about mental illness the way we talk about cancer and heart disease," she said. "There's still a stigma, and it's unfortunate."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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