ST. PETERSBURG — Since the 1980s, Nancy Yates had charmed neighbors at the Peterborough Apartments with her British accent and steely independence.
The woman they knew simply as Nan had started the library at the complex, which caters to seniors, and seemed highly alert despite being one of the building's oldest residents at 96. Though hospitalized at least twice in recent months, she had bounced back, working out in the gym of the city's Sunshine Center across the street.
But lately Yates had been slipping both in health and spirit, neighbors say. She had become less talkative, was losing weight and was becoming forgetful.
About a week ago, Yates forgot that the water was running in her kitchen sink, flooding units below her. Yates seemed despondent, neighbors said.
Some time before dawn Wednesday, Yates climbed on a step stool to get over her window ledge and jumped 16 floors to her death, police said. A desk clerk later mistook her body for a mannequin that he believed was an April Fools' Day prank.
Though some aspects of her suicide are unusual, the underlying worries that might have triggered it are not. And while it's hard to believe that someone would endure life's ups and downs for 90-plus years and then commit suicide, experts say it's not unusual.
"Actually older adults have the highest rate of suicide of any population," said Charis Stiles of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention in San Francisco.
The elderly struggle with physical disability and isolation. They can feel burdensome to relatives and friends.
In addition, older adults tend to be more determined when it comes to suicide than younger adults. In general among all ages, there are 100 to 200 attempts for every completed suicide. Among adults over the age of 65, there are four attempts for every completed suicide. Using a gun is the most common method, followed by poisoning and suffocation.
Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, with the most at-risk being white men over the age of 85, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Women are less isolated in that they attach to other women," said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C. "So isolation is greater among men. They tend not to seek help."
Residents of Peterborough, 440 Fourth Ave. N, pride themselves on a sense of community and regard it as a place where people look out for each other. Yates was one of the most significant contributors to that atmosphere. Years ago she started the first-floor library, a cozy reading room with three leather couches and a nice selection of books.
Like other residents, she took advantage of the Multi-Service Senior Center across Fifth Street N. The "Sunshine Center" is a magnet for older residents, offering bridge and bingo, exercise classes and live music.
Toni Tufts, who lives in Peterborough, nibbled an English muffin in the Sunshine Center cafe Friday and remembered her friend of seven years. Tufts, 69, described Yates as "sweet and polite."
"No one had a bad word to say about her because she was a lady," she said.
Yates was born in England on Nov. 14, 1917. She told neighbors she had served with the British armed forces during World War II. Kenneth Shaffer, who lives across the hall, said Yates had told him she had known Winston Churchill during the war.
"I was so impressed with her, to tell you the truth," said Shaffer, 76.
Yates might have arrived in the United States by the late 1970s, St. Petersburg police said. She became a U.S. citizen and got a Florida driver's license. Neither police, who talked to a sister-in-law in England, nor neighbors could recall anyone mentioning Yates having been married.
In recent months, Yates seemed to withdraw.
"She used to be very friendly, but toward the end she became not talkative," said Joseph Rubin, 86, who lives three doors down.
Nearly two weeks ago, Shaffer noticed water soaking the carpet outside Yates' apartment. It turned out Yates had turned on her kitchen tap to wash dishes, then went into another room and watched television. Water entered the apartment below and an adjacent unit. The residents of those units said the flooding was minimal.
Nonetheless, the incident disturbed Yates. "She said, 'Ken, do you think they're going to evict me?' " said Shaffer. "I said, 'No, it's just a mistake.' "
The next day, Yates again asked Shaffer if she might be evicted.
"I think she was really concerned about that," Shaffer said.
At 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, desk clerk Ronald Benjamin, who had stepped outside for a smoke break, saw what he thought was a mannequin, police said. A couple of hours later, Benjamin — still believing the body to be fake — enlisted a teenager who was delivering the Tampa Bay Times to help throw the body into a Dumpster. Only later that morning did a maintenance man look in the Dumpster and discover the shocking truth.
No charges were filed, but Benjamin, 61, was fired.
"We are all in shock," said Tufts. "I'm doing stupid things because my mind is not on where it should be. My mind is on Nan in heaven."
She wonders if Yates saw the road ahead and decided to go out on her own terms.
"Nan didn't want to go to an ALF," she said. "She just chose to die in the building."
Yates left a note behind apologizing for her suicide and mentioning the flooding incident.
"That was a point of distress for her, that she had become kind of absent-minded and that had resulted in not just damage to her apartment, but to another individual," said police spokesman Mike Puetz.
The note also included a happier sentiment, Puetz said.
"She said she had lived a good life."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.