ST. PETERSBURG — About 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, Ronald Benjamin took his smoke break outside Peterborough Apartments, where he has worked as a desk clerk for nine years.
Benjamin, 61, looked onto the patio and saw a shape on the ground. It looked to him like a mannequin. An April Fools' Day joke, he concluded, and went back to work.
Two hours later, another employee of the senior housing complex at 440 Fourth Ave. N told Benjamin about the shape on the patio. It was just a prank, Benjamin assured her.
When a woman and her teen son came by to deliver the Tampa Bay Times, Benjamin asked the boy to help him move the mannequin into a Dumpster.
He grabbed the shoes and the teen clasped a handful of clothes, which was topped with a ball of whitish-gray hair. It weighed almost nothing, Benjamin noted, as they heaved it into the trash.
Benjamin saw what looked like blood, but he thought it was fake.
Hours later, other workers at the complex discovered that the shape in the Dumpster was not a mannequin, but a 96-year-old resident of the complex who had jumped 16 stories to her death sometime during the night.
They called Benjamin, whose shift had ended by then, and told him to come back. He was stunned when he was told that it was a person.
"It's all I've thought about all day," Benjamin told a Times reporter at his home Wednesday evening. "I haven't slept all day."
Benjamin said the woman's face looked rubbery and formless, like a Halloween mask discarded on the ground. The bars had let out only an hour or so prior and he figured someone out for April Fools' Day had tossed it onto the property.
"I'm telling you, I swear to God, the face looked like a rubber mask," he said as he sat on his couch stroking his aging Yorkshire terrier on his lap. "If I thought for one instant it was a real person I would have called the police, my manager, everyone I could think of."
Police said they believe Benjamin honestly thought he saw a mannequin. They plan no criminal charges.
"Because of the height the woman fell it actually might have caused her features to be distorted, and possibly not look human to the unsuspecting eye," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz.
However, the complex fired Benjamin.
"Now I have to go to the unemployment office," he said.
Police said the woman had left a suicide note. She then placed a step stool beside a 16th-floor window and jumped. The woman's name was not released, as authorities were trying to locate family members.
Residents at the complex said she was from England. She left there after World War II, but her accent remained intact, they said. She was a bright woman who read a lot, they said, and had the mental acuity of a 50 year old.
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The complex's volunteer librarian, Nancy Sanborn, 74, called the woman "refined," and added that "the last time I was with her in the library she was upbeat."