Christopher Browning was standing on one of the upper decks at Petco Park last year and saw his girlfriend looking directly at him, their toddler on her hip. It was quiet, he recalled later, “an eerie silence, like in a movie.”
And then they went over the edge. It’s an 82-foot drop.
In that instant, Browning knew Raquel Wilkins, 40, and their son Denzel Wilkins-Browning, 2, were dead.
The Ocean Beach woman and her son went over a railing on the third level of the ballpark on Sept. 25, as baseball fans were arriving for a Saturday afternoon Padres game. They died on the sidewalk.
More than 10 months since the mother and son died, Browning said he has come to terms with what he believes happened: murder-suicide, “very intentional, very planned.”
“To honor Denzel and her is to really be truthful,” he said in a interview. “And to grieve in a healthy way, you have to honor the truth.”
Browning said his girlfriend had grown increasingly paranoid and delusional in those final months — drifting “further and further away from reality.” And the day she died, she twice talked about the height needed to ensure a fall would be fatal.
Browning had not spoken publicly about the incident previously, but agreed to talk with The San Diego Union-Tribune after the publication obtained police files of the investigation and contacted him for comment.
The documents include police synopses of statements from several witnesses. They also include diagrams, reports from officers on the scene and a list of seized evidence. The Union-Tribune also reviewed the autopsy report and its investigative narrative, which notes that a day before her death, Wilkins’ phone showed searches for “easy suicide” and “means of suicide.”
Following a four-month probe, San Diego police closed the case as a murder-suicide after what they said was “a thorough and comprehensive investigation.”
Wilkins’ family disputes that finding. Their attorney argues that even though some witnesses told police they saw Wilkins slip and fall from the upper deck, indicating an accident, police called it a murder-suicide almost immediately — within 39 minutes of the deaths.
“They concluded she did it (intentionally) but there is no evidence she did it,” said attorney Dan Gilleon, adding that Mayor Todd Gloria made comments two days after the incident insinuating Wilkins’ mental health played a role in what happened.
Gilleon said the police investigation was narrowly tailored to focus on a theory that Wilkins had killed herself and her child.
The family filed a claim with the city earlier this year. The city rejected it in June, clearing the way for the family to file a lawsuit. No suit has yet been filed.
Police and city officials, citing potential litigation, declined comment on the investigation or their findings.
The police files reviewed by the Union-Tribune do not lay out how investigators reached their conclusion. But they do provide insight into some of what police learned as they investigated the deaths.
What witnesses saw
Police talked to several witnesses present during the incident, which happened just after 3:50 p.m. Sept. 25. Some thought Wilkins and her son fell over the railing accidentally. At least two witnesses thought she went over intentionally. Some said they heard a scream. Others heard nothing.
Many said they didn’t know what to think.
According to witness statements, Wilkins, Browning and their son had been at the concession stand near section 320, and bought cotton candy for the boy. Then Wilkins took the child to the nearby benches.
Several people told police they saw Wilkins stand on a picnic bench, first on a seat, then the table top. A few said she stumbled and stepped down from the table, only to get right back on it. All while holding her son.
One man told police that the woman and child appeared to be happy. He saw them on the tabletop, which he thought was strange because it was so close to the edge. His back was to Wilkins when she went over the edge.
The man’s daughter was facing Wilkins and Denzel, and the daughter told police she saw Wilkins get on the tabletop twice before she slipped and fell. She said Wilkins tried to grab the railing as she went over.
A concessions staffer who seconds earlier had sold the family some kettle corn and cotton candy said it looked like Wilkins tripped and fell. “It looked like the way she jumped, she wanted to save her baby,” according to the summary of her statement.
“I would say this was accidental,” the man said, according to the document. “Her state of mind, when I encountered them, was that she did not want to end her life.”
Another man sitting at an adjacent group of tables said he’d seen Wilkins standing on the bench seat and thought she had just lost her balance.
Others weren’t sure what they saw. A woman told police she was concerned about Wilkins’ dangerous behavior — standing on the table twice. The woman said she wasn’t sure if the fall was accidental or intentional.
One of the witnesses told police the fall was “100 percent intentional.” He said he saw Wilkins back up to the railing, holding the child in her arms as if she was going to take a selfie. When she reached the wall, she slipped one leg over the rail, the witness said.
“Her demeanor walking up was so calm. She didn’t even look down. It looked just like she was trying to hop over a fence,” according to the police report.
A girl who was at the game with her parents — her age was not given — told police she watched Wilkins go to the railing, throw her leg over, straddle it like a horse and then roll off.
Measurements show the railing height was 3 feet, 9 inches.
The bench seat of one picnic table was 19 inches from the edge, and the one next to it was 20 inches from the edge. Gilleon, the attorney for Wilkins’ family, wants to know why they were so close the side and why weren’t they bolted down.
‘Emotionally shell shocked’
Browning was yards away when it happened. He spoke to police several times afterward — his first sit-down coming less than four hours after the incident, when police say he appeared “emotionally shell shocked.”
In that first interview, he said he did not know if Wilkins fell or jumped, but her behavior in the days and weeks before the incident pointed toward suicide.
He told police Wilkins had seemed happy that day. But the night before, after an intense argument, she whispered something to the effect of “why don’t you just kill us both,” meaning her and Denzel.
Browning told investigators that hours before the incident, he was at Sunset Cliffs with Wilkins and their son. He said Wilkins asked about the distance needed to ensure a fall would be fatal.
Four days after his first interview, he talked to police again. He told them that even though Wilkins had seemed happy up until the moment the incident happened, he now believed the plunge was intentional.
Browning told them that 10 minutes before it happened, Wilkins wanted to take a family photo, a bit uncommon for them. They took a selfie.
And when they made it to the top of the pedestrian ramp at Section 320, she looked over toward the edge and asked if a fall would be fatal.
There are other revelations in the witness statements. Among the people who showed up at the scene were private investigators in San Diego hired by Wilkins’ family in Florida. The investigators were supposed to start working the case on the Monday of the following week.
Gilleon said Wilkins had been making odd statements and allegations, and her family wanted to check on her. “They just wanted eyes on the situation,” he said.
Moments after Wilkins and Denzel went over the railing, Browning called Wilkins’ family. Someone in the family asked the private investigators to go to Petco to see what had happened.
The investigators told police Wilkins’ family had been worried about her mental health, wondered if she was having a breakdown, and said her behavior had been “sketchy” and “off.”
The autopsy findings mention that she had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Statements from Browning and others indicate that Wilkins had been back and forth in relationships with Browning and another man.
The other man, an ex-boyfriend, also talked to police. He told them Wilkins shared her location via GPS tracker with him that day, without explanation. It placed her at Petco. She sent it about 3 p.m. Sept 25 — less than an hour before she died. He said when he heard the news that a woman and young child died in a plunge at Petco, he knew it was her.
There is also an account of an anonymous call on Oct. 1 to the Padres from a man saying he wanted to share information so the baseball organization could protect itself from a wrongful death suit. The caller disparaged Wilkins and said she had been talking about suicide. It’s unclear if police identified him or followed up.
The police file indicates that investigators had her computer searched as well, but if police found something, it’s not included in the file.
‘I was in complete shock’
Browning said in an interview with the Union-Tribune that Wilkins had grown delusional and paranoid, making bizarre accusations and believing things that “were absolutely not true.”
Over the last six months of her life, he said, “I think she had a character breakdown. Things were getting very unstable.”
“Raquel was getting sicker and not able to get the help she needed,” he said.
He said the trip to Petco was supposed to be a nice family outing after a troubled week. When they arrived, they started to take an elevator but she suddenly “freaked out” and ran off, he said. They took the escalator instead, with him dragging the stroller.
From the third level, they looked out at the “beautiful view,” he said. They took a family selfie, got popcorn and went to their seats — but soon the trio headed back to the concession area because Wilkins wanted cotton candy for Denzel.
The fall happened moments later.
“It was so quick, so fast,” Browning said. “I looked over and she was on the bench and it was literally a split-second later. Both of them went over. It was very quiet. I was in complete shock.”
Attorney says questions remain
Gilleon said the investigation and its findings were “garbage in, garbage out.”
He noted that the files indicate the homicide lieutenant running the scene told officers within 39 minutes of the deaths they were investigating a possible murder-suicide. Gilleon said that runs counter to eyewitness statements that Wilkins appeared to slip from the railing, not jump.
Gilleon alleged that investigators “didn’t go looking for evidence that would disprove the murder-suicide theory.”
He noted that an eyewitness told police he shot a few seconds of video shortly before the incident. The footage does not show the fall, and Wilkins is not in it, Gilleon said. But the witness said he told police about the video. He said police never asked to see it — and Gilleon takes issue with that.
The Union-Tribune has not seen the video.
Gilleon said it strikes him as odd that there doesn’t seem to be any video of the fall.
“Every square inch of this ball park is under video surveillance,” Gilleon said in an emailed statement. “How in the world is there not video of an area where Padres fans are being fed alcohol, at City and Padres-provided tables sitting inches from a guardrail separating them from six stories of air and then concrete?”
He alleged the findings were shaped to shield the city — which owns 70 percent of Petco Park — from liability. The city and police declined comment, citing possible litigation.
Police wanted to talk with Wilkins’ family, but the family did not do so; Gilleon said they were concerned about the city’s handling of the investigation. He also said Browning has an “emotional bias” against Wilkins.
‘He was beautiful’
Browning said Wilkins was a good mother to Denzel, who was slated to start preschool two days after he died.
“I loved her core,” he said “When people have a mental illness, something takes over their core.”
The little boy who loved excavators and chocolate granola bars would be 3 years old now. Browning noted that Denzel’s birthday this year fell on the summer solstice and the day after Father’s Day.
“He was beautiful and he was happy and he got the most out of life,” Browning said. “I’m grateful for the years I had with him and I am sure I will see him again.”
If you or someone you know may be thinking about suicide, call the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240. Learn more about suicide prevention at up2sd.org.