Sonny Rugani was in ‘acute mental health crisis’ in the Broward jail, said Gordon Weekes, top deputy in the public defender’s office.
Courtesy of the Rugani family
Anyone privy to Sonny Rugani’s paperwork would have known he had a history of suicidal thoughts. It was right there in red letters, said Maria Schneider, from the Broward State Attorney’s Office.
The 17-year-old from Coral Springs had been committed for treatment under the Baker Act multiple times and had told the police officers who arrested him in June that he intended to kill himself in jail.
Early Sunday morning, while in the custody of the Broward County Jail, Sonny Rugani was able to do just that. He was found hanging in his Broward County jail cell.
Rushed to the hospital, he was kept on life support. On Wednesday at 12:07 p.m., he was pronounced dead.
An investigation into his death is ongoing.
It was only the latest disturbing incident to occur at Broward jail facilities. In September 2018, an inmate with mental health issues self-mutilated, cutting off his penis. This year in April, a woman who also had a history of mental illness delivered a baby alone in her cell.
Gordon Weekes, the executive chief assistant public defender, said there seems to be an alarming trend of how the jail handles inmates with mental illnesses.
The public defender’s office had already demanded an investigation into the number of deaths at the jail. Howard Finkelstein, the elected public defender, wrote in a letter to Sheriff Gregory Tony that since 2017, when court-ordered federal supervision of the jail ended, there’s been a rise in inmate mortality. In 2018, 10 inmates died in the jail, according to his letter.
In the first week of June this year — just seven days apart — two middle-age men died in the jail’s care, the public defender’s office said.
And yet this was the place where Sonny Rugani ended up after his June 2 arrest on a charge of grand theft of a firearm. He had gone into an unlocked car and grabbed an AK-47 from the trunk. He was on probation at the time.
Sonny was committed under the Baker Act, discharged, then Baker acted again almost immediately. Florida’s Baker Act allows persons deemed a danger to themselves or others to be involuntarily detained for up to three days.
One of the Baker Act petitions quoted Sonny saying, “I am going to kill myself in jail,” according to the Broward County Public Defender’s Office. Public defenders messaged the jail warning that Sonny used to cut his wrists. He was on suicide watch for two days as a precautionary measure after he was put into the jail’s custody in late June.
“During the following two months, the inmate did not exhibit or express suicidal tendencies and participated daily in the educational and juvenile Life Skills programs,” said Keyla Concepcion, spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail.
Concepcion said he was housed in general population.
Sonny’s juvenile record, as of June 10, indicated he had been judged a suicide risk in the past, said Schneider, head of the state attorney’s juvenile unit and felony trial unit. Documents show he took mental health medication.
According to Florida Statute 985.265, supervision of children in jail requires documented checks no more than 10 minutes apart.
Officials at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office could not confirm the last time Sonny was checked because of the ongoing investigation.
Weekes said the fact that Sonny was able to commit suicide likely indicates that protocols weren’t followed.
“This child was in acute mental health crisis in this facility, and he was allowed to act upon the same thing that he was crying out saying he would do,” Weekes said.
David Rugani, the teen’s father, adopted him and his sister when Sonny was 7. He said his son was a good kid who struggled with demons. Sonny liked to joke around and was a terrific athlete, especially in baseball, his father said. He was also in Advanced Placement classes before his behavior issues started to flare up in ninth grade, he said.
“He was my best friend when things were going well,” Rugani said. “We would go to ballgames together and hang out.”
When Rugani last heard from Sonny, his son said he was excited about doing high school courses in jail and graduating on time. He asked for Harry Potter books. On his father’s birthday in early August, Sonny sent a three-page letter saying how much he loved him, and how he looked forward to getting out of the jail and going to a ballgame with his dad.
Now, Rugani will donate his son’s organs.
“I won’t have a beer with my son,” he said. “I won’t have things he should have enjoyed in life because he thought life was so horrible that he had to end his life.”
Sonny was facing adult charges as a result of the state deciding to direct file — a practice where prosecutors send juveniles to adult court. Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, like other state attorneys in Florida, has been criticized for frequent use of direct file.
Sonny’s father said he thought his son was in a safe place. The public defender hoped to plead down the charge and get him into a long-term treatment center.
He believes his son was alone in the cell and wants to know why, given his mental health issues.
Schneider said prior law prescribed mandatory direct file for certain charges. That changed this year to give the state attorney more discretion. In Sonny’s case, she felt, given his prior charges and the circumstances of his latest arrest, direct file seemed the best way to keep Sonny — and his parents — safe.
Sonny had previous charges coming out of St. Lucie County for grand theft of a firearm, which also guided the office’s decision to send him to adult court, Schneider said.
“At the time we made a decision for everybody’s safety,” Schneider said. “But obviously it didn’t work out that way.”
Schneider said it’s likely he would have been given concurrent juvenile sentences, keeping him out of the adult prison system.
Nikki Rugani, Sonny’s 15-year-old sister, said a typical day for her brother was eating Nutella pancakes, biking around to see his friends and playing Xbox. He loved music, especially the rapper Lil Peep, and following streetwear brands like Supreme.
She remembers when they were in foster care together, how she would cry at night. But Sonny would tell her things would be OK.
“He was trying to learn from his mistakes, just like everybody makes mistakes,” she said.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255