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San Diego County Jail Accused of Letting Mentally Ill Detainee Starve to Death

by Matt Clarke

On July 26, 2023, two sons filed suit for the estate of their schizophrenic dad, accusing officials at San Diego County’s Central Jail where he was incarcerated of letting him die from dehydration, starvation and pneumonia. The lawsuit raises the question: How should jail officials treat detainees whose mental illness renders them incapable of making their own decisions regarding medication, diet and hydration? The county’s medical examiner has already weighed in on the issue, listing the manner of death as homicide.

Lonnie Rupard was arrested for a parole violation on December 20, 2021. Jail intake records and a psychiatric evaluation documented a history of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders and an extensive list of psychiatric medications he was taking. At that time, he stood six feet tall and weighed 165 pounds. When he died three months later, his weight was just 105 pounds, a loss of 40% from what was already a lean frame.

During his incarceration, Rupard was verbally combative with guards and medical personnel. He refused to participate in psychiatric evaluations or take his medications, which included Haldol, Cogenti and Valproic acid. Eventually, the medications were discontinued, even though jail staff noted his “presentation, psychiatric history, and potential for decompensations.” Amazingly, though Rupard “did not answer questions, rambled incoherently, and became verbally aggressive” during mental health wellness checks, jail mental health staffers found no need for immediate psychiatric intervention. Their last wellness check was on February 23, 2022.

On March 14, 2022, during a court-ordered examination of Rupard’s mental competence to stand trial, a psychiatrist “noted Lonnie’s cell was dirty with trash throughout,” according to the complaint. “The toilet was full of excrement and the room was malodorous,” with “feces on the floor and food smeared on the walls.” Rupard was “unkempt and dirty” and “lying on the bed in an uncomfortable manner with a blanket over his head.” The psychiatrist’s opinion: “Lonnie suffered from severe mental illness and was not competent to stand trial.” Instead Rupard was recommended for “referral to a state hospital and that he be given antipsychotic medication involuntarily.” Neither happened, though. He died on March 17, 2022, one day after another jail detainee, Hayden Schick, died under similar circumstances in the same unit.

San Diego attorneys Jeremiah A. Lowe and Victoria Lazar of Lowe Lazar Law, and Daniel M. Gilleon of Gilleon Law Firm, filed suit in federal court for the Southern District of California after the medical examiner’s report was released nearly a year later. That stated the cause of death was “pneumonia, malnutrition, and dehydration in the setting of neglected schizophrenia,” noting that while “care was made available” to Rupard, “the ineffective delivery of that care ended with his death.” Despite self-neglect, Rupard “was dependent upon others for his care,” the suit insists, raising numerous federal constitutional and state-law tort claims for denying that care. See: Est. of Rupard v. Cty. of San Diego, USDC (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:23-cv-01357.  

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Related legal case

Est. of Rupard v. Cty. of San Diego