Marcelino Cruces Avila, a former member of the D.C. Parole Board, Latino political activist and recent sex crime defendant, was a counselor to suicide survivors. On Monday, he killed himself at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he was a patient.
Unwatched, Cruces Avila apparently tied a sheet over a metal shower rod, stood on a trash can and kicked the support from under him. Friends said yesterday that Cruces Avila's death ended a sad downward spiral that defied rational explanation.
"I went to see him, and he was crying," said Manuel Uriarte, former director of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs, speaking of a recent visit to the mental hospital. "He had lost a lot of weight. He looked as though he had a lack of sleep. He said, 'I lost my wife, my kids, my house, my job. I don't know what's going to happen to me.' "
Doctors at St. Elizabeths would answer no questions about the circumstances of Cruces Avila's death, referring them to the court-appointed mental health receiver, Scott Nelson. Nelson's director of operations, Johnny Allem, said that suicide cases are customarily investigated but that he is barred by law from revealing details.
Cruces Avila helped create the first mental health hot line for Spanish speakers on the East Coast. He also lobbied for construction of suicide barriers on the Duke Ellington Bridge, said Ricardo Galbis, director of the Andromeda mental health center in Columbia Heights.
"I was his friend and his employer," Galbis said. "He did a lot of good stuff. He was a good man. He was big, and he was pleasant, and he was direct. He was a gentle mastodon."
Cruces Avila, 47, had been sent to St. Elizabeths for evaluation after separate arrests on charges of sexual assault and obstruction of justice. He had been found competent to stand trial, but a D.C. Superior Court judge suspected that Cruces Avila might have been malingering by pretending not to understand English.
In the assault case, police said Cruces Avila forced a 14-year-old Massachusetts girl, visiting Washington on an eighth-grade field trip, to have oral sex with him at the Center City Hotel in Northwest Washington. The girl said he escorted her to a room and pulled a knife after announcing that he had an urgent message for her.
In the second case, prosecutors said Cruces Avila pretended to be the father of a 15-year-old boy, persuading a D.C. Superior Court judge to release the boy into his custody.
Cruces Avila was an intense man, strong of bearing and opinion, said several colleagues in the Latino community. He stood 6 feet 2 and weighed 240 pounds. Born in Cuba in 1941, he told a Superior court interviewer that he had lived in the District for 34 years. As a public health worker, he sought greater access for Latinos to mental health and substance abuse treatment, Galbis said.
Cruces Avila helped organize Latino voters for Marion Barry's winning 1994 comeback mayoral campaign. In 1996, Barry appointed him to the Parole Board. It was a five-year appointment, but Cruces Avila lasted just two years before he was asked to resign.
"I lost confidence in his judgment," said John A. Carver III, the federal offender supervision trustee. "It became apparent to me pretty early on that he didn't have much to add to the parole decision-making process. I did ask for his resignation, and I got it."
Cruces Avila was separated from his wife, who works at the Pan-American Health Organization. He did construction work to make ends meet. Galbis said, "He may have snapped."
After his arrest in the June incident at the Center City Hotel on 13th Street NW, Cruces Avila told police that he had been at the hotel seeking a prostitute. At his Mount Pleasant home the next day, police said, they discovered Cruces Avila, the knife he used and the swimming trunks he wore during the assault.
"Sometimes when people become severely depressed, their judgment becomes very poor," Uriarte reasoned. He said he and a friend had taken cigarettes, candy and books to Cruces Avila at St. Elizabeths. Three times on Saturday, Cruces Avila paged him, he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Wright, who was preparing to show at a hearing yesterday that Cruces Avila spoke fluent English, said a St. Elizabeths worker found Cruces Avila hanging from a bedsheet on Monday morning.
"It's such a shock," Wright said. "He was very intelligent. He was always studying philosophy. He just started spiraling downward."
Galbis, who visited Cruces Avila at St. Elizabeths, believes medical staff at the hospital should have been watching him more closely: "Somebody should have been surveilling him. He was supposed to be in a secure, safe environment."
Jennifer Lanoff, of the Public Defender Service, was Cruces Avila's attorney. She said: "This is a great loss. This is a man who gave a lot to the community, who had a lot of gifts and talents and had given a lot to people who have no voice."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this story.