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The Washington Post
“I’m just more worried about the experience I felt before I was about to pass out,” he continued. “I never felt anything like that. I was in the most panicked state ever.”
The two lived in the same Northern Virginia townhouse complex, just 12 doors down from each other. They’d met two years earlier attending PACE West, a Prince William County school that helps kids with emotional disabilities, and they’d bonded over the torment that led them there: anxiety, depression, self-harm. At a time when American teenagers are killing themselves at historic rates — with nooses, pills and, increasingly, guns — they became essential to each other’s survival.
Ruben, a sophomore, had especially struggled in the three weeks since their return to school from summer break. Jessica, a junior, spotted cuts on his arm and confronted him, but he wouldn’t talk about it.
Right before he tried to hang himself, they had a fight and he lashed out, insisting in a series of texts that he didn’t want to see her anymore. Amid the anger, though, he also voiced his despair.
“I’ve had all these thoughts pile up in my head now that I can’t even think anymore,” Ruben wrote. “I want it to stop.”
“Are you okay?” responded Jessica, 16, because she knew where those thoughts could take him. He had nearly ended his own life with pills several weeks earlier.
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
She sent him a silly meme of a fat guy sitting on a bench next to the title “Breaking Benches,” a play on the TV show “Breaking Bad.” She’d used it before to make him feel better when he needed it most, but this time, it didn’t work.
“I’m just glad I finally have the balls to kill myself,” he wrote. “See ya :).”
“Yo wtf,” she responded, before texting his older brother, Oscar, that Ruben needed help. She messaged Oscar’s girlfriend, too.
“Stop him. Call the cops for endangerment of himself or something,” Jessica wrote her. “Just don’t let him kill himself.”
Ruben’s 18-year-old sibling rushed home and sprinted upstairs, screaming and slamming on his brother’s locked door until the boy opened it, crying. Oscar, whose girlfriend assured Jessica that they’d made it in time, couldn’t find whatever Ruben had strung around his throat.
“I’m too scared to experience that again,” Ruben texted Jessica the next morning.
“What all happened,” she responded as she got ready for school and headed to the bus.
“I’m not going to talk about it now.”
“Why couldn’t you just do nothing about it,” he asked.
“Because I’m a human being and I have sympathy.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he continued. “I’ll try again some other day.”
She was still mad at him for the hurtful things he’d messaged the night before, and she told him so.
“I’m not sure if I should get some serious help or if I should leave it be,” he texted.
“Get help,” she pleaded.
“I just have a f—ed up brain.”
“I don’t know how to explain what happened. Can we please talk after school,” wrote Ruben, who had decided to skip that day.
Her bus pulled up at PACE and she told him goodbye, then turned her phone off.
She understood his suffering because Jessica — who, with her father’s permission, talked about her relationship with Ruben and shared hundreds of their texts with The Washington Post — had already endured what she hoped was her worst moment. The teen had once spent three days in a hospital after slicing open her thighs and swallowing more than 40 Benadryl, but she’d come a long way since then, proof in her mind that Ruben could, too.
“I’ve gotten better,” she would tell him. “You can get better.”
And Jessica would tell him again that afternoon, she thought. When either of them felt sad or overwhelmed or just bored, the friends would take walks together, often to a favorite spot in the woods of suburban Haymarket, where they’d sit on a bench and stare out across a pond. So, Jessica figured, they’d go on another one of their walks after school, make each other laugh. He’d call her Jess, she’d call him Wooben, and they’d fall back into their version of normal.
But at the end of the day, when her bus pulled into their neighborhood, she saw police cars lining the streets.
Her father and stepmother were waiting in their SUV.
“Daddy, what’s going on?” Jessica asked.
An officer, he told her, had shot someone at Ruben’s home.
At first, they thought it was his older brother, but when she called Ruben’s phone, he didn’t answer. When she texted that she was sorry, he didn’t respond.
It was then that Jessica noticed the messages he’d sent her earlier, when she’d been at school with her phone turned off.
In one: “I’m just some kid who has major depression disorder and severe anxiety who’s probably bipolar too.”
And after that: “Just look at the people that do stupid s— like me and don’t follow in their footsteps.”
And finally: “Emotions are only temporary. Don’t let it take over you like it did to me.”
An hour later, Jessica heard something on TV that she didn’t want to believe.
“The news is saying a 15 year old was shot and killed,” she messaged her best friend. “Please don’t be you. Please.”
Just before 11 that morning of Sept. 15, Oscar had woken up to his mother’s screams.
Ruben was outside, she said. He had a knife.
By then, he’d already dialed 911.
Calmly, police said, Ruben told the Prince William County operator that he had a bomb strapped to his chest, even though he didn’t. He insisted he was holding his mother hostage, even though he wasn’t. He warned he had blades and suggested he might get a gun, even though he couldn’t.
He claimed, investigators said, that “he did not want to live anymore.”
Then he hung up.
Moments later, Oscar and his girlfriend found Ruben in the garage, wielding a three-foot-long crowbar.
“I called the police,” Ruben said, “so they can kill me.”
The ligature marks on his neck from the night before were still raw.
“Everything’s okay,” Oscar said, trying to convince his brother that whatever he was feeling would pass, just as it had before.
Both boys, the family said in interviews, had long contended with suicidal thoughts, undergoing years of therapy and taking antidepressants. It was Oscar, though, who had always been the violent one, getting into bloody fights, even serving time in jail. Ruben had once been hospitalized after trying to overdose on Zoloft, but he was never aggressive. Intensely shy at times, he liked to skateboard and play video games, study the history of the Soviet Union and read the work of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He made A’s and B’s. He wanted to become a graphic designer when he grew up.
Oscar could see little of that gentle kid in the dark, anguished eyes of the boy standing before him. He considered tackling Ruben, just 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds, but his brother threatened him with the crowbar.
“Get away from me,” he told Oscar and his girlfriend.
Ruben moved outside, in front of their home, just as police drew near. At 10:58 a.m., two officers parked down the street, aware of the bomb threat. It was a balmy 75 degrees, but Ruben still wore a heavy gray North Face jacket, making it hard to tell whether he’d concealed something inside.
Oscar ran toward the police, trying to intervene, but they told him to back away.
Just then, Ruben swung the crowbar at Oscar’s girlfriend, striking her on the back. He turned and headed toward the officers, passing an American flag mounted beside the family’s front door.
Ruben, still 10 months shy of being eligible for a driver’s license, raised the crowbar with both hands, according to police. They said one of the officers ordered him to drop it. He told him to stop.
Ruben kept coming.
The officer fired two rounds, and the teenager collapsed.
The mourners filed toward the funeral home’s white double doors, some of them in black suits or dresses and others in orange T-shirts, because that was Ruben’s favorite color.
As they passed, a woman handed out copies of an open letter that Ruben’s father, Oscar Urbina, had written to Officer Robert Choyce, the seven-year veteran of the police force who shot his son.
“A Letter Of Forgiveness,” it was titled, but most of what came next was laced with fury.
“Regardless of the circumstances surrounding my child death….he didn’t do anything wrong…you did,” wrote Urbina, who’d been traveling when Ruben was killed. “The difference between you and us is that…you are GUILTY. Our baby is innocent.”
Urbina contended that the officer, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, should have used a Taser or pepper spray to stop Ruben. His older boy, Oscar, agreed, but he also believed the encounter ended exactly the way his brother intended it to.
Already, Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert had concluded the shooting was justified because, he said, Ruben “was ready, willing and able to inflict death or serious bodily harm upon the responding officers.” Ebert said he considered it a classic “suicide by cop,” the only one involving a juvenile he could remember in his 52-year career as a prosecutor.
“You wouldn’t think a young person would want to commit suicide by cop,” Ebert said. “He had to be thoughtful, extremely premeditated.”
Ruben’s death wasn’t officially counted as a suicide, because he didn’t pull the trigger, but its unusual and public nature drew national headlines — and rare attention to one teenager’s apparent effort to end his own life.
On average, one child under the age of 18 committed suicide every six hours last year, according to a Post review of new data released Dec. 21 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly half of those children died from hanging, strangulation or suffocation, while 41 percent used guns. The total number — 1,533 — was the largest in at least a decade, nearly doubling over that period.
Seven of them were 9 years old.