CHELSEA — Astra Maria Rodriguez thought the detective was joking when he called to tell her her son had died.
“I said, 'Oh, stop kidding me, you’re kidding me.' And he said, 'Ma’am, this is not a joke. Your son is deceased.' And then I started screaming and crying,” recalled the East Harlem resident, whose son, Angel Nunez, jumped to his death from the roof of a Chelsea shelter in August 2013.
Nunez, 21, had been living and receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, and other mental-health issues at the Jack Ryan Residence at 127 W. 25th St. for two months before he took his own life.
But a lawsuit Rodriguez, 59, filed against the shelter and the physicians who treated Nunez before he died claims he should have been referred to a "more secure, residential" facility after a review of his medical history, which included struggles with depression and schizophrenia, as well as past suicide attempts.
Shelter staff also let Nunez and other residents go up to the roof without supervision — something that never should have been allowed given the patients' conditions, his mother said.
On Aug. 2, 2013, employees from the shelter found Nunez on the roof of the building around 5:45 p.m. and watched as he jumped to his death on West 25th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, according to a 13th Precinct police report on the incident provided by Rodriguez's lawyer.
Rodriguez's attorney Elliott B. Pasik said Nunez climbed over a 9-foot chain link fence, then jumped from the ledge of the building's roof.
He was transported to Bellevue Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, the report said.
“They’re serving people with mental issues. How are you going to leave access to the roof to people who are mentally ill?” Rodriguez said in an interview with DNAinfo New York. “Not only because it was my son — anyone else could have gone up there and decided to hurt themselves.”
Nunez arrived at the Jack Ryan Residence on June 2, 2013, after he was no longer able to stay at his parents' home, a seniors-only center in East Harlem.
The 12-story shelter and detox facility is run by the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC), which operates 27 programs in seven counties throughout the state, its website says.
At the shelter, Nunez — who had tried to commit suicide in the past as he struggled with bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia — was involved in several "aggressive incidents," wrote a New York-Presbyterian Hospital psychiatrist who reviewed Nunez's case in a letter included in the suit.
A few days before Nunez' death, he had a physical altercation with another shelter resident and was taken to Bellevue Hospital for minor injuries, Pasik said.
But staff at the residence — including psychiatrist Angela Kedzior and nurse practitioner Anna Hinohara — never tried to transfer him to a facility where he could receive the treatment he needed, the psychiatrist, Alfredo Nudman, said.
“Given Mr. Nunez’s life-long and also recent history, Dr. Kedzior and her staff should have promptly made arrangements to transfer Mr. Nunez to a secure psychiatric facility, where the possibility of self-harm would be far less feasible than it was at BRC,” Nudman wrote
Pasik also said the shelter’s residents were allowed “easy access to the roof to smoke cigarettes.”
The rooftop was enclosed by a low ledge and a 9-foot chain-link fence that Rodriguez's attorney called "easily climbable." However, there were no suicide barriers in place at the time — such as bars, barbed wire or iron spikes to prevent people from climbing over the fence, Pasik said — to keep residents from jumping, the suit noted.
Additionally. the door leading to the roof was left unlocked and accessible to residents like Nunez, the suit noted.
“It was a low fence, and he jumped. He climbed over it without any difficulty," Pasik told DNAinfo. "It was absolutely horrible."
The shelter opened in 2011 in spite of opposition from neighbors and advocates claiming the 200-bed facility was too big. It was relatively new at the time of Nunez’s death, but Pasik said roof access should have been restricted and suicide-prevention barriers should have been in place.
“It’s not just a homeless shelter; it’s a nonprofit residence treating people with mental health issues. They have a doctor on staff, they have a nurse on staff — some type of reasonable foresight was expected,” Pasik explained. “It’s just totally shocking to me that this tragedy occurred.”
This week, Rodriguez remembered her son as a “creative and very soft-spoken” man who liked to write music but was always reluctant to take his medication.
Before he arrived at the Jack Ryan Residence, Nunez spent time at a treatment center on Long Island, but had problems with the staff, his mother said. After an incident during which Nunez kicked a staff member in the stomach, he was arrested and sent to jail, where he stayed for four months, she said.
Rodriguez claimed the guards at the jail mistreated her son, beating him up and leaving him with a swollen eye and and injuries to his hands.
"He had been in institutions all his life," she said. "I guess any kid would want to be with his family, but he couldn’t live here,” Rodriguez said of the senior center where she still lives with her husband, Nunez's father.
After he was discharged from the Long Island center, Nunez stayed with his parents temporarily, but often refused medication and started smoking marijuana, his mother said.
The day before his death, Nunez stopped by his parents’ home and met his mom outside the building, Rodriguez recalled.
“He gave me a kiss and said, ‘Why didn’t Daddy come down?’ I said, 'Oh, you know your father, he’s always up there,'” she said. “I guess he wanted…he had it already planned. And he wanted to say goodbye."
After his death, Rodriguez and Nunez’s girlfriend at the time traveled to the shelter to review security footage from the night he died that showed staff members on the roof speaking to Nunez, who was out of the camera’s view.
“I guess they were trying to convince him to come out from where he was on the ledge. But all you can see is the lady, when she holds her head and comes back into view of the camera, and she’s holding her head, like, ‘Oh my God,’” Rodriguez recalled.
The Bowery Residents’ Committee, as well as an attorney for BRC and the two other defendants named in the suit, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A December filing responding to the suit denied its allegations and asked a judge to dismiss it.
Rodriguez first filed the suit against the shelter in Bronx County Supreme Court in 2014, based on the presence of a BRC office in the Bronx, Pasik said. A judge transferred the case to New York County in June, at which point Rodriguez added Kedzior and Hinohara as defendants.
The suit accuses both Kedzior and Hinohara of negligence and medical malpractice, and seeks damages for Nunez’s mother and for the daughter Nunez left behind. The little girl was born in January 2014, less than six months after his death.
“[The lawsuit] is not going to bring him back. There’s nothing that will ever bring him back. He was so precious to me,” Rodriguez said. “But at least we’ll have some… relief? Or compensation? For what happened to us. For our loss."
Rodriguez claimed the director of the shelter at the time “acted like nothing happened” when she and Nunez's girlfriend went to the Jack Ryan Residence to see the video after her son's death.
“He acted like it was nothing, what had happened. That they weren’t at fault. That really struck me hard,” she said. “You know, it’s a life that was lost…. It wasn’t like he was a criminal or a derelict, you know. He was my son. He was a good kid.”