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Ricardo Muñoz's last day: A family's efforts to get mental health help leads to fatal shooting

From the The coverage so far: Police shot, killed man in Lancaster city; the impacts, ruling and consequences series

On the second Sunday in September, Miguelina Peña picked up her son, Ricardo Muñoz, from her daughter’s house near Park City Center. She drove him back to the Lancaster home that he shared with her and her husband.

Within hours, Muñoz, 27 years old and with a history of mental illness, would be dead, shot by a Lancaster police officer who responded to a domestic disturbance call from the family’s home on Laurel Street. Body camera footage shows Muñoz charging the officer with a knife.

The shooting sparked anger among people involved with this year’s protests against police tactics and the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police.

But the Sept. 13 shooting — and Muñoz’s life story — highlight the struggles many families face in obtaining mental health care for a loved one. Muñoz had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. And he had been involved with the legal system: At the time he was killed, he was awaiting trial on charges he stabbed four people in March 2019.

This is the story of Muñoz’s last day and of his short life, as told by his family. It relies on numerous interviews with the family and their attorneys, as well as a review of medical documents and court records.


The day of the shooting

On Sept. 13, it had been nearly three weeks since Peña, 62, last saw her son.

For weeks, Muñoz had been staying with one of his two older sisters while Peña was in the Dominican Republic.

Peña had gone to see her 96-year-old mother, knowing it would likely be for the last time. Her mother died the day she arrived, requiring Peña to delay her return so she could attend to funeral details. She returned to the United States on Sept. 11.

The next day, she went to work at Red Lobster on Lincoln Highway East in East Lampeter Township. Sunday would be the first time she would see her son since mid-August.

When she arrived at her daughter Rulennis Muñoz’s house around 2 p.m., Peña saw that Ricardo Muñoz was agitated. This was not uncommon, she said, particularly if he wasn’t taking medication to control his schizophrenia. That was a challenge for him; some people with schizophrenia do not take their medication consistently, particularly if they are feeling healthy.

Rulennis Muñoz reported that Ricardo Muñoz had not had any outbursts or other problems during the weeks his mother was away. But that day, Peña learned, Muñoz was upset because he couldn’t find his phone charger.

The missing charger was a gift from his other sister, Deborah Muñoz, 38, who lives a couple houses away from her parents. He was worried she’d be upset that the charger was missing.

After the 15-minute return drive to the family’s home on Laurel Street, Ricardo Muñoz’s agitation intensified, Deborah Muñoz said, recounting what her mother had told her.

Michael Perna, a lawyer for the Muñoz family, said while it may not make sense that a missing charger would cause someone to become so upset, it’s an indication of Muñoz’s mental illness.

The family had a name for Muñoz’s outbursts: they called them “episodes.”


Family seeks help

At their home that Sunday afternoon, Muñoz screamed incoherently at Peña, who was the only other person there. He showered and did some laundry, but continued yelling, though he wasn’t violent toward her, Peña said.

Peña was concerned enough that she called her daughters, asking if they could try to get help for him.

Rulennis Muñoz, who was at her home, said she first called a crisis intervention center in Lebanon County, which the family had previously contacted, at 4:12 p.m. She she asked what steps the family needed to take to have Ricardo Muñoz involuntarily committed.

Rulennis Muñoz said she was directed to call the police non-emergency number, which she did at 4:16 p.m. But after describing the situation to the person who answered, she was advised to call crisis intervention again. She never got the chance to make that call.

Back on Laurel Street, at 4:12 p.m., Deborah Muñoz called 911 from her home. She said she told the dispatcher that, to her knowledge, her brother was not on drugs nor did he have any weapons.


Officer arrives

While multiple officers were dispatched to the scene, the first contact with the family involved a single officer, the first to arrive. Video from this officer’s body camera, released by the Lancaster City Bureau of Police, shows what happened.

The officer walks toward the family’s home at 4:24 p.m. He speaks briefly with Peña, who is standing in the door. Almost immediately, the body camera footage shows Ricardo Muñoz exiting the home, knife in his right hand, and charging the officer. The officer runs, then fires several shots, killing Muñoz.

Despite Muñoz’s violent reaction to the officer, his family said he was never violent with them.

“They were never (at) any time in fear of their own safety,” said Perna, the attorney, noting the family had called 911 multiple times in the past seeking help with Muñoz. “The only difference was how the authorities responded to that call. … They treated it like a domestic disturbance call. ”

Rulennis Muñoz estimated the family had called for help for Ricardo Muñoz about 10 times in the past year or so, most recently Aug. 20. Police declined to comment about those past responses.

In a news release, police said officers were dispatched because, “The caller related that her brother was reportedly becoming aggressive with his mother and was attempting to break into her house.”

Daisy Ayllon, another attorney for the family, said neither sister recalls saying that.

“It doesn’t make sense. (Ricardo) was a member of the same house,” she said.

LNP | LancasterOnline requested the 911 calls but the contents of them are not public record under law.


Childhood

Ricardo Muñoz family photo

A young Ricardo Muñoz, second from right, poses with family members in this undated photo.

 

At viewings for Muñoz on Sept. 17 and 18, photographs displayed on TV monitors showed a happy, smiling child. In photos from adulthood, however, his smiles were less frequent. In some, he does not look at the camera and appears emotionless.

There were few signs in Muñoz’s childhood and teen years of problems, his family said. That’s not uncommon, because schizophrenia typically begins in males in the late teens to early 20s.

Like many kids, Muñoz loved video games. One year for Christmas, his sister bought him a Nintendo 64.

He liked basketball. At Conestoga Valley High School, he ran cross country. In a Facebook post from senior year, he wrote how tired he was from practice.

He liked science, Peña said, and was not a problem student. Teachers liked him, she said.

After graduating from Conestoga Valley in 2012, Muñoz enrolled in Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, studying to be a mechanic.

It was around this time that his family began noticing his mental health deteriorating.

The sisters said a roommate told them he would talk to his closet, thinking someone was in there. He’d see and hear things, Rulennis Muñoz said, and he reported to police over the years that people were following him.

Hallucinations and paranoia are symptoms of schizophrenia. 

He withdrew from the technical college after a few months. From there, the family said he cycled through various service jobs.

“He hardly stayed at a job because he couldn’t concentrate,” Deborah Muñoz said.


Mental health issues

His mother would pray “every day so that God would heal him. Because she didn’t want to see him like that,” Deborah Muñoz said.

Her brother, she said, “just used to say stuff out loud and sometimes curse, and my mom used to tell him that she didn’t understand what he was saying. And that used to get him more mad, because he would say, ‘You never understand me.’

Sometimes, he would talk about his worries about the environment. But it was always jumbled, incoherent, Deborah Muñoz said.

“I think the only way we kind of connected ... was when we were talking about music,” she said.

They shared an interest in K-pop, or Korean popular music. He liked the rhythms of the music and videos, Deborah Muñoz said.

Ricardo Muñoz began to self-isolate. The family said he would stay in his bedroom, listening to music and playing on his phone. He would forget to shower and eat. He didn’t talk much, and he lost contact with friends.

He was also self-conscious about his vitiligo, a condition in which skin loses pigmentation.

Lately, in the mornings, Peña said she would get her son up and make him vegetable juices and smoothies. He would retreat to his room after drinking them.

“The only times he would actually come out and spend time with us as a family was Thanksgiving or (Christmas). But right after he finished eating, he would go right back to his room,” Deborah Muñoz said.


Care and diagnoses

Ricardo Muñoz

Ricardo Muñoz in a recent undated photo.

 

As his mental health worsened, the family had trouble obtaining care for him. Since he was an adult, he was able to refuse care.

It is not clear when Ricardo Muñoz was first diagnosed with schizophrenia; his family and attorneys have been trying to compile his medical records.

However, one document provided by the family indicated he had been diagnosed in 2018 with dysthymia disorder, which is marked by prolonged depression.

Another document showed he spent 12 days in March at the Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and prescribed an antipsychotic medication.

A year or so ago, Peña said she took her son to New York, where his biological father lives, to see if he could get help there. Muñoz was born in Nyack, a suburb north of New York City, and moved with his family to the New Holland area, where his mother had friends, around a decade ago. They moved to Laurel Street in 2013.

Muñoz was admitted to a mental health facility in New York, Ayllon said, adding she did not have details.


Legal problems

He also had legal problems that put him in some contact with the mental health system.

In March 2019, he was charged with aggravated assault after stabbing four people with a knife on North Queen Street. His family said he acted in self-defense after he was assaulted and had his video game stolen by the attackers.

While the case wound its way through the legal system, Muñoz was ordered by a judge to undergo a mental health evaluation, according to court records. The findings are not part of the public record of the criminal case, which remains unresolved. It was scheduled for trial Oct. 9.

In February 2016, Muñoz was accepted into the county’s accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, a probationary program for first-time offenders to resolve stalking, harassment and trespassing charges.

A woman told police Muñoz had showed up at her Thaddeus Stevens dorm in May 2015 and tried to kiss her and asked if she had a boyfriend, according to court documents. He returned again, saying he wanted to apologize. The woman told police she did not know Muñoz.


Investigation continues

The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office is investigating whether the unidentified officer was justified in shooting him. The officer is on paid administrative leave.

City police are also investigating whether the officer followed departmental policies.

There’s no deadline for the investigations. Similar investigations here have taken months.

Ayllon and Perna said the family wants answers and doesn’t want what happened to their family to happen to others.

“As a society, we have a responsibility and a duty to care for the most vulnerable individual members of our society and when we fail to do that, we fail as a society,” Ayllon said.


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