Irv Rubin, the bombastic Jewish Defense League leader who was arrested last year for allegedly conspiring to blow up a mosque, was gravely injured Monday when he plunged over a railing in a federal detention center and fell about 18 feet to a cellblock below. Authorities characterized it as a suicide attempt.
Rubin had tried slashing his throat with a jail-issue safety razor immediately before the fall, federal officials said. After guards spotted him, he went over the railing, according to William Woolsey, spokesman for the U.S. Marshal's office in Los Angeles.
The incident occurred early Monday morning, shortly before Rubin was to be taken to a hearing in U.S. District Court. By late afternoon, he was described by defense lawyer Peter Morris as "brain dead and on life support" at County-USC Medical Center.
Rubin's wife, Shelley, insisted that her husband, an outspoken and controversial figure in the Jewish radical movement in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, had been in good spirits and would never have violated Jewish law by taking his own life.
"We want a full investigation because he was murdered," Shelley Rubin said in an interview at the couple's duplex in Monrovia, still festively decorated for Halloween. Although Rubin was still technically alive at that point, she referred to him as "gone."
"He wasn't the kind of person to take his own life," she added. "I want to know who did this to him."
However, attorney Mark Werksman, who represents Rubin's co-defendant, Earl Krugel, said he and his client were certain that Rubin had been in a downward psychological spiral for months.
"He's been a physical and mental wreck since this case started," Werksman said. "He probably lost 40 pounds in recent months. And he was overwhelmed by the pressure of this case and the prospect of facing life in prison."
"The jailers probably should have kept an eye on him," Werksman added. "But nobody would have thought this would happen. He's such a fighter. Who would guess that he would give up like this?"
Rubin and Krugel, his chief lieutenant in the JDL, were arrested by the FBI last December for allegedly plotting to blow up the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City and the office of a Lebanese American congressman, Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista). Rubin pleaded not guilty, as did Krugel.
U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew had been planning to consider several defense motions Monday, including a request by Rubin's lawyers to sever his case from Krugel's, and another to allow the defense to claim government bias. The case was scheduled to go to trial in January.
The JDL, which Rubin joined in 1971 and had led since 1985, was never more than a fringe organization, although one that commanded attention through its brash and sometimes violent behavior. By the time of his arrest last December, it appeared to be a spent force, its vitality sapped in part by the departure, and the 1990 assassination, of founder Meir Kahane. By last year, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime observer of the group, could quip that there were more teams in the American League than there were members of the JDL.
Monday's incident, which was under investigation by the FBI, began shortly before 5 a.m. when Rubin, like other inmates with court appearances, was allowed to leave his cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A. for breakfast.
"He never made it," said Woolsey.
Instead, according to authorities, Rubin left his cell and began slashing at his throat with the blade from a disposable razor. Guards spotted him, and were either about to move toward him or had begun to do so. Before they could grab him, Rubin ran a few feet and plunged over a rail separating one row of cells from the floor's common area, authorities said. By several accounts, he fell about 18 feet to a concrete floor on another row of cells steps below the common area.
No one touched Rubin before he went over the edge, according to authorities. His injuries were said to be so severe that Rubin was initially reported to have died early Monday morning while in surgery, then was reported to be alive but comatose.
While he would not comment on Rubin's apparent suicide attempt, the detention center's associate warden Bran Hoyt confirmed that the firebrand activist was in the general population of inmates, who represent almost 95% of the prison's population of about 1,000. Those inmates are housed within the middle five floors of the 10-story correctional center downtown.
As a general population inmate, Rubin would have been required to share a cell with another prisoner whenever the facility was particularly crowded, although there were reports on Monday that he did not have a roommate at the time of the incident.