Eulogy For a Shark

Alleged gang leader Rusty Feder swore he'd rather die than face prison. He was good to his word.

Feder called from jail in late October and said he had a story to tell. It wasn't until late January that I made it to the detention center to talk with him -- and then he wasn't sure he still wanted to talk to a reporter.

"I shouldn't talk to you," he said with something approaching desperation, "because it'll end up fucking me."

Feder was always like that. He never wanted to talk but couldn't help himself. He was always balancing his desire to clear his name with the justified fear that pronouncing his innocence would only provoke the police further. Feder had been tormented by his felony charges and was broken financially, physically, and emotionally.

"They got me this time," he said. "They got me good. You're going to see this case, and you're going to think I'm the worst person in the world. There's some real bad shit in there."

But Feder claimed it was a setup and he wasn't involved. The most damning piece of evidence, Feder said, was that his truck was identified at the restaurant where the kidnapping took place. He said it had been borrowed. The questionable nature and motivation of the victims was also on Feder's mind. (He called it an "NHI case -- No Humans Involved.") The case was surely no gem, but there was corroborating evidence to bolster the victims' story, and Feder told me that deep down he knew they were finally going to send him to prison. Then he started talking about death and gave his self-eulogy. It was disturbing; Feder had always been a bastion of forceful denial. Now he was talking about surrendering in the worst way.

Ten minutes of the 90-minute interview were spent on his describing how lousy life in jail was -- how he'd lost 30 pounds because of the terrible food and had to sleep on the floor because of overcrowding in the detention center in Pompano Beach.

The last half of our discussion was dominated by his fears of what I might write. His frustration mounted, his face tightened, his eyes became slits, and I thought I might be witnessing a glimpse of the kind of animal vengeance of which the cops always said he was capable. But it didn't last long; he soon returned to his normal jailhouse expression of high tension and anxiety.

I never spoke to Feder again, didn't hear a thing until his suicide. A few hours after I found out, I got a voice mail from an anonymous woman who said: "Bob, I'd like to commend you for an article I guess was well written on Rusty Feder. The part where you quoted him, 'I'd rather die than go to prison' -- consequently, because of that, they considered him a flight risk and moved him to another facility with 24-hour lock-down, and within the first week he was there, he had hung himself Friday night. So, like I said, you should think about what you do."

Only one of Feder's friends had previously told me that I should "think about what I do," but when I called her at the strip club she manages, she denied leaving the message. Whoever she was, the person had implicated me in Feder's suicide. I needed to find out if the article really had caused jailers to transfer him, so I called the Broward Sheriff's Office and was told by the spokesperson, Cheryl Stopnick, that it indeed had. Jail officials read the article and became "concerned," she said. They gave him a psychological test -- which involved a question-and-answer session between Feder and trained deputies and medical staff -- to see if he was suicidal. The deputies came up with an obviously flawed conclusion; they determined that Feder wasn't going to kill himself. On February 9 they transferred him anyway to the main jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale because guards thought he might try to escape. He was moved from a floor in the detention center, where he lived with 43 others, to the more regimented, maximum-security jail, where he shared a single, locked cell with another inmate.

Feder's refrain at the beginning of that last interview -- "This is gonna end up fucking me" -- echoed in my mind.

The next day, the Miami Herald, which had never before run a story on Feder, ran one on its front page, calling Feder's suicide a "mystery."

It's no mystery.
Feder was telling me the truth when he said prison was no option. As he said in the jailhouse, he knew, after years of battling with police, prosecutors, and judges, that he might actually lose, whether he were guilty or not. The cops and the prosecutors, in all their zeal, threw everything they had at Feder.

The street fighter just didn't have any fight left.

Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address:

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