Gustine teen found dead in Merced had troubled life

The Gustine teenager found dead off Highway 99 near G Street in Merced on July 31 was battling mental illness and had threatened to kill himself before he disappeared three weeks ago.

On Wednesday, police publicly identified the body as that of 19-year-old Leonard Bugarin. On Thursday, his family and friends described Bugarin as an athletic, artistic and caring person who had become deeply depressed, withdrawn and suicidal in the weeks before he went missing.

Bugarin had been taken by police to Marie Green Psychiatric Center, a county-run, in-patient facility in Merced, just a few blocks from where he was found. He fled a day later. Citing privacy laws, county spokeswoman Katie Albertson said no one at Marie Green could talk about Bugarin's case.

"He was a real good friend. I'll always remember him as a joker," said Carlos Romero, one of Bugarin's closest friends. "I think at the end of his life he was just having a really hard time, and he didn't know how to deal with it."

Authorities have yet to release the results of Bugarin's autopsy and haven't speculated about how he died, except to say that they don't believe he was the victim of a crime.

Gustine police responded to Bugarin's home July 16 after relatives called for help. Bugarin's family told authorities that he had cut himself in the stomach and was threatening suicide, Merced Police Sgt. Scott Skinner said.

A Gustine police officer took Bugarin to Marie Green, where he was supposed to stay for at least 72 hours for evaluation and possibly treatment.

Instead Bugarin left the next day. "I would describe it as an escape," Merced Police Detective Joe Deliman said. "My understanding is that he assaulted a staff member and ran out."

Bugarin's family filed a missing-person report after they learned he'd fled the treatment center, Deliman said. Two weeks later a passerby discovered Bugarin's body, already badly decomposed, under bushes downhill from Highway 99 near 13th and G streets, less than a mile from Marie Green.

Bugarin's mother, Arleen Bugarin, said Thursday she didn't want to publicly discuss her son's death except to say that he was "very, very depressed" before he went missing.

She remembered her son as a energetic but quiet child who loved sports. As a teenager, she said he was "a good boy." She described him as small but capable of sticking up for himself.

Both of Bugarin's parents are natives of the Philippines, his mother said. Bugarin was born in 1989 and raised in Oakley in Contra Costa County. His family moved to Gustine in 2004.

He had one sibling, a 9-year-old sister who is deaf. He graduated in 2007 from Gustine High School, where he played football.

Bugarin's junior-year English teacher, Melody Noceti, recalled him as a likeable, well-behaved student and a talented freestyle rapper.

"We'd give him a topic, and he'd just flow," Noceti said. "The other students loved it."

Bugarin didn't attend college or work after finishing high school, relatives said.

Romero, Bugarin's friend, said Bugarin's family maintains close ties with their native town in the Philippines. They frequently visit and send back packages for the needy containing shoes, clothing, toiletries and other essentials, he said. They'd been planning a trip there when Bugarin disappeared.

Bugarin only recently became depressed and withdrawn, Romero said. Relatives said he wasn't taking medication.

Romero said many of Bugarin's friends were a grade above him and that he struggled after most of them left the Gustine area to get jobs, go to college or start families.

"I just keep thinking that if he'd had more of his friends close by, he could have survived what he was going through," Romero said. "Everybody needs people to talk to."

On Thursday afternoon Bugarin's relatives gathered at the site where his body was discovered. They left Gatorade and beef stroganoff, his favorite foods, and lit candles.

They said they had yet to finish funeral arrangements but that they planned to have him cremated.

Bugarin would have turned 20 this month.