What Happened To Rachel? Woman’s Final Days Were Marked By Turbulence
Dawn is still three hours away, but Interstate 81 is bathed in light. Road signs glow green in the reflective glare of headlights parked off the Davis Street exit of the interstate’s southbound lanes in Scranton. Road flares burning on the pavement redden the gray uniform of a state trooper standing nearby. The engine of an ambulance hums steadily.
It’s 2:30 a.m. on June 23, and Rachel Teplitsky is dying.
The 26-year-old woman from Brooklyn, New York, told her fiancé, Michael Vernola, about a half-hour earlier that she wanted to get some air.
“Let me come with you,” Vernola told her in their room at the Econo Lodge in South Scranton.
He begged her not to go.
“No, I’m just going to go for a walk by myself,” Teplitsky replied. “I’ll be right back. I love you.”
“That’s the last thing she said to me,” Vernola recently told The Sunday Times.
More than a month after Teplitsky’s death, the circumstances of how she died remain a mystery. The injuries she died from were consistent with either falling out of a vehicle or being struck by a vehicle, Lackawanna County Coroner Tim Rowland said.
The manner of Teplitsky’s death is pending the outcome of the state police’s investigation. Toxicology tests were performed as part of the autopsy. Rowland, citing the ongoing investigation, declined to say if the results came in or, if so, what they are.
The Dunmore barracks recently renewed its appeal to the public for any information that can help.
“There is still an open investigation,” said Trooper Bob Urban, a spokesman for Troop R.
Troopers are looking for anyone who saw a black or dark-colored small to midsize SUV on I-81 South at about 2:30 a.m. A witness saw the vehicle swerving in the right lane near the Davis Street exit in Scranton. The vehicle slowed and the witness then saw a “body,” identified as Teplitsky, rolling in the road. A rear passenger door was partially open. Several people were inside. The SUV continued south.
Anyone with information should call the Dunmore barracks at 570-963-3156.
Teplitsky’s obituary on the website of Parise Family Funeral Care, of Carbondale, is just three sentences and notes no family members. Only a few sparse lines of news print and some brief television stories marked her passing.
Teplitsky spent nearly three months in Northeast Pennsylvania before her death. Interviews with those closest to her and police and court records shed some light on her final weeks.
An eviction notice forced Teplitsky and Vernola, 32, from their apartment on Avenue N in Brooklyn earlier this year. Gregory Teplitsky, Rachel’s father, agreed to take the couple into his home along Song Mountain Drive in Tafton, a small community between Blooming Grove and the eastern shores of Lake Wallenpaupack.
They moved in March 28, Vernola said. Vernola’s mother, Patricia Devirgiliis, left New York and joined them a few days later.
Tension built. Gregory Teplitsky told the newspaper they broke mirrors in his house and burned food. He said he believed drugs played a role in their lives.
On June 3, Teplitsky struck his daughter across her mouth at 6:30 a.m., according to a citation filed by Blooming Grove State Police Trooper Ryan P. Gilleran. Police withdrew his harassment charge Wednesday partly because the alleged victim, his daughter, is deceased. Teplitsky, 58, also told the newspaper Wednesday he did not hit his daughter.
Vernola insists he did.
“He busted her lip open,” Vernola said. “I’m an ex-Marine, so I had to step in. I had to put him in his place.”
Vernola also was charged with harassment for hitting Gregory Teplitsky with a stick. His charge remains, and he has not yet entered a plea.
Asked how the fight began, Teplitsky said, “I don’t even remember now.”
Then he said he started “screaming” at Vernola and his daughter because they took his vehicle — an older model dark blue minivan — in the middle of the night and drove it into a tree in his driveway. The front-end damage, a crunched hood and windshield with a few minor cracks, could still be seen Wednesday. Teplitsky said he did not fix the minivan’s hood because the vehicle’s value isn’t worth the cost to replace it.
Rachel Teplitsky, Vernola and Devirgiliis left after the spat.
“I didn’t throw them out, I mean, her,” Gregory Teplitsky said. “They left and I said, ‘Rachel you can stay. If they want to go …’”
His voice trailed off.
He said he did not hear from his daughter again. He had a feeling she would call him after a few weeks of drifting. He knew he would take her back.
That call never came, he said, adding his daughter’s cellphone was broken.
Later on June 3, a Hawley Borough police officer took the trio to a homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church in Honesdale.
After discovering the shelter only operates during the winter, Honesdale Police Chief Richard Southerton paid for them to stay at the Wayne Inn in the borough while he worked with a county agency to find them more permanent housing.
“They seemed like nice people,” the chief said. “Just down on their luck.”
Vernola’s uncle ended up sending them cash so they would stay at the motel. He suggested they go to Scranton where they had a better chance of finding work, Vernola said.
They ended up staying in Room 113 until another brush with police on June 19.
Honesdale Police Sgt. Keith Colombo responded to Terrace Street, right by the motel, for a report of a woman standing in the middle of traffic telling a female driver to “please stop, I have a question for you,” according to a police report.
Colombo arrived and found the woman had left. Shortly after, he was asked to go to the area of Sixth and Main streets because the woman was asking people for money and a ride.
There, Colombo found Teplitsky and Vernola. Both appeared under the influence and admitted they had taken Xanax. After Vernola passed out, an ambulance took them to Wayne Memorial Hospital, Columbo said. He cited them both for disorderly conduct.
Colombo noted in the citation that Teplitsky created “inconvenience, annoyance or alarm” by “running in and out of traffic.” They both pleaded guilty to their tickets on June 21, then the pair and Devirgiliis took a car service to Scranton.
They decided on the Econo Lodge on Kane Street in Scranton, roughly a quarter-mile away from where Teplitsky would be discovered two days later. Vernola paid for a week in advance. It’s unclear how they spent the next two days.
After Teplitsky left their motel room at about 2 a.m. June 23, Vernola fell asleep. He awoke a few hours later with a growing sense of dread.
“I looked at the bed where she sleeps next to me. She wasn’t there,” he said.
He filed a missing person report. Scranton police met him at the motel and took the information, Capt. Dennis Lukasewicz said.
They returned later that morning. They found her.
“Oh, thank God,” Vernola thought.
They needed him to identify her body.
“I just broke down,” Vernola said.
Vernola and Teplitsky, together for eight years, were to be married soon in Scranton at the courthouse, he said.
“She was the reason I got up in the morning,” Vernola said. “She was the love of my life. … She was the most kindest, loving person I ever met. She loved all creatures and would never hurt a fly.”
They met in Manhattan at a now shuttered clothing chain called Daffy’s, where they worked.
“She just started talking to me,” Vernola said. “We started hanging out. And, then we hung out more and more. You know how it goes, like you just know that’s the person you want to marry eventually. I can’t pinpoint the exact time (when we fell in love), I just knew.”
Teplitsky spoke fluent Russian, said Vernola, adding she lived in the Moscow, Russia, area with relatives for a few years as a young girl. In all their time together, Vernola said, he only met her biological mother a handful of times. He recalled Teplitsky calling her maternal grandmother earlier this year to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.
As a teenager, Teplitsky studied at New York Military Academy, a private boarding school about 60 miles outside New York City. An online roster suggests she played volleyball there in 2008. She would later attend Empire Beauty School in Manhattan. Teplitsky’s Facebook page, which has been turned into a memorial page, also lists the High School of Environmental Studies and CUNY Manhattan as places of study.
The 26-year-old died just over three years after Elizabeth Teplitsky, 30, who Vernola identified as her half-sister, was found unconscious in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment and pronounced dead on arrival June 6, 2015. A medical examiner ruled Elizabeth Teplitsky’s cause of death to be an overdose, according to the New York Police Department.
Teplitsky’s close friend, Kristen Kane, of Staten Island, New York, took two days to reach out to Vernola to talk about her death. She was confused and angry that her best friend of seven years was gone.
“We were like sisters,” Kane said. “I’m going to be 32 this year. Most of my 20s, I wouldn’t even have celebrated my birthday without that girl.”
Kane does not believe Teplitsky would have gotten into a stranger’s car by herself or jumped out of a moving vehicle.
“My gut feeling is that I think she knew who she was with,” Kane said.
After Teplitsky’s death, detectives in suits interviewed Vernola and showed him pictures of her tattoos and the engagement band he bought her a few years ago. He said they asked him basic interview questions: Who was he? Why was he in Scranton? Why had she left the hotel? Did he know of anyone in Scranton who had a problem with Teplitsky?
There were no traffic cameras nearby to help identify the dark SUV, Urban said. A July 18 news release from Troop R sought more witnesses, but no new significant leads came of it, he said.
The Econo Lodge, at Kane Street and Stafford Avenue, is within easy walking distance of where Teplitsky was discovered. An opening in a fence along Stafford Avenue provides easy access to the interstate, with the Davis Street exit ramp about 500 feet away.
After Teplitsky’s autopsy, a representative from Parise Family Funeral Care claimed Teplitsky’s body on behalf of Star of David Memorial Chapels Inc., of Long Island.
Teplitsky was interred at 1 p.m. June 26, with a graveside service in New Montefiore Cemetery, West Babylon, New York, amid rows of low manicured bushes. Her photograph and a small plaque with her name sits atop a mound of freshly dug earth.
Vernola is back in New York too. A friend in Manhattan took him in. Pennsylvania holds painful memories, he said.
He calls police here every week. Each time, they tell him they cannot provide details on an ongoing investigation. It frustrates him.
“I just don’t understand why they can’t tell me anything,” he said. “I just don’t get it. Because I don’t even know how she … I don’t know if she got hit. Because I’m hearing she got hit. I’m hearing she got thrown out of a car. I’m hearing she got thrown out of a car then hit. It’s literally eating me alive inside.”
Contact the writer:
@jkohutTT on Twitter;
@jhorvathTT on Twitter