Parents' Worst Nightmare

Parents' Worst Nightmare

Two years ago, best friends Rachel Crites and Rachel Smith took their own lives. Now, for the first time, the girls' parents talk about the warning signs they missed.

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It was just a wrong turn—taking a left instead of a right onto Route-175 outside Baltimore—but to Rachel Crites and Rachel Smith, going the wrong way and getting a ticket must have felt like the end of the world. It was Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007, the last day of semester exams at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville. Rachel Smith, a junior, had taken an exam that morning—an exam she’d get an “A” on, leading to a report card of straight A’s. There was to be no school on Friday, and the girls, both animal lovers, had decided to go horseback riding at a stable in Millersville, Md., despite the overcast and chilly weather.

The two Rachels had become inseparable best friends over the past year and a half. Rachel Smith, 16, was small with light-brown hair, green eyes and a pretty, heart-shaped face. Known to her friends as “Pi,” after the mathematical term, the North Potomac teenager was an excellent student, and had decided on a career as a veterinarian. She had an after-school job at Potomac Kennels in Gaithersburg and recently had been awarded a coveted internship at a veterinary hospital.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel Crites, slender, dark-eyed and vivacious, was a 2006 graduate of Wootton, where she’d been on the track team and performed in the spring musical Seussical. The Gaithersburg teen hadn’t felt ready to leave home for college, according to her father, Troy Crites, so she registered at Montgomery College with the idea of studying nursing. Perhaps due to Pi’s influence, she was also considering vet school.

The two girls were driving to the Millersville stable in Rachel Crites’ dark blue, 1997 Subaru Outback station wagon, a hand-me-down from her father. But Pi, who had neither a driver’s license nor a learner’s permit, was the one behind the wheel when the two mistakenly turned onto the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade. Pi turned the car around before they reached the guard booth—apparently a suspicious-enough maneuver for a patrol car to pull them over.

It had occurred to Pi’s mother, Marian Smith, that Rachel Crites might be tempted to let her daughter practice driving when the girls went out together, and she had explicitly asked them not to do this. “But unbeknownst to us,” Marian says, “Rachel was letting my Rachel drive.”

The two Rachels were “like two peas in a pod—where you saw one, you saw the other,” Troy says. He thought Pi’s sharp wit complemented his daughter’s gentler high spirits. Rachel Crites suffered from depression and had attempted suicide by stabbing herself with scissors in March of her senior year. With therapy, medication and Pi’s friendship, however, she seemed to have stabilized. Rachel’s therapist told Troy that the closeness between the girls was largely positive, although she worried about what might happen if they had a falling out.

From the girls’ perspectives, based on individual and joint diaries, their deep bond was to last forever, although they already had learned what it was like to be separated. In the fall of 2006, Rachel Crites had used some of her graduation money to buy a $600 American Eskimo dog for Pi. Although the Smiths had a dog, Pi had been campaigning for one of her own. She also struggled emotionally. Several months earlier, her parents had discovered that she was cutting herself, but she refused to talk to any of the therapists she had been taken to see. Pi told her parents that one therapist agreed with her about the dog, and Marian and her husband, Paul Smith, joined their daughter in a meeting with the therapist to discuss the idea. “We were open to the idea that getting a dog might encourage Rachel to open up,” Marian says. Pi then told them about Buddy, the already-purchased puppy, which was being kept at the Crites’ house. “At that point, all bets were off,” Marian says. “I didn’t want to be manipulated like that.”

Pi was told that the dog had to go back. Troy says he didn’t blame the Smiths for not wanting to take on the dog. His second marriage was falling apart, and he already had two Labrador retrievers, so he didn’t want the puppy, either.

In addition to having to send Buddy back to the kennel, the girls were forbidden to see each other for a week. “Which was horrible,” Troy says. “So, what they presumed would happen [as punishment] when the police stopped them was at least that, or more, because Rachel had let Pi drive.” The officer wrote Pi a ticket for a mandatory court appearance that carried a $320 fine. Rachel received a 3-point ticket and a $165 fine. “They decided they would rather be dead than separated,” Troy says. “And 24 hours later, they were.”

If the decision to commit suicide was impulsive, it was carried out with an attention to detail that suggested both girls had been contemplating death to a far greater extent than their devastated parents had realized. Over the next 24 hours, the two girls tried unsuccessfully to buy ammunition for two of Troy’s guns, went out for an expensive final meal, purchased a Shop-Vac hose and drove to a remote and wooded area of Loudoun County, Va. There, they ran the hose from the tailpipe into the car with the doors and windows locked and the motor running. The girls died of carbon monoxide poisoning, most likely during the afternoon of Jan. 19, 2007, several hours before anyone realized they were missing.

The night before, after the girls failed to return at Pi’s curfew hour of 11 p.m., the Smiths called Troy, who found a chilling note on his daughter’s desk. In it, she apologized to her loved ones and asked to be buried next to Pi. The families’ friends and neighbors, as well as strangers across the country who had heard about the missing girls, joined in a nationwide search for the two Rachels. The girls were found dead in the car two weeks later.

Rachel and Pi’s parents knew of the teens’ emotional troubles and had taken steps to help them. In both cases, the girls had appeared to be doing better and had made plans for the future. Troy, an aerospace engineer in the defense industry, has combed through diaries Rachel left behind, as well as her e-mail and MySpace page, reconstructing events and, with a scientist’s precision, looking for the missed clues to his daughter’s despair. The information is all there, he says, but he couldn’t see it. “As a parent, your whole project is to give this person life, to get them going in life,” says Troy, who has been appearing at public forums to talk about teens and suicide. “The idea that they don’t want what you desperately want for them is impossible to believe.”

Marian says she now realizes “our daughter was screaming out for help—just not to us.” For the Smiths, the struggle to come to terms with Pi’s death has been private until now. They have agreed to tell their story, in hopes that others might benefit from what they have experienced.

Still going to high school

Marian and Paul Smith liked Rachel Crites, although the two-year age difference between the girls struck them as unusual. “Eighteen-year-olds normally want to hang out with other 18-year olds,” Marian says. “But I wanted [our] Rachel to be open with us, so we made a conscious decision not to be negative about the friendship. But we put some constraints on it.” On school nights, the girls were permitted to see each other for an hour or so; on weekends, they could do as they pleased, as long as Pi adhered to her curfew. The girls, however, were together far more than Marian knew. “We were not aware,” she says, “that Rachel Crites was still going to school at Wootton after she’d graduated.”

Rachel was an early riser, Troy says, and offered to drive Pi to school before continuing on to her own classes at Montgomery College’s Rockville campus. But on the mornings she didn’t have school, he says, she often stuck around at Wootton with Pi. When he asked her why she was attending high school classes, he says she told him, “They are interesting, I’m learning stuff, and they don’t mind.” Troy adds, “I know of a teacher who came to Rachel’s funeral who could attest to that.” According to Marian, Wootton principal Michael Doran told her after her daughter’s death that some of the girls’ teachers were unaware of the school’s strict no-visitor policy. Regarding this and other complaints the Smiths have made about Wootton’s handling of their daughter’s troubles, Doran says, “I don’t think it’s my role to be defensive when they lost their child.”

Perhaps because Pi spent a great deal of time at the Crites’ house, Troy was less concerned about the friendship than the Smiths. Rachel had always acted young for her age, and as a child tended to play with younger kids, he says—a follower rather than a leader. As a freshman at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Va., she had fallen in with a crowd that didn’t care about school, so when Rachel’s stepmother, Regina, also an engineer, got a job in Montgomery County, she and Troy saw a move to the Wootton school district as an opportunity for Rachel to make a fresh start as a sophomore. “At Wootton,” Troy says, “Rachel just blossomed.”

Rachel Crites’ mother, Kathryn Cornelius, who lives in Italy, says her daughter was a happy but sensitive child who loved animals and did not make friends easily, although she became almost obsessively attached once she did. Rachel’s childhood was spent both in Alexandria and outside Milan, Italy, where Kathryn had moved in 1992 after separating from Troy.

Kathryn, who is a management consultant, attended Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and met Troy, who attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., while both were students. They were an active and energetic young couple, she says, but difficulties communicating left her increasingly unhappy during their 10 years of marriage. Kathryn writes in an e-mail that she met Norberto Bastia and became pregnant while on a business trip to Italy. She says that because she chose not to end the pregnancy—Troy’s condition for the marriage to continue—they got divorced. Says Troy: “Call me narrow-minded, old-fashioned, or just normal, but I was not interested in raising the child of her lover, especially given she was not willing, or able, to stop seeing him.” Kathryn says she felt she had no choice but to join Norberto overseas. “My decision to move to Italy was seen as a caprice by Troy, and is portrayed as my abandonment of the family and my children… I don’t believe Troy worried about protecting them from this idea.”

Kathryn says she persuaded Troy to let Rachel and Rachel’s older brother, Trevor, join her in Italy the following year. They stayed for three years, but Rachel had difficulty learning the language. After many discussions with Troy about which country was a better setting for both children’s upbringing, Kathryn says she agreed to send them back to their father. “I regret to this day that I let them return,” she writes. “It was a critical time in Rachel’s and Trevor’s lives and it was not managed in their best interests. I consider myself and Troy both responsible for this.” Rachel was academically behind when she began third grade in Alexandria, Troy says, and she pined for her mother. She quickly bonded, however, with Regina Dugan, whom Troy married when Rachel was 10. In her diaries, Rachel refers to her stepmother as “B-Mom,” or “Bonus Mom.”

Rachel and Trevor, who was two years older, had lengthy phone conversations with Kathryn every Sunday and spent their school vacations and summers in Italy. If the setup wasn’t ideal, Troy says, “it wasn’t a bad life.” He accompanied the children on Christmas ski vacations in the Alps, and in the summer the children would join their mother at a beach or mountain spot in Italy, their days unstructured and without TV, the evenings devoted to talk, dinner and games. “Kids are pretty adaptable to whatever life is,” Troy says.

Trevor apparently was more adaptable than Rachel. He became fluent in Italian and had a less complicated relationship with Kathryn. But Rachel wanted only for her mother to return to the U.S. “She was too young at first, and too unhappy later, to understand how unrealistic it would be for me to move back,” Kathryn writes. “My husband could not have worked in the U.S., which would have created difficulties in this marriage.…I tried desperately to have Rachel move back to Italy with me…but she could not conceive of leaving her friends.”

Rachel began cutting herself and hiding the scars under her watchband when she was 16. Troy says it was a few months before a Christmas visit to Italy in 2004 that Rachel did the math and realized that her mother had become pregnant with half-brother Gianluca while still married to her father. In February of 2005, Rachel finally confessed to her father and stepmother about the cutting, and later wrote in an e-mail to Kathryn: “what i was doing was scaring me, i had to tell someone so that it wouldnt get worse…I already had scars when i got there for christmas. you didnt notice but i was really uncomfortable on new years because i had to take off my watch…The first time i broke skin was when i found out about how you and dad broke up.”

Joan Goodman, a Rockville psychotherapist who has appeared with Troy at meetings of mental health professionals to discuss the warning signs of teen depression and suicide, says cutting “is a way of turning one’s emotional pain into physical pain, which is easier to handle because it puts the person in control of their pain.” A specialist in adolescents, Goodman has treated more than 300 teenage cutters since the behavior became epidemic in the late 1990s. “Oftentimes, cutting is the opposite of suicide, because it acts as a dysfunctional coping mechanism that allows the person to stay alive by releasing endorphins that make them feel better,” Goodman says. On the other hand, she adds, “one can never assume it’s not about suicide, since this is a population that flirts with the idea of death. Happy kids don’t cut themselves.”

Troy put Rachel into counseling, and during the spring of 2005 she apparently stopped cutting herself. She spent the summer in Italy with her mother, and when she returned to Maryland in the fall, she told her father and stepmother that she was feeling better and didn’t want to see a therapist anymore. Although Troy and Regina weren’t churchgoers, Kathryn was a practicing Catholic, and Rachel decided to receive her first communion and to be confirmed at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Gaithersburg. She had her mother’s ability to sing, and joined the church choir. “Rachel was such a bubbly, happy person, from what I saw,” says Susan Delgado of Gaithersburg, who taught the confirmation class, and whose daughter Christina sang with Rachel. “There were some problems at home, but what family doesn’t have them?”

“For all intents and purposes, she was doing fine—everything was pretty normal,” Troy says. He bought a new car and gave Rachel the blue Subaru. “But we were adamant that her car privileges were based on her doing her homework,” he says. One Friday night, having discovered through online grade reporting that Rachel hadn’t been doing her homework, Troy took away her car keys, preventing her from attending a birthday party. She responded by stabbing her forearm with a pair of scissors. Asked in the emergency room at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville whether she was likely to harm herself again, Rachel said she might, and was transferred to the self-injury trauma unit at the Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health, also in Rockville. She stayed two nights before calling her father and asking him to bring her home. Against medical advice, he did, but he agreed to put Rachel back into counseling and to have a psychiatrist evaluate her for possible drug therapy, according to her discharge documents. The documents also list the diagnosis given to Rachel as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her mother’s leaving when she was 3.

“Rachel had a clear picture in her mind of her mother driving away in a Volvo we used to have,” Troy says. “Obviously, Kathryn did not go to Italy in that car, but that was what Rachel remembered.”

In the months after her release from Potomac Ridge, Rachel found a therapist she liked and also began group therapy. She was prescribed different mood stabilizers, including Wellbutrin, Abilify and Effexor—the last of which seemed to help her. She went to the senior prom and to graduation and continued to sing in the church choir. In the summer of 2006,Rachel traveled with her mother to Paris and then spent time with Trevor and her cousins in Florida. She began classes at Montgomery College and found a job she loved as a dog groomer at Pet Smart in Kentlands. She had a close circle of friends, including Pi, in whom to confide.

But a diary that Rachel kept after graduating from high school in June of 2006 reveals a starkly different picture than the face she presented to the world of a cheerful and attractive young woman who was overcoming difficulties and finding her way. She struggled nightly against the temptation to cut herself, even to end her life. In the first entry, Rachel wrote: “After last night where I got way too close to doing something, I am worried that I won’t have enough self-control to stop myself. I have decided that I will write [here] every time I feel the urge.”

What follows in the diary is a harrowing chronicle of Rachel’s battles with a demon so powerful it seems to have almost physical dimensions: “I bounce off a promise made to many, and that stops the heaviest urges with time…”

In July, Rachel learned that her father was having an affair and that Troy’s marriage to Regina would be ending. “And now the thing that I have been fearing almost my entire life is going to happen,” she wrote. “They [Troy and Regina] are getting divorced.” She describes her fury at her father, and her worry that she again was going to lose a mother: “I can’t spend too much time around my family at this point, because I feel like I’m gonna snap in two.” Rachel carried the red diary everywhere in her purse. Troy says he was aware of its existence, but refrained from reading it out of respect for her privacy. “Your kids are reaching a point of becoming an individual, and you want to respect that,” he says. “[But] when there are health and safety issues, you probably shouldn’t. A painful lesson learned.”

Kathryn says Rachel seemed tense during their summer trip to Paris, and finally confided her nightly struggle not to harm herself. Alarmed, Kathryn again pleaded with her daughter to come live with her in Italy, but Rachel refused. “I think we denied how troubled she was, as well as denying the signs that her friend Rachel Smith was troubled,” Kathryn writes. “We knew, but didn’t know what to do about it, so basically [we] lived in denial of the danger.”


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