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By Kathleen Wheaton
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.
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?”
…Rachel [Crites] 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.
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.”
“Pi seemed to be helping Rachel, and that eased my worry [about the friendship] somewhat,” says Christina Delgado, now 19, a close friend of Rachel’s who was a grade behind her at Wootton and is a freshman at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va. “They were really taking care of each other, but at the same time, I was uneasy,” Christina says. “Pi was obsessed with death, and Rachel took that on.”
As a freshman at Wootton, Paul and Marian say, Pi swallowed five or six Tylenols one morning and became sick. She told them she was too ill to go to school, but they didn’t find out why until almost a year later. “When she said she was sick, we said OK, because she never missed school,” Marian says.
In January of 2006, the winter of her sophomore year, Pi was in her room, instant-messaging a friend, when she confided about the Tylenol episode, adding that she needed help and wanted to be put out of her misery. Pi implored her friend not to tell; the friend, who was in college, promised, but then promptly called her own mother, who called the Smith house.
Kathleen Wheaton is a freelance writer in Bethesda and a regular contributor to Bethesda Magazine.