Publication: THE RECORD
Date: 08/12/2005
Day: Friday
Page: A01
Edition: All Editions
Section: NEWS
Source: North Jersey Media Group

Turning grief into action

Parents sue driver in graduation night death

Jorge and Lourdes Verea of Cliffside Park were relieved when their doorbell rang late on June 20.

Their daughter, Rebeka, 18, had gone to a party with a friend after graduating from high school earlier that day. Her parents began worrying when she didn't call.

"I said, 'Thank God, Rebeka is home,' " Lourdes Verea said.

The couple opened the door to find several police officers standing there. Rebeka had been killed in a car accident.

The Vereas, who have since vowed to campaign for safe driving among teens, took their fight to the courts Thursday, filing a lawsuit against the 19-year-old Fair Lawn man who was behind the wheel in the fatal North Bergen crash.

"If we can prevent one parent from having to go through the pain we went through that night, our mission here is accomplished," said Dr. Jorge Verea.

Still struggling with their loss, the Vereas tried to put their grief into words during an interview Thursday at their Cliffside Park home - their first since their daughter's death. Holding hands and sharing tissues, they tearfully remembered Rebeka as "the dynamics of excitement" in the family.

"She loved life, animals and children," Jorge Verea said.

"She was our life, our motivation," his wife said.

Countless photographs of their daughter hang on walls and rest on tables at the meticulously appointed, two-story brick home. Two candles burn every day on a table in the living room, in front of a photo of a rainbow stretching across midtown Manhattan, taken on the day of Rebeka Verea's funeral.

The young woman's bedroom has remained virtually untouched since she last left it. Her green prom dress is draped on a chair by her bed, next to a neatly folded red graduation gown and cap.

With seraphic sculpture crowding her nightstands and bookcases, the room reveals a fascination with angels. Perhaps what best shows Rebeka's personality, however, is a frayed diary.

In one entry from five years ago, she wrote about her parents' high expectations for her - and her doubts about whether she could meet them.

In another, from Oct. 6, 2000, she said: "Life is hard, difficult and sad, but it's the good moments that count. The beginning is OK. The end is usually bad. But it's the middle of life that counts."

Jorge Verea, a son of Cuban immigrants, worked hard to become a successful medical doctor. Unlike her parents or her older sister Vickie, who is now studying medicine, Rebeka wasn't as passionate about academic achievement.

Her father's favorite story concerns the time Rebeka Verea received a letter of admission from The Cittone Institute in Paramus and insisted on having it framed.

"To me, you frame a diploma; you don't frame a letter of admission," he said. "But I agreed with Rebeka, because that's Rebeka. She always did things her way."

Jorge Verea has stopped working in the evenings and doesn't take emergency room calls since he lost his daughter.

"The last Father's Day card I got from Rebeka said, 'Relax, enjoy your life and have a good time,' " he said. "I am trying to relax."

Following the June 20 ceremony on the football field at Cliffside Park High School, Rebeka Verea took off her graduation gown, quickly said goodbye to her parents and got into a Mercedes-Benz driven by her good friend Alexis Torres.

Police said Torres had been drinking when the speeding car rear-ended a tractor-trailer on West Side Avenue in North Bergen later that night, shaving off the sedan's roof.

Rebeka Verea died instantly.

Torres, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the car. He spent some time in the intensive care unit at Jersey City Medical Center before being released.

Hudson County prosecutors charged Torres with death by auto, drunk driving, underage consumption of alcohol, reckless driving and failing to wear a seat belt. He remains free on $75,000 bail.

The Vereas' lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Hackensack, seeks an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages. In addition to Torres, it also names his uncle, Andres Gonzalez, the owner of the wrecked Mercedes.

"We are trying to accomplish accountability," said Rosemarie Arnold, a Fort Lee lawyer who is representing the Vereas in their suit. "This one life that was lost should save many others."

Rebeka's family has also established a foundation in her name and launched an awareness campaign to reduce auto accidents among teens. The foundation is gaining the support of friends, lawmakers, public officials - and even strangers, Jorge Verea said.

One of those supporters is state Attorney General Peter Harvey, who has agreed to speak next week at a Town Hall meeting in Cliffside Park about the dangers of drag racing and unsafe driving among young people.

"A lot of young men are very competitive and often cannot resist the temptation to race, especially when young women are around," Harvey said Thursday. "We are going to try to talk about the consequences of showing off while driving a car, of dueling on the highways."

Torres' father, Federico, declined to comment Thursday. Alexis Torres and Andres Gonzalez did not return phone calls.

The Vereas said they've known Alexis Torres' family for years.

"We have a lot of respect for the family," Lourdes Verea said.

The Vereas described Alexis as a "good kid" whom their daughter trusted. They prayed for him while he was in the hospital, they said.

Since he was discharged, Alexis Torres has tried to contact the family and talk about how he felt, Jorge Verea said. "We don't want to see him or talk to him now," the grieving father said.

"We have mixed feelings about the crash," Jorge Verea said. "We are not ready for that conversation."

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E-mail: [email protected]

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1 - COLOR PHOTO - JAMES W. ANNESS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER - Lourdes and Jorge Verea with a photograph of their daughter Rebeka, 18, who was killed in a car crash June 20, the night she graduated from Cliffside Park High School.

2 - PHOTO - Family photo of Rebeka Verea, 18, who was killed in a car crash hours after graduating from Cliffside Park High School on June 20.