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The way Ray Kotomski died was no mystery.
The 65-year-old died on Aug. 16, 2009 of ethylene glycol poisoning — the sugar-alcohol compound commonly found in antifreeze — after being rushed to the hospital unconscious and unresponsive.
His family believed his death had been a heartless murder, but Ray’s estranged wife, Teresa Kotomski, insisted that her husband had either taken his own life or poisoned himself in one final, bold play to win back her affection after drinking “something sweet,” according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered," airing Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Was it suicide or did someone have a reason to take the retired grandfather’s life?
In addition to his wife, Teresa — who stood to collect an insurance payout — another man had once wanted Ray dead and even went to great lengths, even sending him a mail bomb, to try to make it happen.
With the man now back on the streets after recently getting released from prison, had he come back to finish the job?
The case would take years to unravel and hit unexpected roadblocks after the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Department, the agency initially tasked with solving the case, ran out of money and lacked the resources to devote to the investigation.
But it was Ray’s family’s quest for answers that ultimately helped investigators determine who was responsible for the grandfather’s death.
Ray, a retired former corrections officer and father of three grown children, had ended a 36-year marriage when he decided to give online dating a try and connected with his future wife Teresa, a significantly younger nurse’s assistant with three kids of her own.
The pair seemed like the perfect match and quickly began spending every weekend together.
“He made my mom happy,” her son Josh Ryan told "Dateline" correspondent Josh Mankiewicz. “She definitely hadn’t smiled like that in years.”
The couple got married in May 2004 and settled into a new life together in Ashtabula County, Ohio, but tragedy struck in 2006 when Teresa’s 21-year-old daughter, Sarah, died in a car accident, leaving behind two young children.
The couple’s once-carefree days were now spent caring for a toddler and baby. Then the baby was diagnosed with cancer and the couple was forced to spend alternating weeks at a Cleveland hospital.
The young girl later went into remission, but Teresa’s family said the stress got to Ray, who they described as being angry and drinking more heavily.
“Mom was scared,” said Teresa’s son Roy Lovin Jr.
It was a depiction Ray’s own family has disputed.
Still, the stress proved to be too much for the couple and by 2009 Teresa had moved out with her two grandchildren.
The day before Ray’s death, the couple had come together one last time to feed the fish and have lunch with their grandkids at a state park.
The next day, Teresa said she went back to the home they had once shared together to do laundry and found Ray sick and almost incoherent. She later told her friend Beth Burcham that day that Ray had refused to let her call a doctor.
“She said he was acting so weird when she came back to get the kids and he wasn’t feeling good,” Burcham recalled.
The next day Teresa asked her mother, who lived nearby, to go check on Ray. She was shocked to find Ray unconscious.
Teresa called 911 and rode with Ray to a local hospital, but when doctors saw how serious his condition was, they transferred him to a level-2 trauma center in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Even with the medical intervention, Ray’s body had started to shut down and Teresa made the decision three days later to remove him from life support.
“She was devastated,” Ryan said. “Absolutely devastated. I could see it in her face.”
Medical Examiner Eric Vey said there was “no question” Ray had died from ethylene glycol poisoning but the manner of death — either suicide or homicide — was undetermined.
Teresa insisted that Ray had told her that he had drank something sweet before he started to feel sick and that he had threatened to kill himself in the past.
Yet Ray’s family insisted he would have never taken his own life.
“The only thing I was thinking was I didn’t believe the whole ‘he drank something sweet, it was antifreeze.’ My dad would never do that. All of us knew that,” Ray’s daughter Monica Mamula said.
It turned out that investigators were drawing the same conclusion.
At Ray’s home they found someone had already cleaned up the scene, throwing Ray’s bedding into a trash can. Investigators also found a box of fully crushed soda and beer cars and two bottles of anti-freeze — one of which was open — in the couple’s garage, although there were no fingerprints or DNA found on either container.
Teresa’s ex-husband also told detectives that Teresa had once put rat poison in his mashed potatoes, a claim her family has denied.
Investigators looked hard at Teresa, but there had also been another viable suspect. When Teresa and Ray first began to date, she was also dating another man, Robert Reichard.
She cast Reichard aside to pursue a romance with Ray, but Reichard didn’t take the rejection well and started to stalk the couple. He vandalized Teresa’s car and sent Robert a letter bomb in the mail.
Ray thought the package had looked suspicious and took it to the state police barracks, where authorities detonated the bomb.
“Robert said at the time that he wanted to be with Teresa and he thought that Ray was in the way,” Ashtabula County Det. Taylor Cleveland said.
Reichard pleaded guilty to manufacturing a firearm and was sentenced to five years in prison for the thwarted attack, but he was paroled just months before Ray was killed.
According to Cleveland, investigators took a close look at Reichard, but they weren’t able to find anything to link him to Ray’s death.
Then, the case was placed on the back burner when the county ran out of money and the sheriff’s department was forced to lay off about 90 percent of its employees.
But Ray’s daughter was determined not to let her father’s case go unsolved.
“I pressed on,” Mamula said. “I did what I had to do. I made sure that there was justice.”
She’d find the help she needed from Ohio’s attorney general at the time, Mike DeWine, whose office decided to reopen the case in 2012.
Teresa was their prime suspect.
“I didn’t want her to get away with murder,” DeWine said of the reason his office decided to take on the case. “My prosecutors and detectives didn’t want that to happen either.”
Authorities finally felt they had enough to make their case in 2014 and arrested Teresa, who had since gotten engaged to another man. She was convicted of murder in 2015 and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Teresa continues to maintain her innocence from behind bars, insisting that Ray accidentally took his own life after trying to get her attention by poisoning himself.
“I just want everybody to know that, you know, I am innocent,” she said in a phone call with Mankiewicz. “I didn’t do what they are accusing me of doing. I loved my husband. Some day we’ll know why he did what he did.”
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