NORTH VENICE — More questions than answers remain in the death of a Venice woman, who went missing early Sept. 30.
The autopsy of Tracey Lynn Rieker, 44, took place Monday in Sarasota. Her body was recovered from a sunken Nissan Xterra on Saturday in North Venice’s Toscana Isles subdivision.
“Investigators will know more about Ms. Rieker’s cause of death following the results, as well as a toxicity screening that could take six-eight weeks,” Venice Police Chief Tom Mattuller said.
District 12 Medical Examiner Russell Vega said he couldn’t reveal the manner of death due to the ongoing investigation. A toxicology test could take longer, he said, due to the condition of the body.
”The fact is we are interested in doing very comprehensive testing and the decomposition means it will take a longer time rather than a shorter amount of time (to complete),” Vega said.
Her family is planning a celebration of her life in the near future. On Tuesday, her husband and her daughter spoke about her life and what she meant.
“Tracey just overcame all obstacles in life; she was dealt a raw deal in the early part of her life,” Christian Rieker said
She was in foster care from the age of 5 and went “from home-to-home-to-home.” He said she experienced a variety of abuses and traumas, but never let that determine her outlook.
“She overcame all of that and had a beautiful life, and touched hundreds and thousands of people’s life through her kindness,” he said. “She was always someone who worked to see the good in life.”
Cassie Studli, 17, is still coping with the loss of her mother.
”It still doesn’t feel real,” she said.
‘SHE WASN’T HERE’
Tracey Rieker had been in the middle of a fasting regiment and prayer.
She had also started studying the Bible up to eight hours a day and was concerned about COVID-19. She was fasting for a National Day of Prayer, but decided to keep it going through the weekend.
Some of her recent behaviors had been concerning; she was worried about celebrations of Halloween and Christmas, which she started to think were based on pagan holidays. She started wanting to dispose of decorations she’d had for years — including a Halloween tree that doubled as a celebration for her 17-year-old daughter Cassie Studli, who was born Oct. 31.
“She wasn’t getting a whole lot of sleep or food,” he said.
Christian Rieker said he’s not sure what lead Tracey to take his car out sometime early Sept. 30.
“(We) realized she wasn’t here,” he said, recalling the day. “The garage door was open, so that was a little alarming. She had gone to the beach to proselytize the day before to talk about God. We talked to her about how worried we were when she did that, so we asked her to not do that again.”
At first they thought she’d gone to proselytize again, then noticed Christmas plates and other decorations missing.
They reached out to some friends before later contacting authorities, who Christian said were responsive to his call, even though she hadn’t been missing for 24 hours at the time.
He waited some time before starting an online effort about her status.
“Tracey was actually a very private person. When she hadn’t come home the next morning was when we posted it (on social media),” he said.
But once the campaign began, thousands of people became involved — in reality or digitally. Searchers put up drones and a private investigator became involved, along with volunteers checking parks and beaches for her.
“They put in days upon days upon days looking for her — and we got multiple sightings of her and the car which didn’t pan out,” he said.
On Saturday, the Xterra was found less than a mile from the family’s home.
Nobody knows quite what happened.
“I think that she was confused and I do not think it was intentional, due to either her lack of sleep and the mindset that that would cause,” he said. “I don’t believe she thought she was driving into a lake.”
Her daughter was dealing with her initial worst worries coming to fruition.
”I was just thinking the worst — and I had no idea that the worst had already happened,” she said Tuesday.
FRIENDS WERE FAMILY
Tracey Rieker wasn’t shy about making friends; and she wasn’t shy about making friends her family.
“For her, family was the most important thing,” he said. “What you come to realize is it could be someone she just met and she could consider them family because of her upbringing.”
Family, to her, “meant anybody that she loved or cared for — and that could be instant,” he said.
One of her best friends attested to that.
Raysha Harris, of San Antonio, Texas, met Tracey a decade ago at a ghost-hunting event in Colorado when they complimented each-other on their coats; same style, opposite colors.
“Right from the start, she was just this vibrant person,” Harris said Monday. “She became my extended family; my best friend and sister.”
And, almost literally, a sister.
“She just one day asked my mom if she could call her ‘Mom,’” Harris said. “We always kind of laugh about it how we all just integrated into each other’s family.”
Tracey Rieker “just had this energy,” Harris said.
“You would start talking to her and she could make friends with anyone. She just had that personality … She had this amazing smile. She could smile at you and you couldn’t be upset.”
Harris said Rieker had lived in Osprey at one point and wanted to get back there. From Colorado, she and her husband moved to New Hampshire and then came down to North Venice about three years ago.
“She had gone to Spanish Point and she wanted to be a tour guide there,” Harris said. ”She went to school for being a park ranger. She loved being out in nature and history.”
While they had met ghost hunting, both started pulling away from it recently “for spiritual reasons,” Harris said.
“It wasn’t where she wanted to be anymore,” Harris said. “She started looking at it a different way. We actually had a long conversation about that. It was something that brought us together — and so many of her friends she had — so she looked at it in a good way in that aspect, but it wasn’t something she wanted to do anymore.”
Harris learned something was wrong Wednesday morning when her mother noted Tracey hadn’t posted a sunrise photo, which had been a bit of a tradition. She called Cassie and Christian about the situation and they informed her she was missing.
“It was so unlike her,” Harris said. “It wasn’t like Tracey to just walk off without her stuff.”
She’s not sure what happened, thinking it may have had something to do with the extended fasting and stressors in life like COVID-19 that had affected her. And there is something about her change about Halloween and Christmas, which she’d once loved. There may have been a large mix of emotional ingredients that led up to Sept. 30 and, perhaps, exhaustion.
“The only thing I think is she fell asleep behind the wheel,” Harris said.
‘FAITH IN GOD’
Her religion had become something important to her in life, friends and family said.
“She was always so optimistic about life,” Jessica Piroli said via email. “There wasn’t a sunrise or sunset she didn’t sit in awe of. She shared her smile with everyone that she met.”
Piroli said Rieker’s faith in God “had become stronger in recent months.”
”With the fear of COVID, she spent time at home studying the Bible and trying to spread the word of God on Facebook to her friends and family,” she said. “She wanted to help others learn about religion because that is the type of person she was: helpful and caring.”
Christian Rieker said his wife didn’t have a “firm denomination.”
“Her whole life has been more of a one-on-one relationship (with God),” he said. “This year, she jumped into the Bible and found that to be very important — it has been really her focus the last six months.”
She watched Catholic Mass online, then later she gravitated toward Baptist services, he said. At one point, she also was attending Baypoint Methodist.
Melanie Rogers was a friend from Kennesaw, Georgia who once hosted Tracey on a radio program that was about overcoming obstacles in life.
While Tracey was taking part in the fasting, Rogers was fasting away from social media as a part of the National Day of Prayer event.
“Tracey honestly — she is like the one person I have met who will turn around and pull the positive out of any situation, no matter what, and find the bright and shiny center,” Rogers said. “Completely unconditional in her giving… She embraces everyone … I learned more about Tracey than any other friend I’ve every had. She’s just unconditional.”
In an era of TV crime dramas showcasing suspicious deaths becoming murder investigations, Tracey Rieker’s family and friends have been seeing internet detectives examining her case.
“I do keep seeing it online, and it’s disheartening for them to be so suspicious,” Raysha Harris said. “I get it in this day and age; that’s what people think… I would ask them to please stop. Let the family grieve and stop pointing speculation,” she added, crying.
She said Christian loved Tracey “very much. She was his world.”
Melanie Rogers called it a “huge emotional roller coaster.”
“It angers me to my core,” Rogers said. ”Most of them don’t know her… the thing is, they are taking bits and pieces and making accusations against her family.”
She said police are investigating but rumors are “spreading like wildfire.”
”You are tarnishing her image and his image,” she said. “It’s a struggle that we’ve been dealing with. It’s adding to the problem so much more… It’s just wrong.”
Christian Rieker accepts that people, who don’t know him, Tracey nor their family, will speculate.
“I don’t read a whole lot of it but anyone who knows us … our love was completely unique. We were each-other’s everything. We were always super affectionate and were never apart. We put our time together above absolutely everything. Our love is what fairy tales are made of.”
The couple met online and then had their first date in July 2013.
“I told her that I loved her on that first date and we’d been inseparable ever since,” he said.
They were both living in Colorado when they first met.
“She was just stunningly beautiful and always had smiles and would do anything for anybody. People who just met her would think she was their best friend,” he said.
They were married May 5, 2015 in New Hampshire.
He said she considered others before every worrying about her own needs.
But she was also a success in what her life. She was a rarity for people who go through multiple foster homes — graduating college. He read a statistic suggesting only .2% of foster children achieve that milestone.
College graduation wasn’t her main focus.
“She always wanted to have the family that she was not afforded in the first part of her life. No matter what came down that track of fate, she would overcome it and would work toward the goal of having a happy life and awesome family — and she was very successful at it,” he said.
She had four children from previous relationships; Christian, 19; Cassie, 17; Bella, 13 and Brady, 11.
Family and friends are trying to celebrate her life and support one-another.
Cassie Studli said she’s had a lot of support.
“I have tons and tons of friends reaching out and helping me. That is the biggest thing that is helping me right now — knowing I have so many people that love and care for me and loved her, too,” she said.
The family is looking at having a tree named after her at Selby Gardens.
“She always liked to be out in nature and she loved trees,” Christian Rieker said.
Melanie Rogers is struggling with the reality of Tracey’s death.
“I feel deeper. Her loss — you actually feel like you’re missing something. Raysha and I and Rhonda have been talking for hours and hours because she’s just a missing element,” Rogers said. “It’s unbelievable. I don’t think she realized how many people she actually affected.”
Christian Rieker keeps reflecting on her life and what lessons she taught, perhaps unconsciously.
“She overcame one of the worst hands anyone could be dealt and she overcame so much and brought so much joy — and we are happy to be a part of her journey,” he said.