Det. Lt. Vincent Auteri can still recall his late-friend Keith Von Rapacki’s infectious smile.
“His smile was so warm,” Auteri says. “He was just a super sincere, warm person, the type of man who would give you the shirt of his back.”
The two men were good friends, going back to their kindergarten days at Roosevelt School, Lyndhurst. Both men would go on to join the Lyndhurst Police Department. So in many ways, they had a very special bond. It was one that transcended school and career.
But things changed in an instant 17 years ago when Von Rapacki died in his sleep May 12, 2003 — a day that was recalled last week with a new police vehicle being dedicated to Keith’s memory. We’ll get into the dedication later.
But that awful night when Keith died is one Auteri still remembers fondly. Because just hours before he died, Von Rapacki had told Auteri that he just bought a suit.
“It was for my wedding, which would take place five days later,” Auteri says. “I was just finishing up a 3 to 11 p.m. shift. We used to have eight-hour shifts, unlike our 12-hour shifts now. It was about 10:30 p.m., and I talked to Keith (on the phone while I was) at the gas pump. I was there to refuel my vehicle. We were talking about an episode of show on Comedy Central we saw. We both loved the show. We were laughing.
“And that turned out to be the last time I would ever hear his voice.”
Von Rapacki was found dead the next morning by his own dad. Auteri says Von Rapacki had completed an intense physical in the police academy, circa 2001. He was in excellent shape, excellent health. He wasn’t remotely sick. There were absolutely no signs he was in any kind of trouble.
Von Rapacki apparently suffered from an ailment called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. It wasn’t well known back in 2003. Medical journals describe it as an ailment that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood properly to the rest of the body and as one that often goes undiagnosed, as it did in Keith’s case.
Much more is known about it now.
But without the tests, it’s a silent killer — and it is one that ultimately cost Keith his life when he was just 29, in the prime of his life, just a few years on the force. So much was ahead for him.
With Auteri’s wedding just days after Keith’s death, it could have been a true bummer. But Auteri says Keith was the kind of guy who would not have wanted things to change on his account.
“He wouldn’t have wanted me to be upset,” Auteri says. “And I know he would have known it would weigh on me. He wouldn’t want his passing to interfere at a happy moment. That’s the kind of guy Keith was.”
And though Von Rapacki wasn’t able to wear that special suit he bought, he was there in spirit at the wedding. And, nearly two decades later, he’s still near and dear to Auteri’s heart.
Their friendship, after all, is one that spread from the late 1970s when the two were students in grammar school and that lasted through high school and beyond. They both graduated from Lyndhurst High School in 1991. And except for a two-year stretch when Van Rapacki’s family moved to a different part of town, necessitating the two going to different schools from sixth- through eighth-grade, they were with each other the whole way.
Auteri recalls how he and Keith also had a shared interest in wave runners.
“We’d ride together in Barnegat Bay, in Seaside,” Auteri says. “Those were great times. Keith was just never negative. He represented everything that is good in a human being.”
Fast forward, now, to last week.
Chief Richard L. Jarvis was instrumental in having a new police vehicle dedicated to Keith’s memory. In all irony of ironies, it was Jarvis, back in 2003, who was the first to be dispatched to the Von Rapacki home the morning Keith lost his life. All were patrol officers at the time.
And now, 17 years after his death, to the day, May 12, 2020, Mayor Robert B. Giangeruso, Jarvis, Von Rapacki’s parents Jo-Ann and George, Auteri and scores of other members of the Lyndhurst PD were on hand for a special, socially-distant ceremony outside Town Hall to be dedicated in Keith’s memory.
The enormous, refurbished GMC, now says “In memory of Officer Keith Von Rapacki 097” on its front grill. That “097” was Keith’s badge number when he was on the job. And it’s the vehicle’s ID number now. The whole project came about, Auteri says, because of the efforts of Acting Lt. Paul Haggerty.
“The vehicle design was spectacular and I can’t thank Acting Lt. Haggerty enough for making this happen,” Auteri says. “Today’s ceremony had so much meaning to Keith’s family and I’m extremely grateful that Mayor Giangeruso, Chief Jarvis and our officers have committed to keeping his memory alive and well.”
Indeed they have — in a huge way.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.