Courant Staff Writer

   Robert Baskin thought his daughter was finally getting her life back on track. She had successfully completed a drug rehab program in Middletown this summer. She attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings and spoke of plans to get her high school equivalency diploma.
    But like so many other times before, 24-year-old Leah W. Ulbrich suddenly relapsed and fell victim again to a cocaine habit. Any strides she had made slipped away.
    She had been staying at an area halfway house, but about two weeks before her death, her parents had lost contact with her.
    Then came the harrowing news from a Hartford police officer.
    Ulbrich's mangled body was found in a Wethersfield street gutter before dawn Oct. 29. She had been dragged more than 4 miles by a car that one witness said had taken off like a ``bat out of hell.''
    Police are continuing their investigation and do not have a suspect, Lt. Joseph Buyak said Monday.
    As Baskin and other relatives mourn, they hope the killing will at least send a harsh message to others about the dangers of drugs.
    ``My daughter tried very hard to battle her addiction. Unfortunately, she put herself in harm's way one too many times,'' Baskin said Monday, speaking out for the first time since his daughter's death. ``She lost her life in a terrible, brutal way -- one she didn't deserve.''
    Baskin spoke from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Sam J. Gejdenson.
    ``Leah was a victim, and that's what people need to understand,'' he said.
    A Courant truck driver on his way home from his third-shift route was one of the last to see Ulbrich alive. He saw a man striking a woman in the front seat of a newer model car stopped on Locust Street in a desolate, industrial part of Hartford. The truck driver heard the woman screaming and turned his vehicle around to see if he could help her.
    As he approached, the car took off from Locust Street with Ulbrich hanging from the passenger side with the passenger door open. The car headed up East Elliott Street, toward Wethersfield Avenue.
    The truck driver, Bill Flemming, told police he tried to chase the car, but it sped off at about 60 mph, towing Ulbrich's body along the pavement with it.
    Flemming alerted a Courant truck dispatcher, who called police about 4:50 a.m.
    ``It's something I'm never going to forget,'' Flemming said.
    Police believe the woman was pushed from the car and either got her arm tangled in the seat belt, or was grasping it.
    Officer Martin Burke, on his way to investigate, noticed the car going south on Wethersfield Avenue with no lights on and turned to follow it. But the car sped off, losing Burke. A trail of blood, hair and flesh led Burke to Ulbrich, whose partially clothed body was lying in a gutter off Jordan Lane in Wethersfield.
    ``There's no doubt in my mind that the driver knew what was going on,'' Buyak said. ``That woman was a wreck. She was reduced to nothing.''
    The woman's shoes were left behind. They stood parallel to each other, as if Ulbrich was just lifted right out of them at the corner of Locust and East Elliott streets.
    ``I saw brown shoes in the middle of the road. There was a shirt on the lawn on the side of the street,'' said Ryan O'Connell, who was heading to his Locust Street job at Wells Fargo Alarm Services that morning.
    The trail left by Ulbrich's body along the asphalt marked a brutal end to the life of a young woman who had struggled to beat a drug habit.
    Ulbrich, her father said, had experimented with drugs when she was very young. She grew up in eastern Connecticut, moved to Fairfield County and then the New Haven area. She had entered a drug counseling program as a teenager. In 1989, at 19, she married Bob Ulbrich in a small ceremony in Chester and was pregnant with their first child. A second child was born a year later.
    ``They were very young and very naive, but they fell in love,'' said Joanne Ulbrich, Bob Ulbrich's stepmother.
    The next two years, relatives said, were Ulbrich's best because they were largely drug-free. They said Leah Ulbrich was a bright, loving and energetic young woman when she was drug-free. She steered clear of drugs as she cared for her young children in a spacious Wallingford home on Bayberry Drive. But as her marriage fell apart in 1991, Leah Ulbrich's drug dependency resurfaced.
    ``When things didn't go well in her life, she sought out drugs,'' her father said.
    Leah Ulbrich's children were taken from her in June 1993, after police discovered filthy living conditions and drug paraphernalia in her home. Their maternal grandmother and father have joint custody.
    Since 1993, she was convicted of larceny, possession of narcotics, driving with a suspended license, and risk of injury to a minor from arrests in Wallingford, North Stratford and New Britain. She served nine months in jail in 1994 for the drug conviction.
    But this year, Ulbrich was turning her life around again. Early this summer, she voluntarily entered the Stonehaven Program for Women in Middletown. For a while, she returned to live with her mother and children. Most recently, she had been staying at a halfway house in Springfield for recovering female addicts. But about 10 days before her death, she left the house and was not heard from again.
    ``She knew the things she needed to do to recover from addiction,'' Baskin said. ``But despite knowing it, she couldn't do the things that could help herself.''
    A funeral service was held last week in a Connecticut synagogue with the immediate family, Ulbrich's divorced parents, brother and sister. She was buried in a cemetery in the New Haven area.
    Ulbrich's family is striving to protect her children from their mother's disturbing death. The children know their mother is gone but don't know much else, Baskin said.
    While discussing Leah Ulbrich's short life, Joanne Ulbrich recalled a poem the young woman left in her former Wallingford home.
    ``She wrote to her children that she was so sorry that mommy's sick and that she missed her two kids so much,'' Joanne Ulbrich said. ``This woman suffered so much. Drugs had gotten the best of her. She was too far gone, and there was no coming back.''
    Police believe the motorist who took Ulbrich on the deadly ride headed south of Hartford. They are focusing on identifying the vehicle. They believe the passenger door of the car must be damaged since it was open during the ride.
    ``Hopefully, this may make someone who may have seen something have a second thought and come forward,'' Baskin said. ``I hope that they will see that Leah was a real person. I think we all value justice and whoever did this ought to be punished.''

Memo: Anyone with information is asked to call Hartford police at 527-7300, Ext. 5230. The car was described as a newer model, possibly a dark color, with a temporary plate on the rear window.

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