SCHENECTADY — Inside a dilapidated State Street apartment building, just beneath the crest of Hamilton Hill overlooking downtown, 18-year-old Sabrina Moore said she discovered a single mother on the brink, overdosed on heroin, with her infant son by her side.
It was mid-July, and Heaven Puleski, 38, less than three months earlier, had given birth to Rayen while alone in the Saratoga Lake Motel.
"She was passed out with the needle in her arm, and the baby was right there crying," Moore told The Daily Gazette last week, during visiting hours at a local jail.
Given the clientele at the 766 State St. building, the life-saving opioid antidote Narcan was readily available, and Moore said she administered it to Puleski before tending to the baby.
Within a month, Rayen’s body would be discovered inside plastic bags somewhere in the brush behind the building.
"Heaven is Heaven"
Through more than a dozen interviews conducted by The Daily Gazette in the days since Rayen's body was found, a picture has emerged of his short life, which was marked by moves between motels, run-down buildings and multiple attempts, including at least two by Child Protective Services, to get help for the infant and his mother.
A portrait has also emerged of a mother living with addiction.
The public first heard of Heaven and Rayen on Aug. 7 when authorities sought help to find the infant, who had not been seen in weeks.
Two days later, investigators recovered what they believe is Rayen's body, though the condition of the body has prolonged firm identification and complicated efforts to determine a cause of death.
Rayen's life began on April 20, not in a hospital, but inside a guest room at the Saratoga Lake Motel on State Route 9P in Saratoga County, according to multiple family members and acquaintances of Puleski. A hotel employee has denied that account but said police and CPS staff had visited the motel inquiring about Heaven and Rayen.
Despite her tenuous housing situation, Puleski projected an optimistic persona on Facebook.
On May 7, with Rayen just 17 days old, she commented on a post she had initiated months earlier, which lamented her latest jail stint. Her comment was a response to a friend, who had commented on the post, calling Rayen a "perfect lil peanut."
"My MAN is the best thing that could have ever happened to me!" Puleski responded.
Another relative responded with an offer of assistance.
"Heaven there are several places than can help you," her great-aunt Kathy Titshaw wrote in a since-deleted comment. "I'll make a list with numbers. ... What do you need?"
In an interview last week, Titshaw recalled speaking with Puleski directly over the phone after that May 7 Facebook exchange. Puleski did not take Titshaw up on the offer of help; Heaven just wanted cash.
"If you can't give me money, then you can't help," Titshaw recalled Puleski telling her before hanging up. Titshaw said she never heard from her great-niece again and didn't know what had happened with Heaven and Rayen until she saw news accounts of the search for her.
"I offered her options of where she could go or what she could do," TItshaw said, "but Heaven is Heaven."
Heaven, according to those who knew her, was many things — funny, caring, stubborn — all too often overshadowed by her addiction
Her struggles with addiction are detailed in court documents related to at least three arrests in recent years -- in Northumberland, Colonie and Niskayuna.
She's twice been charged with driving under the influence of drugs, and she's also been arrested for possession of heroin residue and marijuana.
In Colonie, in November 2015, she was accused of stealing $200 in jewelry from Boscov's. In her purse, police found a small teal case containing heroin, crack cocaine and marijuana, according to a police report.
Puleski has two other children fathered by two different men. Rayen's father has been identified by Puleski's aunt Lisa Dutcher, city police and federal prosecutors as Rayen Hussein, who is in jail facing felony charges for allegedly selling synthetic marijuana after the DEA raided the Stockade Deli last week. Hussein is a co-owner of that business, according to court documents.
Puleski gave up custody of one of her oldest children to the father, and CPS took the other child, who was recently adopted. According to Dutcher, the latter child, Nasim, was fathered by Hussein’s cousin, Omar.
Opaque Child Protective Services
Details about what CPS workers in Saratoga and Schenectady counties may have done to try to protect Rayen have not been revealed.
Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen said the county’s legal counsel advised him not to speak about anything related to CPS. After charges were filed against Puleski, McQueen confirmed only that an investigation had been launched into her neglect of Rayen.
"At some point, we will provide further details, but not while they could impact the investigation and the case," McQueen said.
Saratoga County officials did not return multiple requests for comment.
McQueen referred most questions to the state agency, which issued a paragraph-long statement explaining how cases are transferred between counties.
"Transfers are evaluated based on the family’s and child’s service needs and the overall best interest of the family,” said Craig Smith, a spokesman for the state Office of Children and Family Services, in the prepared statement. The two LDSS [local departments of social services] collaborate to facilitate the smooth transfer of information from the old LDSS to the new LDSS. Once the case is transferred, the old LDSS no longer has primary responsibility for the case but may maintain a supportive role if a significant family member still lives in that district."
The search for Rayen began in earnest on Aug. 6 -- Dutcher reported on Facebook that CPS called her that day seeking information. They hadn't seen Rayen in more than 30 days, Dutcher said. Police later said CPS notified them of their search on Aug. 7.
Police and relatives of Rayen believe Moore was one of the last people seen with Rayen before his death, which investigators estimate to have occurred sometime between July 17 and July 23.
Moore recounted to The Daily Gazette how CPS visited Puleski twice, looking for Rayen, during the four days Moore and Puleski were together at 766 State St. Puleski’s room was the only one in the building that had a ground-floor door accessible from the rear of the building, Moore said.
On both occaisons, Moore said Puleski firmly instructed her to not answer the door and to keep Rayen quiet until the CPS workers left. Moore said when she and Puleski parted ways, Rayen was still alive.
Too far, too late
Moore's account of the CPS interaction is consistent with Puleski's previous behavior, when it came to dealing with authorities, as detailed in court documents.
When police in Niskayuna tried to pull her over while she was driving under the influence of drugs, she sped off, according to a police report. She repeatedly missed court dates, and, when confronted by Gloversville police in October 2016 on a warrant related to her failure to appear in court for her arrest in Northumberland, she broke free from police and fled. Her escape was documented in a Daily Gazette news report.
As for why Moore didn't do more to help the baby, such as contacting CPS or police, she said she feared putting herself in further legal jeopardy, given there was an active bench warrant for her at the time. Moore remains in jail, awaiting a hearing on that matter, and said she plans to testify before a grand jury as a key witness in the Rayen Puleski case.
While avoiding the system, Moore said she also took steps to avoid enabling Puleski’s drug addiction. She brought baby formula and other groceries to the apartment, instead of agreeing to Puleski's repeated requests for cash, she said.
"I wanna cry right now, but I can't because of the COs (corrections officers)," Moore said. "[Puleski] was a good mother, sometimes, when she wasn't using. But the drugs took hold of her."
Puleski is also in jail, on charges that include using heroin while caring for Rayen.
Moore was interviewed by police about her interactions with Puleski and Rayen at 766 State St. two days after Dutcher's initial Facebook post pleading with the public to help find Rayen.
The day before Moore spoke with police, investigators spent hours combing the 766 State St. property with police dogs. Once Moore began answering questions on Aug. 9, investigators returned to the property, where they searched the grounds and found the infant’s body.
Puleski’s family members remain in a state of shock. Titshaw was distraught when discussing the fate of her great-niece.
“She felt like she was deserted. No one wanted anything to do with her because they knew what her lifestyle was,” Titshaw said. “I still can’t believe she would do anything to her baby. She gave her other kids up before things could get too far."
Titshaw said she is most angry with Puleski for not doing the same for Rayen.
“I can never forgive her for that,” Titshaw said.
RAYEN PULESKI TIMELINE
April 20 -- Rayen Pulaski is born, two months premature, in the Saratoga Lake Motel.
April 21 -- Heaven Puleski tells relatives she has been released from Saratoga Hospital with Rayen
May 7 -- Puleski’s great aunt, in a Facebook post, offers to help Heaven and Rayen.
Week of June 2 -- Puleski checks into Cocca’s Motel in Ballston Spa
June 22 -- Puleski leaves Cocca’s Motel with Rayen.
Week of June 25 -- Puleski moves into 766 State St.
Week of July 9 -- CPS visits Puleski at her State Street apartment, twice
July 17 -- The last time Rayen is seen alive, according to police and relatives
July 23 -- The end of the window within which police believe Rayen died
Aug. 6 -- Puleski’s aunt, Lisa Dutcher, confronts her niece about the whereabouts of Rayen and calls 911.
Aug. 7 -- Schenectady police receive a call from CPS and launch a missing persons investigation into the whereabouts of Heaven and Rayen Puleski.
Aug. 8 -- Heaven Puleski is brought in for questioning after being located by police near the Days Inn off of Nott Terrace. Later that day, city and state police search 766 State St. with cadaver dogs, but cannot find Rayen.
Aug. 9 -- Sabrina Moore is brought in for questioning from the Summit Towers. That evening, police find a body “consistent with that of a child” behind 766 State St.
Aug. 10 -- Puleski goes to Ellis Hospital for “detox.” No charges filed.
Aug. 13 -- City police announce difficulty in conducting an autopsy because of “the condition of the remains,” delaying a positive ID and cause of death.
Aug. 15 -- Heaven Puleski is charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor in connection with her son's death. She has not been charged with her son's death. Later that day, she is sent to county jail on $20,000 bail.
Aug. 17 -- The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raids the Stockade Deli, where they arrest co-owner Rayen Hussein and charge him with leading a conspiracy to distribute synthetic marijuana. Hussein is believed by authorities to be Rayen Puleski's father.
Aug. 20 -- A hearing is delayed for Puleski, with a grand jury indictment pending.
Aug. 20 -- U.S. attorney for the Northern District announces charges against Rayen Hussein, whose identity as the baby's father is made public for the first time by The Daily Gazette.
Aug. 21 -- Hussein is sent to jail on $50,000 bond.