This July marks two years since a New York woman was found dead at the bottom of a luxury Manhattan building’s trash chute, and while officials have found no signs of foul play in her death, her distraught family believes she was murdered.
Lara Prychodko, 48, died less than a month after she celebrated her birthday in Paris and Ibiza with friends. Her body was found at the bottom of the trash chute after plummeting from the 27th floor of the Zeckendorf Towers in Union Square, where she was living at the time.
NYPD viewed security footage that showed Lara entering the building at 4:10 p.m. on July 10, 2018, and getting on the elevator by herself.
Lara’s father, Nicholas Prychodko, told Dateline that earlier that day, Lara had gone to a nearby bar to watch the World Cup semi-finals.
“Her grandfather is French and she speaks French,” Prychodko said. “So she was a big fan.”
France beat Belgium in the semi-finals match that day, and Prychodko said his daughter was overjoyed.
“The doorman said she was happy. She was high-fiving them,” Prychodko said. “They all loved her because, you know, she was just so friendly and nice.”
A neighbor on the 27th floor later told police that she got home around 4:20 p.m. and noticed nothing amiss in the hallway, which had no security camera, as she walked to her own apartment. Ten minutes later, the same neighbor said she heard loud noises in the hallway and stepped out to investigate.
She said she didn’t see anyone, but saw a purse on the floor outside the trash compactor entrance. Police later identified the purse as belonging to Lara.
Just minutes later, at 4:40 p.m., a maintenance worker checked the trash compactor, which had become jammed. That’s when he found Lara’s crushed body.
After a brief investigation, the NYPD determined no criminal activity was involved. Lara had a blood alcohol level of .29 at the time of her death, and the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner concluded that “the circumstances around the death are unclear; however there is no suspicion of foul play.” The manner of death was listed as “undetermined.”
Lara’s father, however, refuses to believe her death was a drunken mistake and maintains his belief that she was murdered.
“What could have happened to her?” Prychodko asked. “Was it a suicide? It’s not possible. That’s not Lara. Was it an accident? I very quickly became convinced that there was only one plausible explanation for what took place. And that’s homicide.”
He explained that the trash chute at Zeckendorf Towers was about 15'' by 18'' with a door, and that his daughter was 5’10,” tall, which he believed would make it impossible for her to just fall in or even attempt suicide.
In 2019, Prychodko sought help from former New York City Chief Medical Examiner Michael Baden. Baden recently made headlines after concluding that Jeffrey Epstein's injuries were "more indicative" of homicide than the suicide determination made in the official autopsy report.
Dateline viewed a letter that Baden sent to the Prychodko family after he had reviewed autopsy notes, lab tests, crime scene photos and x-rays.
In the July 15, 2019 report, Baden determined that Lara Prychodko “may have died because of homicidal ligature strangulation and was then placed in the garbage chute.”
The report also stated that the strangulation “may also explain why there was little bleeding from the lacerated viscera and torn blood vessels noted at autopsy.”
Nicholas Prychodko told Dateline that Baden also mentioned a photo from the scene that showed Lara without her shirt.
“Lara’s blouse is torn from her body,” Prychodko said. “And that to him is an indication that there could have been a struggle against the assailant.”
Lara’s father submitted Baden’s findings to the New York County District Attorney's Office and the NYC Office of the Medical Examiner and requested that her case be reopened.
Despite Baden’s findings, the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner told Prychodko in a letter viewed by Dateline, that the medical examiner “found no signs of foul play in your daughter’s death,” and has determined to stand by its earlier findings and not reopen the investigation.
Lara’s father told Dateline that before her death, she was going through an acrimonious divorce with estranged husband David Schlachet, who owns a Manhattan construction company. The couple fought over millions of dollars in assets, including a home in the Hamptons and two apartments in Manhattan, he said.
They have a son together, who is now 14 years old. Lara had lost custody of her son because of a DUI charge, her father said. He added that before her death, Lara had been granted visitation rights and was scheduled to see her son the day after she died.
In an email sent to Dateline, Schlachet stated “I can only say that my divorce -like so many- was a painful and sad experience to go through with someone I had loved so deeply. But that does not diminish the grief and trauma our son and I have experienced by the tragic
loss of our wife and mother, Lara. It is a pain that we are both still learning to cope with and which we will both carry with us forever.”
Lara’s father told Dateline that he’s determined to get justice for his daughter and talks about the impact she had on so many people.
“She shaped both the beginning of my formative adult life and now she’s shaping how I spend the last years of my life,” he said. “She has made a tremendous impact in my life, and also in so many other lives through the course of her own, all-too-short life.”
Lara grew up in Toronto, Canada where she attended the Etobicoke School for the Arts and then went on to the University of Toronto. Her father said she was very protective of her younger siblings.
“Although you can imagine that she could also be a little bit bossy at times,” Prychodko said, laughing. “She had this happy childhood. I remember spending summers at the lake -- renting cottages by the lake going fishing, canoeing, swimming.”
Right after college, Lara moved to New York City. Lara held many jobs as she worked toward success in the city. She became an event organizer and worked with corporate organizations, including WebMD, where she met CEO Wayne Gattinella, whom she was dating at the time of her death, according to her friends and family.
“Lara was extremely sociable,” her father said. “She had great interpersonal skills and networking skills, which is what helped to make her so successful.”
Lara’s sister, Talya, who still lives in Toronto, told Dateline the two were extremely close.
“She was my best friend,” Talya said. “She was kind and generous and found the good in everyone. She was a beautiful soul.”
If Lara were still alive, she would have turned 50 on June 23. Talya told Dateline she has connected Lara’s friends from all over the world to share stories of Lara and to celebrate her life.
“She touched so many people’s lives during her time here,” Talya said. “She was a social person and she strived to surround herself with people of influence, not affluence.”
Talya said she last spoke to Lara on her birthday at the end of June, just before she died.
“I can’t believe that’s the last time I heard her voice,” Talya said. “I don’t know how to live without her. There’s a hole in my heart now that will never be filled.”
Talya said she would like justice for her sister’s death and closure for the family, especially Lara’s son.
“It’s haunting to think of my sister’s final moments,” Talya said. “You don’t just slip and fall into a trash chute. Something really terrible happened to her that day. And this is what the family is left with - those last moments of her life.”
Vesna Todorov told Dateline she is still heartbroken, and puzzled, over the bizarre death of one of her closest friends in New York.
“It’s definitely tragic, but it is not a tragic accident,” Vesna said. “That’s what puzzles me. If she fell down the stairs, OK, but not a trash chute. That’s not an accident. Someone did that to her.”
Vesna added that even now she struggles with taking the garbage out.
“I think of her last moments and I just can’t do it,” Vesna said. “I just don’t understand why anyone would do this to such wonderful person. But whoever killed her is still out there.”
Dateline spoke to the Prychodko family lawyer, but there have been no decisions on what the next step in Lara’s case will be.
Lara’s father said he will continue to push for justice as he pleads for anyone with information that may help the case move forward.
“Someone out there may know something about what took place, even if they were not actually a participant,” Prychodko said. “And for whatever reason, out of the goodness of your heart or out of a feeling of remorse, please step forward and share that with the police and the district attorney’s office so that they can pursue that investigation further.”