By Laura T. Coffey, TODAY
Jan Hefler gulped when she saw the Facebook message. It was a message she’d been hoping to receive for two decades, though she doubted it would ever arrive.
“Hi Jan… My name is Sarah and I am the daughter of Brenda Ripoli. I recently came across numerous articles you wrote regarding my mother’s murder… I’m the little girl from the story but am 27 now and want to fill you (in) on the second half of how everything ends.… I would love to meet or talk with you!”
After all these years, “the little girl from the story” finally felt ready to learn more about her past — a past that had been shielded from her by grieving grandparents and others determined to protect her from more trauma.
Hefler knew the details of Sarah Ripoli’s past better than just about anyone. The retired Philadelphia Inquirer reporter had spent years chronicling the aftermath of Brenda Ripoli’s murder by her abusive husband. Readers were shocked to learn what had been happening inside the Ripolis’ picture-perfect Colonial home in an upscale New Jersey neighborhood. Little Sarah, age 6 at the time, was downstairs when her dad shot and killed her mom in their home on April 8, 1999.
“This woman was so tortured and, at that time in society, could not find any way to escape,” Hefler, 69, told TODAY Parents. “She knew she was going to die.”
Raised by loving grandparents, Sarah Ripoli spent most of her life trying to blend in, live a normal life and leave the past in the past. She only trusted her best friend, Kim, with the secret of her mother’s murder and her father’s imprisonment. With anyone else, the topic was off limits — even though it never left her mind.
She missed everything about her mother: her smile; her laugh; her willingness to play with Sarah for hours; her favorite signature scent, Angel perfume.
“When I think of my mom, I remember light and happiness and goodness,” she told TODAY Parents.
Sarah wasn’t the only person who cherished such memories. A few weeks before her 25th birthday, Sarah received a mysterious package from a stranger. Inside the package was a binder full of photos, tributes and memories written in 1999 by Brenda Ripoli’s co-workers. Sarah’s heart pounded as she read the card accompanying the binder:
“While cleaning out our office, I found this binder tucked away on one of our bookcase shelves and for some reason, I just had to find and send it to Brenda’s daughter. I didn’t know Brenda or have the opportunity to work with her, but she was loved by those who took the time to write the notes. I am hoping you are the rightful owner of this treasure.”
As she steadied herself and examined the binder’s contents, she noticed something: Many of the notes were addressed to her.
“Sarah, your mom loved you more than anything in this world. She is proud of the person you are and the person you will become as you make your place.”
“As much as she loved her work, nothing, absolutely nothing, could compare to her love for you. You were the light of her life.”
“As you grew, your mom did so many special things — all with you and your happiness in mind. My favorite was watching her plan, create and painstakingly sew your Halloween costumes each year.”
“Sarah, I know that you will grow up to be smart, beautiful, and charming just as your mother knew you would. And you will make her very proud. Just as you should be so very proud of your mother’s courage, her charisma and her spirit that kept her smiling throughout her tragically short life.”
Sarah was astonished and grateful to receive the messages written with such care two decades earlier. She said it felt like a sign.
“Why was it lost for so many years and then it shows up on my 25th birthday?” Sarah said. “I didn’t act on it then, but it made me more open to unraveling that part of my life.”
In 2018, at age 26, Sarah felt inspired to follow a dream and launch a fashion blog. As she began building a following through the blog and Instagram, she knew she wanted to do something important and meaningful — something that was nagging at her with increasing urgency. In January 2019, she realized it was time to share her secret with the rest of the world.
“My heart is basically palpitating out of my chest as I type this,” she wrote in a candid blog post describing the shame she had internalized because of what her father had done to her mother.
“Losing a parent to domestic violence is like losing two parents at once,” she wrote. The pain “never actually goes away … BUT this is where you have two choices: to let the emotional distress and trauma own you, or for you to own it.”
The post sparked positive feedback from strangers who survived domestic violence as children and adults. It also signaled to Brenda Ripoli’s close friends and loved ones that Sarah might be ready to talk about her mom.
One of those people was Brenda’s best friend, Debbie Wende. Debbie and Sarah met for lunch to share sad and happy memories. Over lunch, Debbie offered to send Sarah some old newspaper stories explaining what had happened to her mother.
“I told Debbie I had tried looking up some things on Google, but nothing was really there,” Sarah recalled. “She told me, ‘Oh, there’s a long in-depth piece and lots of other stories.’”
Bizarrely, the internet had shielded Sarah from her past almost as successfully as her close relatives had. The reason her online searches didn’t turn anything up was that much of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s content from 1999 to 2002 — the time of the paper’s peak coverage of the Ripoli case — hadn’t been cached on Google.
Debbie mailed Sarah a long Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine piece and some other stories full of disturbing, lurid details. Sarah read allegations about her father’s mistresses, his obsession with sadomasochistic sex acts, his pattern of imposing punishments on her mother, his penchant for creating humiliating sex tapes and using them to blackmail her mom into never leaving him.
“All of these reports were really heartbreaking and hard to read,” Sarah told TODAY Parents. “I kept seeing this name of the same person who had written all the stories: Jan Hefler, Jan Hefler. I thought to myself, ‘Who is this Jan Hefler?’”
In the summer of 2019, Sarah Ripoli began trying in earnest to track Hefler down. She left multiple messages for her at The Philadelphia Inquirer — to no avail. What she didn’t realize was that Hefler had recently taken a buyout and retired from her job of more than 30 years, but her voicemail and email address hadn’t been deactivated.
Sarah also tried reaching her via LinkedIn and other avenues without success. Finally, on Aug. 30, 2019, she decided to try Facebook Messenger.
Shortly afterward, the two women found themselves meeting in person for the first time at a restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
“I was so nervous — I don’t know why — but as soon as I sat down with her, I felt really comfortable,” Sarah said. “It was so nice to have someone I could talk to and ask questions. I knew she knew so much about my family that I felt close to her.”
Hefler experienced a similar swirl of emotions.
“I was so happy to meet her,” she said. “I didn’t know her — but I knew her, on some weird plane. As a mother myself, I’d always been so concerned for her. I wondered, ‘How is she going to turn out? How is she going to survive this awful tragedy?’ …
“And here she was, out and about. She was happy and bubbly and doing great. My fears were allayed.”
As she’d promised to do in her Facebook message, Sarah filled Hefler in on “the second half” of her life story. Sarah had recently quit her human resources job, moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, and launched a whimsical fashion line inspired by her mother called “Angel Energy.” Each month, Angel Energy donates 25% of its proceeds to a different domestic violence charity.
Sitting in the restaurant for hours, the women also discussed painful memories from April 8, 1999. Sarah shared what she remembered from that awful day: how her mom, finally determined to escape, kept running up and down the stairs of their home and filling garbage bags with their belongings. As her mother did this, Sarah watched TV on the living room couch with her paternal grandfather. In his 70s and hard of hearing, Pop-Pop dozed while sitting upright on the couch. Sarah nervously chewed on her nails.
“Sarah, get your hands out of your mouth,” her mother commented on one of her treks up the staircase. Those were the last words she’d ever say to her daughter.
Sarah heard her mother scream upstairs: “Frank, no!” Then came the gunshot. To Sarah, it sounded like two bricks smashing together. Pop-Pop slept through the whole thing. Anxiety flooded Sarah’s 6-year-old body and mind.
Minutes later, her father, Frank Ripoli Jr., summoned his dad to come see what had happened. Pop-Pop obliged, then came running back down the stairs, stunned. He told Sarah they had to leave.
“Where’s Mommy? I want to see her!” Sarah recalled asking her grandfather.
“She’s resting,” he told her.
Pop-Pop said something different once they got in the car.
“Your mom’s in heaven right now.”
At Sarah’s request, Hefler dug through boxes of old newspaper clippings in her basement and made copies of everything she had written about the Ripolis. She gave all of it to Sarah, providing her with a detailed archive.
They met and talked more — and then the coronavirus pandemic struck. But, on Oct. 15, they managed to get together in person for a socially distanced special occasion. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Maria Panaritis planned to write about the reunion between the child survivor of domestic violence and the reporter who had covered her family’s story. They met at the home of Ina Berman, 89, the maternal grandmother who raised Sarah after the murder.
“You look beautiful!” Hefler told Berman.
“It’s been so long,” Berman said.
Berman and Hefler had spoken many times during the sentencing of Frank Ripoli Jr. and the ensuing custody battle for Sarah. To protect Sarah from an embarrassing public trial, her father was offered a plea bargain. He pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated manslaughter and was released from prison in 2016 after serving a 15-year sentence. (Sarah said her father hasn’t tried to contact her, and she doesn’t want to speak with him.)
Hefler knew how painful her son-in-law’s early prison release must have been for Berman. She also knew how determined Berman had been to help Sarah have a normal childhood.
“You raised such a beautiful, kind-hearted daughter,” Hefler told her. “You did such a wonderful job.”
Hefler said the meetup at Berman’s home had a profound effect on her.
“It was so wonderful for me to see how these people could overcome such a horrific thing,” Hefler said. “They were able to put it behind them on some level and be fine. That’s what we all have to do when tragedy strikes — and it’s hard. … But 20 years later, you can see it so clearly: Wow. They really did it.”
Hefler still reflects with gratitude on the female editors who fought so hard to let her cover the Ripoli family’s story in depth.
“I’m praying for the future of journalism,” Hefler said. “We all work so hard and pour our hearts into our stories. We all hope we can make some kind of impression or reveal some kind of truth.
“That’s why we can’t be accused of doing fake news. What we cover isn’t fake. These things really do happen behind closed doors.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “abusers repeatedly go to extremes to prevent the victim from leaving. In fact, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence.” To get help, call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. The TTY number for the hearing-impaired is 1-800-787-3224. Learn more here.
Laura T. Coffey is a senior contributing writer, editor and producer for TODAY and is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts."
From The Philadelphia Inquirer’s columnist Maria Panaritis: A child witness to her mom's murder seeks healing 20 years later from the journalist on the story
From The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine archives: Jan Hefler’s 2002 story ‘A crime of passion, a young life in limbo’