From the archives: A crime of passion, a young life in limbo
This story was originally published on April 28, 2002, in The Inquirer’s Magazine.
This story was originally published on April 28, 2002, in The Inquirer’s Magazine.
A well-dressed elderly couple were fidgeting in two of the hard plastic chairs lining the Burlington County Courthouse lobby. A few moments earlier, their lawyer had been summoned to the judge’s chambers — an inner cloister off limits to them. The husband and wife were whispering nervously.
Two years earlier, an unspeakable tragedy had brought them to the same courthouse under the glare of television cameras. Now they were back to deal with a resulting heartache that lingered in the shadows.
Across the marbled floor sat another graying couple, more casually attired, looking equally uncomfortable and upset.
Each couple avoided the other’s eyes. Finally, the four were ushered into a small, dimly lit semicircular courtroom.
Superior Court Judge Marie E. Lihotz was irritated. That morning, a third lawyer had appeared to ask permission to join what was already one of the most heartrending and troubling cases she has witnessed.
Since the summer of 1999, the two couples have been locked in an unusual custody battle over their now 9-year-old grandchild. As tensions continue to escalate, the girl is shuffled between their two homes, one week here, the next week there.
Lihotz fumed because that third lawyer, Edward Wiercinski, who represents the girl’s father, had come to court that day without filing the proper paperwork. Wiercinski also brought a startling message: His client wanted visits with his daughter — at the prison in Cumberland County where he is incarcerated.
Wiercinski says he knows of no legal precedent for that issue.
It is a tough call for the judge: What is right for a child whose father killed her mother?
Frank Ripoli Jr. pulls on a khaki uniform each morning. The 47-year-old man sleeps in a cell at the South Woods State Prison. One day he may earn the privilege of making homemade sausages, salads, and other foods in the huge inmate training kitchen on the grounds. There also are sewing programs and computer-repair jobs for menial wages.
Once, Ripoli had it all.
Or so it seemed.
A successful career as Burlington County’s environmental health coordinator. An attractive wife who was intelligent and bubbly. A big white Colonial home in upscale Medford. A sporty new car at least every other year. A bright, talented young daughter.
As if that weren’t enough, Ripoli also had two mistresses at the health department.
Now, South Woods, or another prison, will be his address until at least 2016. Visits by his mother and his longtime mistress break the monotony, but what he would really like is visits, or at least phone conversations, with his daughter.
To say it’s a sticky issue is understatement. Not only did he kill the child’s mother, his wife, but the girl was in the house when he shot her, three years ago this month.
Sparing the child the trauma of a nasty public trial was a major reason her father was offered a lenient plea bargain. Lurid videotapes and photographs were almost certain to have been part of the prosecution’s pursuit of a first-degree murder conviction, which could have resulted in a life sentence. Instead, in exchange for pleading guilty to a charge of aggravated manslaughter, Ripoli was sentenced to 18 years and cannot be paroled until he serves at least 15 years.
Prosecutors wanted to guarantee that the child would never be placed in the custody of Ripoli, who they say sexually tortured her mother for years before killing her. The daughter will be at least 23 years old when he is released.
But Wiercinski says Ripoli has rights as a father. Ripoli blamed the killing on a longtime addiction to Xanax, an antianxiety drug. He says he became irrational, and has given conflicting statements about what he remembers of the shooting.
His lawyer cites psychologists who say it would be in the girl’s best interests to have Contact with her father. A child who has suffered the loss of one parent shouldn’t be deprived of seeing her remaining parent.
Other psychologists disagree. Ripoli manipulated women, they say, and could do more harm than good. Still others say that at the very least, such visits must be monitored.
The youngster was placed in the joint custody of her two sets of grandparents. Until the judge rules otherwise, she spends seven days with Ina and Gerald Berman, her maternal grandparents. They live in a Mount Laurel condominium with their two cats.
The alternating weeks she stays with Elizabeth and Frank Ripoli Sr. in their Marlton bungalow, a home a few miles away. It has a backyard swing and a vegetable garden.
The one constant in the child’s life is her school in Medford, which she attended before the killing.
The Ripoli tragedy did not erupt suddenly. Its roots go back 25 years, according to police reports and the accounts of women in Frank Ripoli’s life. Many of the statements are deeply disturbing and, in the case of Brenda Ripoli, document the phenomenon of women suffering under recurrent domestic abuse from which they can discern no means of escape. Frank Ripoli declined to be interviewed, so the tale must be seen through the women whose lives he so profoundly affected.
“He had the longest eyelashes,” she recalled. They both attended Lenape Regional High School, where she was a pom-pom girl and prom princess and he was a wrestling champion. The year was 1973; she was 16, he was 17.
The former Lorene Navarra says it was his “little-boy helplessness” that seduced her. “There was a soft, kind spot in him, almost like a boyish characteristic. Me being the nurturing, caring person I was, I became like a mom to him,” she recalled.
When Frank called her his “lucky charm,” Lorene was flattered. But soon, he demanded that she attend every match so he could continue his winning streak. It was the beginning of his long list of orders.
“After I slept with him, he told me no one else would want me. I believed him. I had lived a sheltered life. Because I was Catholic I felt I had to marry him. I felt I had to make it work,” she said.
They dated nine years before marrying.
Lorene worked as a hairdresser. Frank was an inspector at the health department. On Fridays, Frank would pick up her paycheck. He bought himself an MGB, then a Triumph Spitfire, then a brown Datsun 280Z, while her only car fell into disrepair. He frequently went places without her, but forbade her to go out without him.
Lorene thought about leaving, but he convinced her she couldn’t make it on her own. She was embarrassed she had gotten into this predicament and felt trapped.
Frank owned a small arsenal and had explained to her in graphic detail the wound each weapon could inflict.
“I took it as a threat,” Lorene said.
Four years into their marriage, she found her opportunity.
Frank left a handwritten note on the kitchen table indicating that he was going to New York for the weekend to visit an old friend. It gushed: "Lorie, God knows how much I love you. See you on Monday. "
Lorene wished the note was true. But a phone bill tucked under the mattress proved to her that he was cheating. She had not wanted this ending. But now she had grounds for divorce. And she knew what she had to do: Leave — immediately.
Mustering courage, she summoned her father, her uncle, and three male cousins. They brought a pickup truck. Soon she would be free.
Lorene fled to an apartment in Margate. A heavy weight was lifted and she said she quickly felt "free as a bird, for the first time. " She soon remarried.
Before her cousins left the home she had shared with Frank, Lorene asked them to do one more thing. She wanted to see what was in a three-foot-long black metal box swathed in chains and padlocks. It was bolted into the closet wall.
“It’s not yours. It’s not your business,” Frank had barked when she inquired about the contents. For four years, the image of secrecy, deceit and control gnawed at her. She surmised the keys were at his office, a place she was forbidden to visit.
The men passed around a hammer and began whacking the “Pandora’s Box,” as she called it. It would not budge. It would be left behind, along with not much more than his clothes. She had removed them from the dresser and folded them before placing them on the closet shelf.
Lorene and Brenda never met, but their similarities were many. Each woman spent more than 13 years with a man whom Superior Court Judge John A. Almeida would later call "a poster boy for domestic violence. "
They both were seduced by a hunk, a Tom Selleck or John Stossel look-alike who seemed to desperately need mothering. And each missed the early signs that he was a controlling abuser skilled at finding vulnerable women.
Both women had long, silky brown hair. They were pretty and petite and smart. Each was nice to a fault, very forgiving. Each would make a perfect wife, and Frank knew it.
Then there was the black box. Lorene suspected that it held cash. Or was it drugs, illegal stocks, guns?
Frank and Brenda were coworkers at the county health department, and had been seeing each other while he was married to Lorene. After Lorene left and he moved in with Brenda, Frank chained that box to the bedpost. He told her that it contained guns and he would use them if she didn’t obey him, Brenda told her best friend, Debbie Wende.
Eventually, Brenda and Lorene also had nicknames for each other. Brenda called Lorene “the luckiest woman in the world” because she had escaped from Frank, Wende says.
Lorene referred to Brenda as her “angel” and mourned her death.
When Brenda Berman, who later became a marketing executive with the American Dairy Council in Philadelphia, married Frank in 1986, she became his subservient caretaker. She had to give him insulin shots twice daily for his diabetes. She had to buy fresh meat and vegetables daily because he refused to eat frozen food or leftovers. When Frank had insomnia, she told friends, he made her read to him in the wee hours. And then there was his voracious appetite for sex, complete with photography.
Frank repeated to Brenda the quirks of each weapon he owned and explained how a 9mm bullet can tunnel through a person’s head.
But as time went on, Frank stopped hinting and began making direct threats.
And nude photographs weren’t enough. According to Brenda’s private journal, he ordered her to engage in deviant sex and began videotaping her.
In 1996, when Brenda and Frank had been married for a decade and their daughter was a toddler, Brenda invited Wende to visit the Garden State Discovery Museum in Cherry Hill, where Brenda had designed a dairy exhibit for children. Surrounded by signs of her success, she finally let her best friend in on the dark side of her life.
Frank was blackmailing his wife, Wende says. He had forced her to engage in sadomasochistic sex acts and then videotaped and photographed her, Brenda told her. The materials were locked in safe deposit boxes registered only to Frank.
If Brenda sought a divorce, Frank warned, he would send copies of the explicit materials to her boss, her parents, her sister, her friends, even the judge who would rule on the custody of their daughter, according to Wende.
Brenda felt she had to do what she was told. Frank had skillfully sabotaged her self-esteem, on a daily basis, and he took control, Wende says. He warned that he would use one of his many weapons to kill her and her parents if she dared to seek a divorce.
After Brenda’s death, her parents found a letter she had written that explained the threats Frank had made over the years. She even predicted her death: "Maybe I was stupid for not leaving him … but I really believed that he would hurt or kill all of us. I have therefore sacrificed my life to save [my daughter’s] life and the lives of my family members. "
Brenda couldn’t bring herself to discuss the sordid details with Wende, even though as friends they had giggled through college classes. “Brenda was too embarrassed. … It took her time to tell me things,” Wende says.
The breaking point came in March 1999. For the first time in their tumultuous 13-year marriage, Brenda would defy Frank.
She would leave and go underground with their daughter, then 6.
Brenda could not obey her husband’s latest order. It was too depraved. It was worse, she confided to friends, than all the ones before.
On the morning of March 6, Brenda put on a business outfit and her customary high heels as though she were going to work at her high-rise office in the historic section of Philadelphia.
Brenda bade her husband goodbye. She got into her company car, picked her daughter up at school, and didn’t look back.
Brenda couldn’t know then that her freedom would last only one month.
Before taking a flight with her daughter to Florida, where her parents had a second home, Brenda called Debbie Wende on her cell phone. She was crying.
“Frank was going to make her do something permanently degrading,” Wende says. "Something she couldn’t do. To prove that she loved him. I asked her what it was and she started to answer. She just couldn’t say it. She started muttering and I said, `Oh, never mind. ' "
Law enforcement sources, who obtained Brenda’s journals, said Frank had ordered Brenda to solicit sex from three or more men at a bar and bring them all home to have depraved sex with her. He’d watch from behind his video camera.
Brenda was terrified. The humiliation would be unbearable.
But because of their child, Brenda’s break with Frank could never be cut and dried. On her lawyer’s advice, Brenda left Florida after only a few days, returning to her parents' home in Mount Laurel. She initiated custody proceedings, and the girl stayed with her and visited her father on some weekends.
On April 8, 1999, in the company of their lawyers, Frank agreed to let Brenda back into their home to pack her things. When she balked at being there alone with him, he said he would arrange to have his father present. Their 6-year-old daughter would be there, too. Brenda would be safe, he said.
Brenda believed him. That afternoon she was dead.
Tina and the other woman
The news reached the staff of the Burlington County Health Department that afternoon via a crackly police scanner in a back office.
The report — an apparent murder at Heron Court — was chilling. Frank Ripoli, their supervisor, lived there and had not shown up for work that day.
Their own torment was at last ending too.
“At times we felt like we were living in a soap opera,” said Frederick Lawson, an assistant environmental coordinator.
For years, employees saw two women who worked for Ripoli rotate in and out of his office and spend hours with him behind closed doors. Sometimes they would argue over him in the outer office, where about 10 employees tried to work. Frank would just smile and close his door. Three employees filed a grievance with their union, saying that workplace conditions had deteriorated.
One of the women was Tina Rizzo, whose affair with Ripoli dates back to his first marriage.
Rizzo, 48, now divorced, with two older children, was not the typical “other woman.” She did not stay in the shadows during her 19-year relationship with Ripoli.
At work, Rizzo and Ripoli openly told others that they were soul mates, and frequently went to lunch together.
They told Lorene that they were best friends.
They included Brenda in their sex games, as shown in the photographs police found in the black box.
A petite woman with long brown hair, Tina has remained loyal to Frank. Eight months after his arrest, when he was free on $400,000 bail, Tina invited him to stay in her home in Medford Lakes with her 15-year-old daughter. He stayed longer than a year, awaiting trial.
Tina told police that she still believed in him. She would make no apologies. She still visits Frank regularly at the prison and has spent time with his parents — and his daughter.
And there was the other other woman. Health department employees watched in awe as Ripoli draped himself over her desk, stared intently into her eyes, and made small talk for what seemed like hours. “We all could see how he was seducing her,” colleague Nancy Phillips said.
The female employee, who declined an interview and whose name The Inquirer is withholding, told detectives after the killing that her affair with Ripoli was “subhuman” and that Ripoli had made it "seem so glamorous. "
Police said that Ripoli began photographing her, too. She wanted to end the relationship, but couldn’t. She began quarreling with Rizzo in the office.
Rizzo, an environmental planner in the department, has declined any comment. “No thank you. No thank you,” she said on the telephone. "I’m already stressed about what has appeared in the newspaper. "
Had the case gone to trial, she had planned to testify in Ripoli’s defense. On the day of his sentencing, she arrived at the courthouse holding hands with Ripoli, still free on bail. She slipped into a row behind the defense table and sat with his parents.
Although Frank Ripoli entered a guilty plea to aggravated manslaughter, the closest he came to admitting his crime in court was to say, “No,” when he was asked, "Did you accidentally shoot Brenda Ripoli? "
He had an unusual defense in the works to counter the first-degree murder charges he faced: that he did not have intent to kill, in the legal definition, because of his longtime addiction to Xanax, a prescription antianxiety drug.
Ripoli’s lawyers said the sex acts, documented in photos and videotapes that prosecutors were prepared to enter into the trial proceedings, were consensual, despite evidence to the contrary, including Brenda’s journal and tape recordings that she made of their phone calls after she left her husband.
The defense contended that when Brenda left him, Frank became distraught.
In a report filed with court documents, Grigory Rasin, Frank Ripoli’s psychiatrist, said that Ripoli told him, "In my heart, I believed that she would come back. "
But he also told Rasin, "I was a verbally and emotionally abusive husband and punished her from time to time. Things had to be going my way. My way or the highway. She was submissive. "
At the sentencing hearing, lawyer Edward Wiercinski argued that when Brenda grabbed her lacy wedding gown as she stood in their bedroom packing, Ripoli snapped. "That dress symbolized their marriage. "
According to friends of Brenda Ripoli, she told them Frank forced her to put on the dress every year on their anniversary to prove she hadn’t gained weight.
Now, the legacy of the crime revolves around a 9-year-old girl.
Then 6, she was downstairs with her grandfather Frank Ripoli Sr. when her father shot and killed her mother upstairs.
Judge Lihotz is still considering which home would be better for the girl — the Ripolis' or the Bermans'. Both couples are in their 70s.
The maternal grandparents, the Bermans, believe the child’s rotation between the two homes is not healthy. They are seeking full custody. They believe the Ripolis' continuing devotion to their son and their past refusals to discuss the killing with the girl are contrary to the child’s best interests.
The Ripolis also want full custody, although they would not object to continuing the weekly rotation, saying it has not been too disruptive for the child. They believe they would be the best guardians because they were the child’s daytime caregivers when she was young. They also feel the child needs to have a relationship with her father.
The custody trial ended in October. The judge is expected to decide as well whether Frank Ripoli Jr. can have Contact with his daughter and under what conditions. The girl has said she would like to speak with him and ask him what happened that day.
Also pending is a wrongful-death suit filed by the court-appointed lawyer for Brenda Ripoli’s estate (who was also appointed the girl’s guardian). A preliminary proceeding is scheduled for Wednesday before a different judge.
A month after her mother was killed, the girl was given a birthday dress by Tina Rizzo, who told her it was from her father. At the time, he was in jail before being released on bail. Prosecutors were angry. They brought the information to court, saying Ripoli had violated a judge’s order barring him from contacting the child. They also complained that Ripoli and his daughter had spoken by telephone while she was staying with his parents.
That was almost three years ago. It was the last time that the young girl and her father spoke.
Where to get help
“Fact: Most victims of domestic violence leave their abusers, often several times. It may take a number of attempts to permanently separate because abusers use violence, financial control, or threats about the children to compel victims to return” — the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence.
If victims get help at an early stage, they can greatly improve their chances of obtaining the protection and financial security to leave permanently.
For information and assistance, call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Callers can be connected to the closest crisis counseling center. Translators in many languages are available. The TTY number for the hearing-impaired is 1-800-787-3224. The Web site for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which has more information, is www.ncadv.org.
How this story was put together
Jan Hefler attended court proceedings in the custody and the criminal cases and interviewed Lorene Navarra, Debbie Wende, Burlington County Health Department employees, prosecutors, law enforcement authorities, and lawyers to write this story. Frank Ripoli Jr. and Tina Rizzo declined to be interviewed. The courts have restricted the grandparents from commenting on the custody case.