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A child witness to her mom’s murder seeks healing 20 years later from the journalist on the story | Maria Panaritis

She was, until only recently, the unnamed girl who heard her dad shoot her mom inside their Medford home. Sarah Ripoli now wants the world - herself included - to know the whole story.

This is 10-year-old Sarah Ripoli. She was only 6 when she witnessed the shooting death of her mother, Brenda, at the hands of her father, Frank Jr., in 1999. Now 28, she is telling the world a secret she had kept even from close friends: "I was that girl."
This is 10-year-old Sarah Ripoli. She was only 6 when she witnessed the shooting death of her mother, Brenda, at the hands of her father, Frank Jr., in 1999. Now 28, she is telling the world a secret she had kept even from close friends: "I was that girl."Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The Facebook message came from a stranger. A person known publicly for years only as “the child.” It nearly knocked the wind out of the former Inquirer reporter who received it.

“Hi, Jan. ... My name is Sarah ... I recently came across numerous articles you wrote regarding my mother’s murder ... I’m the little girl from the story."

There in front of Jan Hefler was the very gesture that a social worker had predicted decades earlier would one day come. The child Hefler had never seen a picture of or spoken to but whose worst day on earth had been a years-long reporting endeavor now wanted to talk. The girl had witnessed the killing of her mother by an abusive husband in their South Jersey home. Now she was a woman. And she wanted to meet the journalist whose dispatches had been kept from the child as a way of protecting her.

There was no Google cache of Hefler’s stories because the killing happened just before the tech company began to hoover up news stories — and advertising dollars that used to pay for reporters like Hefler — into its internet search engine.

There was only, Sarah Ripoli surmised, a paper trail of the stories that had landed in pulp on Inquirer reader doorsteps two decades ago. She hoped she would find them in the hands of the woman who had written them all.

“I was so overwhelmed,” Hefler said when I called a few days ago to ask about the overture from Sarah, “and just had to gulp.”

Sarah, 28, had told me about her hunt for Hefler in a most unexpected way.

A publicist had offered me an interview with the young woman who she said had gone public but only to a small audience. Moments into our first conversation, however, Sarah rattled off excited details about how she had found, and had lunch late last year with, Hefler.

“I went on a hunt for Jan,” Sarah said. “I was looking on LinkedIn. I was looking everywhere.”

Sarah had first tried finding Hefler at the Inquirer only to learn she had taken a buyout in the summer of 2019. When they finally met at a Cherry Hill restaurant, Hefler brought paper news clips that she had, indeed, dug out of her basement for the occasion.

“It was crazy,” Sarah said. “It was a really, really great moment for me.”

Sarah was 6 when, while in the living room of her Medford home in 1999, her father shot and killed her mom upstairs. The slaying gripped the region as Hefler unearthed lurid, terrifying details through years-long reporting. A 2002 Inquirer Magazine story about an ensuing custody battle between the child’s grandparents left readers wondering if the unnamed girl would end up with the parents of her dead mother or the parents of her mother’s killer.

Sarah read that story for the first time last year, after it was shared in hard-copy form by a friend of her mother’s. She had just blogged about her identity, so her loved ones thought Sarah was strong enough to learn more. Reading it, she said, "hit me like a ton of bricks.” She recited and posted excerpts on a selfie video she posted to Instagram.

A father with mistresses. A man who allegedly crafted sex tapes to blackmail his wife into never fleeing. A mother so tormented that, in a letter found after her death, Brenda Ripoli made this prediction a year before she lost her life: “My husband, Frank Ripoli Jr., has killed me.”

Hefler had found that note, she later told me, after sifting through pretrial court filings for hours one day at the Burlington County courthouse. Frank Ripoli soon after pleaded guilty and got a prison term that ended with his release 15 years later in 2016. Sarah has not spoken to him in years.

Sarah had happily grown up knowing none of those ugly details.

“I just wanted a fresh start and to be normal,” she says.

Something compelled her to change course last year, the year she would turn 27.

In January 2019, from an apartment at 17th and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia at the end of a workday as a human resources professional, she hit “publish” on a post to her fashion blog, In it, she told the world who she was. Fully. A small circle of followers saw it. Told their own stories of domestic violence. Inspired her to start a clothing line in her mother’s memory, Angel Energy. She moved to Hoboken, N.J., to do it.

Talk about opening Pandora’s Box.

“Every time I go to my grandma’s house in Mount Laurel, I just get lost in the basement with boxes of my mom’s things,” she said. “My whole life I didn’t want to look. ... The more I unravel it’s challenging.”

One note she found in her mother’s writing, from before Sarah’s birth: “I feel dead inside.”

Sarah felt she also needed to find the woman behind the Inquirer byline, too.

“She’s a huge part of my story,” Sarah said.

Before that, all the young woman had known, other than her mother’s embrace, smile, and voice while reading books at night, and the scent of her favorite Angel perfume, was what she remembered of April 8, 1999.

A hearing officer had just given Brenda custody of Sarah. For safety while she packed her things, the officer agreed only to let her abusive husband’s hard-of-hearing father be at the house — along with Sarah. Pop-pop was asleep, out cold, on the couch. Sarah was near him. Her parents were upstairs — her mom hauling trash bags of her belongings down the steps, over and over.

“She walked up the stairs, I heard her scream, ‘Frank, No!’” Sarah recalled. “I’ll never forget the sound of the gunshot. It sounded like two bricks landing together. My pop-pop slept through it. I was sitting there. I knew something was wrong. Finally, my dad came downstairs and he got my pop-pop and brought my pop-pop upstairs to tell him what happened. My pop-pop came running down the stairs.”

“'Where is Mommy? Where is Mommy?'” Sarah said she asked as she tried to run up to the bedroom.

“'She’s resting,'” her pop-pop said and hustled her to the car.

“We got in the car,” Sarah told me, “and he said, ‘Your mom’s in heaven now.’”

A few months later, her maternal grandparents made sure to dress up Sarah in the Halloween costume her mother had made — but had not lived to see her daughter wear.

On Thursday morning at the home in Mount Laurel where she was raised by those grandparents, Ina Berman, and her late husband, Gerald, Sarah gathered with the now-89-year-old protector, her aunt Beth-Ann Fantacone, and me. We all watched as Hefler — whom I had gotten permission to invite as well — approached on foot from the curb.

Berman flashed a shocked smile at the sight of the journalist she had spoken to often. She was seated beneath a tree on a wooden dining-room chair that had been brought outside and that she had reached, gingerly, with a walker.

“You look beautiful!” Hefler, now 69, told the matriarch, whom she had not seen in years.

“It’s been so long,” Berman replied, her voice muffled by a mask.

“You raised such a beautiful, kind-hearted daughter,” Hefler replied. “You did such a wonderful job.”

The familial trio were all wearing Angel Energy shirts. Sarah’s favorite is the “Brenda.” The one named for her mother and in the color of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The Angel Energy business has been built by Sarah and her boyfriend so that some proceeds go to domestic violence awareness.

Her mother is “what fuels me,” Sarah said. “The message of Angel Energy is using your guardian angels to help you to do good.

“That shirt,” she added, “is for her.”