Growing up, Sarah Ripoli didn’t know all the details of what happened with her parents when she was only six years old, she revealed on Investigation Discovery’s Love, Honor, Betray. At age 26, however, she decided to start writing about it in a blog. Her mother’s best friend Debbie Wende read the blog and sent her an email the very next day.
Because her mother Brenda’s murder had occurred before news was ubiquitous on the Internet, there weren’t many news articles for her to read online. Sarah told Debbie about this, so she sent Sarah the news articles she had saved and clipped. Sarah wanted to know more, so she looked in her grandmother’s basement, where she found a hidden note from Christmas 1990.
Brenda was documenting what had happened to her. She wrote:
“I’m home cleaning as punishment. I closed the garage door too hard and now I am punished. I’m spiritually dead. No one in my life has ever made me feel special. 1990 is the worst year of my life. I must make changes. I have to take charge. I must get out.”
Sarah also found home videos Brenda made at the time. Sarah witnessed her early years documented on VHS. She has a lot of mixed emotions watching these movies.
Sarah’s also doesn’t have a lot of memories from this time because she was so young, but she does have flashes. She remembers one night when she had fallen asleep while her mother read her a story. She woke up when her father came into the room and violently dragged her mother out by her hair.
Brenda was a nutrition major at Syracuse University who graduated in 1981. She met health inspector Frank Ripoli at her first job after college at the Burlington County Health Department. She thought he was handsome, smart, and nice.
However, he was already married, which Brenda didn’t know at first. Frank told her that he would leave his wife if she agreed to move in with him. She decided to do this because she was so in love with him. He got a divorce and moved into Brenda’s condo right away.
They were married on July 6, 1986, and settled into a nice house in Medford, New Jersey. Brenda’s friend Debbie Wende and her husband often socialized with them. She remembers Frank being nice to them, but she saw some red flags. She says Frank had an “old-fashioned chauvinistic attitude.” He expected Brenda to wait on him and never offered to help with the hosting.
Eventually, Brenda would open up to Debbie about how Frank controlled her life. He expected freshly cooked meals every day and the carpet vacuumed every day because he liked to see the lines. He also made her stay up reading to him every night so he could fall asleep and had her drive him to work every morning because he was too tired even though she didn’t get any more sleep than he had. This daily regimen made her feel exhausted.
Brenda and Debbie were pregnant at the same time. Finding out she was pregnant with Sarah made Brenda extremely happy. Debbie thinks that Frank loved Sarah and was happy to be a father. On the surface, they appeared to be a happy family, but there was severe trouble between Frank and Branda.
Frank was seeing another woman, who he considered to be his soul mate. She attended Sarah’s first birthday party in May 1993. Brenda accepted this reality with the third wheel in her marriage.
Eventually, Brenda opened up to Debbie about how violent and scary Frank had been with her. He physically abused her in places on the body where other people wouldn’t see, he had threatened to kill her, and he had blackmail on her. He said he would send explicit photos and videos to her work and family if she ever left him. He said he would use these photos to get her declared an unfit mother so she couldn’t have custody of Sarah.
Brenda felt like a frog that was slowly being boiled in water. She begged Debbie not to tell anyone because she feared Frank would hurt her family.
On March 9, 1999, Brenda called Debbie to let her know she was leaving Frank. Debbie told her to go. She told her she should set an example for her daughter, and get her out of this situation.
That morning Sarah was dropped off at school. A few hours later, her mother picked Sarah up from school and took her to the airport to go to Florida. They had no luggage, Brenda was just trying to get them out immediately.
They went to stay at Brenda’s condo in Florida. Her sister Beth-Ann Fantacone was relieved to hear this information. Sarah remembers the time in Florida as “relief.”
Soon enough, however, Frank threatened to “expose” Brenda in exchange for joint custody. Brenda taped the conversation of Frank calling to threaten her. Brenda was terrified of his threats to prove to the courts that she was an unfit mother. However, he didn’t succeed. Brenda got full custody of Sarah.
Brenda asked the judge to allow her to go into the house to get her things. He agreed, so Brenda and Sarah showed up while Frank’s dad was there. Sarah was relaxing with her grandfather, who was asleep, downstairs while her mother went up to get her things. The last thing Brenda said to her was “Sarah, get your hands out of your mouth.”
The next thing she heard was her scream “Frank, no!” and a gunshot. Sarah’s grandfather was still asleep through the noise. Frank came downstairs and woke up his father. Sarah remembers her grandfather saying “We have to get her out of here.” Sarah tried to go upstairs, but her dad told her she was resting and she couldn’t see her right now as he blocked the stairs.
Her grandfather told her that they had to leave and he would tell her what happened in the car. Once in the car, he told Sarah her mom was “in heaven right now.”
A year before she died, Brenda had predicted her own murder. Sarah found a letter dated March 1998 that read:
“To whomever gets this letter,
My husband, Frank Ripoli Jr., has killed me. He has threatened to kill me many times throughout our marriage. Tonight, however, he threatened to kill me if I did not carry out an action that I didn’t want to do. He said if leave him with Sarah tonight, he would hunt us down and kill both of us. He also said he would harm or kill my other family members. Please prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law.”
Frank got a plea deal that allowed him to plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter in June 2001. At his sentencing, Brenda’s sister Beth-Ann Fantacone read Brenda’s letter to the court. Frank was sentenced to 18 years, of which he served 15. He was released in 2016.
Sarah last spoke with her father when she was 15-years-old. During that conversation, Frank told Sarah that her mom “deserved it.” Sarah hung up the phone and never spoke to him again.