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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Insanity ruling ends the sad final chapter of Sepentarium owner, killed by his wife

On Friday, Regina Ripa appeared in New Hanover County Superior Court for a hearing to find her not guilty in the murder of her husband and Serpentarium owner, Larry Dean Ripa, (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
On Friday, Regina Ripa appeared in New Hanover County Superior Court for a hearing to find her not guilty in the murder of her husband and Serpentarium owner, Larry Dean Ripa, (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — After a quiet, hour-long hearing on Friday afternoon, Regina Ripa was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity, and will be transferred to a state-run psychiatric facility.

Regina Ripa has been in custody at the New Hanover County detention center since May of last year, after she shot her husband Larry Dean Ripa in the apartment upstairs from the Cape Fear Serpentarium, which her husband founded. Regina Ripa shot him five times, including three times in the head, and later told authorities and medical experts she believed she was under attack.

During Friday’s hearing, both the defense and the prosecution put forth testimony that essentially agreed on at least one thing: on May 13, 2017, Regina Ripa was in the middle of a psychotic episode when the shooting took place.

Defense presents a history of mental illness

Public Defender Niccoya D. Dobson, who took over for Ripa’s original counsel, laid out a history of psychological health issues.

Born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1976, Regina Ripa developed symptoms of schizophrenia by age 20, Dobson said. During her first major psychotic episode, attested to by her family members, Ripa allegedly became convinced she could fly, and at one point was attempting to leap from a balcony before her father intervened, according to Dobson.

By her early 20s, Ripa had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

In 2006 Ripa came to the United States and married Larry Dean Ripa the following year. In March of 2012, she had another psychotic incident, after which she was prescribed Risperidone, an anti-psychotic.

In 2014, Ripa was involuntarily committed by her husband, and arrived in what doctors described as a “catatonic state.” Two years later, in 2016, it happened again. By that point, further psychological evaluation indicated Ripa was also bi-polar, and likely suffered from what Dobson called “additional underlying issues.”

These events demonstrated what Dobson described as a pattern where Ripa experienced psychotic episodes after not taking her medication.

Dobson also referred to police reports and video footage of a domestic call that occurred just 90 minutes before the fatal shooting. During the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) visit to the scene, Dobson said Ripa appeared in a state of panic, and expressed a fear of drinking water or taking her medication.

Dobson concluded by stating that six days after the shooting, while evaluated in detention, Ripa “had no idea where she was or what had happened,” asked where her husband was, and in general seemed confused. Dobson stated that jail staff at one point witnessed Ripa walking directly into a wall.

Given her mental state, Dobson said it was unlikely Ripa understood what she was doing at the time of the shooting.

Regina Ripa did not speak during a hearing in which she was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
Regina Ripa did not speak during a hearing in which she was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Prosecution: Expert witness says Ripa had “psychotic break”

Prosecutor Amy K. White introduced Dr. Mark Hazelrigg, a forensic psychologist who works at Central Hospital in Butner, one of three state-run psychiatric hospitals operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Hazelrigg testified about his evaluations of Ripa, lasting over five hours in total, and conducted during two sessions at Central Hospital.

In addition to his direct examination of Ripa, Hazelrigg also consulted her medical records and evidence supplied by the prosecution, defense, WPD, and others.

Hazelrigg specifically cited the video, calling it an “objective observation,” of Ripa less than two hours before she shot her husband.

Hazelrigg described Ripa’s psychotic break with reality as an “insane delusion,” saying that – at some point shortly prior to the shooting – she had witnessed a cartoon character on a television or computer screen. The cartoon character was fighting off some kind of monsters and, according to Hazelrigg, in a delusion moment Ripa went from “observing that character” to “believing she was that character, fighting off monsters.”

According to Hazelrigg, this was consistent with a psychotic episode suffered by a person with schizophrenia, adding that the severity of the episode was consistent with someone who had not taken appropriate medication for five to six months.

Ultimately, Hazelrigg confirmed that Ripa was unable to recognize the criminal nature of her behavior, nor was she able to tell right from wrong.

A final word from Larry Dean Ripa’s family

Steve Hunnicutt, brother-in-law of Larry Dean Ripa, made a final statement at the hearing. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
Steve Hunnicutt, brother-in-law of Larry Dean Ripa, made a final statement at the hearing. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Before Superior Court Judge Phyllis M. Gorham made her ruling, the prosecution had a member of Larry Dean Ripa’s family make a statement.

Steve Hunnicutt, husband of Terri Hunnicutt, Larry Dean Ripa’s sister, made a brief statement, standing just several feet from Regina Ripa, with a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Deputy nearby.

“There are no winners in this case,” Hunnicutt said.

Hunnicutt said his family had lost a brother, and his wife had lost the last living member of her immediate family.

He went on to describe Larry Dean Ripa as “someone who made life more interesting,” and noted that beyond his accomplishments as a herpetologist and snake collector, he was also an accomplished painter, musician, and writer – swapping notes with Beat-era writer William Burroughs. Hunnicutt noted that his brother-in-law had been at work on a massive non-fiction work about his experiences that was being prepared for publication, a work that will now “lay unfinished,” Hunnicutt said.

Hunnicutt described the Serpentarium as the “culmination” of Larry Dean Ripa’s work and his love of science, adding that despite their efforts, the family had been forced to sell it through a court order. While there has been no official buyer yet, the building was gutted by contractor crews this week, removing the last vestiges of Ripa’s work from the building.

Earlier this week, contractor crews finished gutting the former Cape Fear Serpentarium. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
Earlier this week, contractor crews finished gutting the former Cape Fear Serpentarium. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Saying the Serpentarium effectively “ended with [Larry Dean Ripa’s] death,” Hunnicutt laid the responsibility for the facility’s demise at Regina Ripa’s feet.

RELATED: Wilmington Realtor testified against plan to save Serpentarium, leading to $1 million sale

Hunnicutt closed his remarks by asking that, regardless of the court’s final ruling, that Regina Ripa never contact his family, or his nephew – Regina Ripa’s son – Lawrence Arkin Ripa, ever again.

Regina Ripa remained silent throughout the hearing, speaking only to counsel.

Not guilty, by reason of insanity

Regina Ripa escorted from the courtroom on Friday. She will remain in custody at the New Hanover County detention center until her transfer to a state-run psychiatric facility next week. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
Regina Ripa escorted from the courtroom on Friday. She will remain in custody at the New Hanover County detention center until her transfer to a state-run psychiatric facility next week. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

After a short recess, Judge Gorham ruled Regina Ripa not guilty by reason of insanity. She will be held at the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office detention center until next week, when travel to and accommodations at the Central Hospital facility can be arranged.

Under state statute, the expenses of housing Ripa at Central will be borne by her family. She will remain at the facility at the discretion of the courts and the facility’s director.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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