Lamb to the slaughter

I'd always been there for Jennifer, except when she needed me most...

Published by: Laura Hinton and Sharon Ward
Published on: 17 November 2011

A sister's bond is like nothing else. So even though me and Jennifer, 30, were very different, we were the best of friends. I'd have done anything for her.
Now she was chasing my seven-year-old daughter Breanne around the dinner table.
‘Aunt Jen!' Breanne screeched, as my son Bailey, six, sat there giggling at the pair of them.
‘Calm down!' I sighed, placing our dinner on the table. The house had suddenly descended into chaos!
‘Ooh, chicken pie! My favourite,' Jennifer grinned, finally noticing the food I'd cooked. ‘Have we got cheesecake, too?'
‘Of course,' I smiled, my impatience disappearing.
It wasn't Jennifer's fault that things got out of hand sometimes.
She was great with the kids - forever creating huge Play-Doh sculptures with them - but she suffered from Asperger's, which meant she struggled socially.
At the moment, the TV was on in the background showing the latest wrestling match. Jennifer was a huge fan, and was constantly chattering away about John Cena, her favourite champion.
‘He's won 19 championships in total...' she babbled now, as she ate. ‘Hey, I'm going to pick out some curtains soon.'
Eh? Oh, the conversation had suddenly changed, as it often did with Jennifer. She must be on about the flat she was about to sign a contract for.
As much as I loved her, being around her was exhausting sometimes - it was hard to keep up!
‘You must be so excited getting a place of your own nearby,' I smiled, catching on.
Previously, Jennifer had lived in a special home in Greensburg, USA. They'd given her life classes in how to handle money, take care of herself, and survive in the outside world.
Then last year she'd moved back with our mum Denise, 55, and stepdad Bobby, 64.
Now, it was time for her to get some independence.
I was so pleased - but at the same time, felt fiercely protective.
As I watched her now, I saw a young woman. But, inside, she was still so childlike. I'd had to keep an eye out for her at school, too. Jennifer was as gentle as a lamb, but had been picked on a lot, she was just too trusting.
Just a few years back, she'd told me she wanted to go on a road trip with some truck driver we knew through the family.
‘Don't be silly,' I'd tutted. ‘You can't go travelling 15,000 miles with someone you barely know.' Typical of her to put her faith in a virtual stranger.
Still, she seemed to be making friends now. Her phone was bleeping through the whole meal.
‘Who's messaging you?' I asked, getting irritated.
‘Just my mate Peggy,' she grinned. ‘We're arranging a get-together today.'
I'd heard Jennifer speak of Peggy before. She lived in Greensberg, and I thought they'd met when Jennifer was in the home. I didn't know too much about this social circle of hers, though.
‘Do you mind taking me to the station to catch a bus?' she asked. ‘I'm staying with Peggy tonight.'
Suddenly, Breanne shouted. ‘Mu-um! I've lost my painting for school...' Oh blimey, where was that?! Bet I'd have to search the entire house for it, and I'd got to do the washing up, tidy up...
‘Look, I don't have time to deal with your stuff as well as my own, Jen,' I said tetchily. ‘You'll have to get to the bus stop yourself. You'll need to be independent when you live alone.'
She barely mumbled goodbye, as she trudged off in the snow to the bus top. An hour later, she rang me. ‘I'm sorry, I know you're busy,' she said. ‘Fancy doing something this weekend?'
Instantly, I felt so guilty.
‘You've done nothing wrong,' I told her. ‘But I can't this weekend, I've got stuff on with the kids. How about next week?'
‘Okay,' she said. ‘See you soon.'
Two days on, I realised I hadn't heard from her, so called Jennifer's mobile. The phone went to voicemail... and there was a new message with a bloke's voice.
Confused, I called Mum. ‘Have you paid Jennifer's phone bill?' I asked. ‘Only, there's a strange voicemail. I wondered if they'd given away her number?'
‘I've paid it,' Mum insisted.
‘I'll call Peggy, see if I can speak to Jennifer through her. They must be together still.'
Just minutes later though, Mum rang me back. ‘Peggy hasn't seen her,' she told me, her voice trembling slightly. ‘She thinks Jennifer might be staying with some guy she's met.'
Jennifer had never mentioned a fella before. Who was he?
‘Also,' Mum continued, ‘I heard a terrible story on the news this morning about a woman's body being found in Greensburg.'
‘I'm sure she's fine,' I soothed, trying to sound positive. ‘I'll send her a text.' But inside, I was panicking. Frantically sending the text, I felt like that protective big sister at school again.
My phone bleeped, making me jump. My name is Amber Meidinger, someone had text back. This is my phone. I don't know who Jennifer is.
Well, this was getting weird now. Heart thumping, I flicked on the TV. ‘This morning, an unidentified woman's body was found in a garbage bin at Greensburg Salem Middle School,' the newsreader said. ‘It was bound with Christmas decorations.'
The story Mum had mentioned...
Unable to ignore the uneasy feeling any longer, I called the local police station. ‘Could you give me a description of the body?' I asked the policeman who answered. ‘My sister's missing, and was staying in the area.'
‘Well, the body has been brought in for an autopsy,' he told me. ‘Come to the station.'
Mum and Bobby couldn't believe it when I turned up at their place moments later. I told them where we were heading, and they simply stared at me.
‘Jennifer will laugh about this later when we tell her,' I said, trying to sound light, despite my suggestion. ‘She probably lost her phone, and has gone out shopping.'
They came along though, all of us terrified, but none of us admitting it. As soon as we reached the station, I quickly explained who we were. Before I knew it, we were handed a photo of the dead girl.
Bile rose at the back of my throat as I stared at this person's face... what was left of it.
The picture was blurry, but I could still see the jagged slashes, cuts and purple bruises. There was congealed blood surrounding the skin, some of which hung loose from her face. Someone had shaved her head, then splattered red nail varnish on it.
I felt like throwing up. ‘I-I don't know if th-that's our Jennifer,'
I spluttered.
‘Hold on,' the policeman said, walking off to get a second photo. This is silly, it won't be her.
But as soon as I saw this new picture, I shrunk back in shock.
My beautiful sister was laying there on the mortuary slab. She'd been so savagely beaten, I hadn't even recognised her.
‘Oh my God,' Mum sobbed, her body crumpling into mine. ‘Who did this to her?'
‘She'd gone to stay with friends,' I shrieked at the policeman. ‘How could this happen?'
Suddenly, the guilt hit. ‘I don't have time to deal with your stuff,' I'd barked the last time I'd seen Jennifer. When she'd needed me most, I hadn't been there.
We weren't allowed to see her body, and we shed so many tears over the next two days, tortured ourselves. Could we have prevented this somehow?
Finally, two police officers came to see us. ‘There's no easy way to say this,' one said. He was staring at the floor, unable to meet our eye. ‘We've never heard of anything like this before.'
‘Just tell me,' I begged. Mum had gone to pieces, but I was desperately trying to be strong.
‘We paid Peggy Miller a visit after you mentioned Jennifer was staying with her,' the policeman carried on. ‘She and five other people are being investigated for Jennifer's murder and kidnapping.'
‘What did they do to my sister?' I asked through gritted teeth. ‘Was she raped?'
He nodded. ‘And tortured,' he said. ‘Then she was stabbed to death.'
‘By people she called her friends,' I hissed.
Why?! We'd have to wait for the trial for answers.
Until then, I had to plan her funeral. I chose Valentine's Day - Jennifer had been so loved that it seemed appropriate. Despite the snow, more than 500 people came. Family members spoke, but I was so traumatised, the day passed in a blur.
Afterwards, Jennifer was cremated. We felt her body was too battered for it to be buried. ‘They'll pay for what they've done,' I whispered under my breath, as I said goodbye.
All that was left of my sister now were the memories we'd shared, and the blue and white marble box containing her ashes. I took it home and placed it on my mantelpiece. ‘I'll always be looking out for you,' I promised.
Finally, in May this year, 15 months after Jennifer was stolen from us, the court case began.
Me, Mum and Bobby clutched hands as the six accused walked into the courtroom, shackled at the hands and feet, heads shaved because they'd got headlice. Mum trembled beside me. ‘My baby,' she cried. ‘They killed my baby.'
I pulled her to me and refused to cry as Robert Masters, 36, Peggy Miller, 27, Ricky Smyrnes, 23, Melvin Knight, 20, Amber Meidinger, 20, and Angela Marinucci, 17, were all charged with homicide, kidnapping and aggravated assault.
Marinucci was tried first, because she was still a minor when she committed the crime. Meidinger testified against her. She said Marinucci had started on Jennifer because she was convinced my sister was making a play for her boyfriend Smyrnes. Ridiculous - Jennifer didn't know how to flirt!
Somehow though, Marinucci had persuaded her five roommates to gang up on her romantic rival - just like the girls had ganged up on Jennifer in school.
‘This time, I wasn't there for you,' I sobbed.
Meidinger also admitted Jennifer was lured to the house through text messages... the messages I'd watched her excitedly receive.
Once my innocent sister was in that Greensburg apartment, they'd held her captive and tortured her for two hellish days. A crutch, a vacuum cleaner, a towel rack, even a broken Christmas tree had been used to beat her. Her head had been shaved and her face painted with nail polish. She'd been forced to drink a mix of wee, poo, and detergents. Sickeningly, they'd even made her write a suicide note, stating she'd wanted to die.
I felt faint as the prosecutor described how evidence was found showing someone had tried to clean the blood-spattered walls of the bathroom.
‘It was in here that Jennifer was fatally stabbed,' he said. They'd slashed her multiple times in the cheek and neck, before strangling her and dumping her body. She would've been so confused, in so much pain. It churned me up imagining what she'd gone through, knowing how much she'd needed me.
‘They stripped her not just of her clothing, but of her dignity,' I sobbed to Mum. ‘They assaulted her in every possible way.' These monsters hadn't seen her as a person, just an object of torment and sick amusement.
After four hours of deliberations, a jury found Marinucci guilty. She was given two life sentences. But our nightmare isn't over. We'll have to endure the agony of hearing those gruesome details time and time again because each one of Jennifer's so-called friends will be tried separately. There isn't going to be closure for a very long time. Some of them could face the death penalty.
I have regrets that I couldn't save my trusting, sweet sister. I think of her every day... when wrestling comes on TV, or the kids pull out their Play-Doh. Every thought is tinged with guilt, though. I'd have done anything for her... I just wish I could've saved her.
Joy Burkholder, 33, Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, USA