Sisters Janet and Annie Rippel grew up in a house full of people in Batavia, New York. Of the eight siblings, Janet was the youngest and Annie was second eldest. As they grew older, though, Janet said the age gap seemed to shrink.
“[Annie’s] vibe and her whole personality was something everyone was drawn to,” Janet told Dateline. “Annie was a free spirit. She loved everyone. She could light up a room with her smile, her attitude.”
In 1997, Janet was 27 and Annie, 41. Their adult lives were busy, and Janet said they didn’t see each other too often. When the sisters ran into each other on the street in April of that year, Janet said nothing seemed out of the ordinary with her older sister.
Just a couple of weeks later, on April 23, Janet received an unexpected phone call from their father.
“My father had called and told me that they found Annie — and they found her in a creek. Dead. At that point it’s like, ‘What’s going on? How did she get there? How did she die?’” Janet said. “My dad didn’t know much. I went to his house and he was pretty devastated.”
Janet’s father told her police had arrived at his house earlier that day. Annie had been found in the Little Tonawanda Creek in Alexander, New York, a town Janet told Dateline her sister did not frequent.
“A woman and her son had been walking and saw her. She was in just about two inches of water, so she was in the wide open,” Janet said. “She was also naked from the waist down, and there was duct tape around her face and neck.”
Janet told Dateline that police would later learn Annie had last been seen outside her house in Batavia around 11:00 p.m. the night before. Annie didn’t have a driver’s license, so nobody knew how she got to the creek, which was seven miles from her house.
“Nobody knew anything. They didn’t know who she was with. They didn’t know who took her out there,” Janet said.
The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating Annie’s murder since day one. Chief Deputy Jerome Brewster, now retired, told local media police believe Annie “was not helped into the water.”
“Makes you wonder – whoever was with her probably left her in some state with duct tape on her. The investigation shows only one person walked down to the water and that was Ann,” Chief Deputy Brewster said in 2018.
Annie’s sister Janet added that it wasn’t easy to look for vehicle tracks near the creek because it was a heavily-populated area. The cause of death was ruled to be drowning, and there were no obvious signs of a struggle.
“There were no signs of struggle, but there was duct tape around her neck, which didn’t come out of nowhere,” Janet said.
Janet told Dateline DNA evidence was collected at the scene in 1997 and has been submitted to DNA databases occasionally since then. So far, there have been no matches. Nobody has been charged in connection to Annie’s death.
“New leads come in periodically,” Chief Deputy Brewster told local media in 2016. “There is someone out there who knows what happened. We just have to find that person.”
Janet said their family – including Annie’s three children, now grown — have not given up hope in their search for answers.
“We’re all really hopeful. I think about her all the time, and she deserves justice,” Janet said. “She loved her kids. She loved her friends. She loved her family. I believe somebody knows something.”
Both Annie’s mother and father have since passed away.
“They died without knowing what happened to her. Every year, it was something my father carried with him. He had a very heavy heart. We want closure for our family and for her kids,” Janet added.
If you have any information on the circumstances surrounding Annie’s death, please call the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office at 585-345-3000.