The Cape Fear Serpentarium remains closed, but could open up this summer if court proceedings go smoothly

WILMINGTON – A year after snake expert Dean Ripa was murdered above his Cape Fear Serpentarium, the popular attraction remains closed to the public as it fights to slither out of a tangle of legal hurdles.

On May 13, 2017, Wilmington police say Regina Ripa, Dean’s wife, shot and killed him in the upstairs living quarters of the Orange Street business. She has been charged with first-degree murder. In the year since the shooting, Regina has remained in custody as the county puts their case together while the couple’s 4-year-old son has become the sole heir to Dean’s estate -- including the serpentarium.

The business reopened late last year under the direction of Dean’s frequent collaborator William Beard, but closed again in March when the N.C. Wildlife Commission intervened because the building’s young owner does not hold the proper permits to handle reptiles.

Deb Butler, who is representing Beard in the legal proceedings, said her client is now waiting for the son’s court-appointed financial guardian to be granted the authority to start sorting out the business.

“There are very strict rules about who holds the permit for these dangerous animals, because not just anyone is capable of handling them,” she said. “Because the estate owned by the son, there was no real permit holder in ownership. Beard does hold the permits and is capable of running. It is hopefully just a matter of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s to get it back open again.”

Butler said the son’s court-appointed guardian for legal matters -- his aunt is his physical guardian -- is expected to go before the clerk of court the third week of May with a request to take over business decisions for the estate. If that is approved, Beard can then file to take ownership of the business and rent the building from the son.

Beard already owns some of the snakes featured in the serpentarium and worked with Dean for two years before his death, Butler said. He is being paid to care for the reptiles and the building while the legal matters are settled.

“He is infinitely qualified to take care of them because he loves them,” she said. “I think we are very close to having the arrangement worked out.”

Ed Wolverton, president of Wilmington Downtown Inc., said shuttering the serpentarium has left a void in the area’s attractions sector as the tourist season gets underway -- partially for a trifecta of businesses on the south end of downtown.

“There are three different attractions there that are within walking distance -- the serpentarium, Museum of the Bizarre next door and the Children’s Museum of Wilmington,” he said. “It is a family-friendly attraction and we are hopeful it will get resolved and be able to resume soon.”

Beard had already begun “freshening up” the business and doing maintenance when it reopened after Dean’s death, Butler said. That would continue if he is given the chance to take over the business officially.

“Everyone is working closely with him to get the serpentarium open and better than ever,” Butler said, adding Beard would like to reopen by early summer.

Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com.