Remembering Tony Pompelio 20 years later

Posted on February 23, 2012 by Richard Pompelio

By Jennifer Jean Miller
Published: June 24, 2009

Originally posted at

Sparta – The bustling hallways of Sparta High School were replaced with silence on Feb. 13, 1989 when it was announced senior Tony Pompelio, 17, had been stabbed to death at a small student gathering the day prior.

Twenty years later, personal paths have changed, an annual award is tradition, victims’ rights legislation initiated, and a victim’s law center founded.

Schoolmates including best friend Matt Scott, Ken Schaffner, Mike Godfrey, Shay McQuide, Erik Bray, Brian Morris, Fred Caracci and Bill Koy embraced the grieving family.

“I am so inspired by Tony’s parents, Richard and Ann Pompelio. They took the worst tragedy and made it positive,” said Koy.

Pompelio’s siblings Nicholas, 7, and Stevyn, 5, when their brother died, have fond recollections of him; sister Katherine, then 22 months, recalls very little.

Pompelio lived in Lexington Kentucky, Dover, Byram, Jefferson and Sparta, and also Sugarland Texas with his mother, Cheryl Hoover-Kelley. He is remembered for his upbeat personality, sense of humor and creation of nicknames, including calling Stevyn “Connor” a nickname which led to a future connection.

In the fall of 1989, Ann Pompelio became pregnant. “We decided if the baby was a boy, his name would be Connor,” she said. ”Connor Anthony was born in June 1990 and we consider him a gift from Tony.”

Connor Pompelio presented the 2009 Tony Pompelio and Schoolmates Award of Courage, in which peers nominate fellow students who are facing extraordinary challenges with grace. The Pompelio Family picks the recipient. Paul Goobic was the winner this year.

Morris, one of the 1989 winners, said, “To be chosen for this I felt my classmates were really thinking of me and it was special to be one of the first honored.”

Dr. John T. Greed, former Superintendent of Schools announced the award and told the story of the tragedy. He said, “It marks the 20th anniversary of when this award was first given out and memorializes a son and brother.”

Pompelio and girlfriend Kirsten Yadouga, attended a small get-together at the home of Lance Montie, 18, whose parents were away.

Jennifer Jernstrom-Pe-a, one of the attendees, said the event was not as the media portrayed it.

A small group was looking at photo albums in Montie’s basement while Donna Shaban, 17, Michael Ardila, 19, and Montie disappeared to partake in cocaine.

Pompelio drove Yadouga home, checked in with his parents, returning to Montie’s to sleep over. Jernstrom-Pe-a said Shaban and Ardila remained while she and the others departed.

At 6:30 a.m., Shaban, in an altercation with Ardila, screamed for Pompelio. Ardila repeatedly stabbed Pompelio, slashed his throat and fled the scene with Shaban in Pompelio’s Jeep. Montie awoke at 11 a.m., discovered Pompelio’s body and called the police.

Ardila was caught in New Mexico. Acquitted of Shaban’s sexual assault and kidnapping claims, he was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole after 32 1/2 years, for murder, theft and unlawful weapons possession.

“I have five children, four I can hold in my arms, one I can hold in my heart,” Ann Pompelio said in her 1990 victim’s impact statement.

Richard Pompelio said he didn’t know much about victim’s rights as a defense attorney, but gave up his practice to start the pro-bono New Jersey Crime Victim’s Law Center.

“I’ve done in the last 20 years what I’ve had to in order to survive, and to help people survive,” he said. ”Every minute I spend with a victim, my son is with me. When I’m working and I look down at my hands, I see Tony’s hands.”

“He has ratified more legislation for victim’s rights than most congressmen,” Mike Godfrey said. “He has no boundaries and helps victims nationwide.” Godfrey said Ann and Nicholas Pompelio also became attorneys because of the tragedy, and Nicholas will soon be working with his father.

Hoover-Kelley earned her associates degree the same year she received her son’s diploma at Sparta’s graduation ceremony. Pompelio told his mother he was uncertain he was college-worthy, and when she said the same was said about her, she started college to encourage him. She is now an occupational therapist and has earned her Master’s.

In 1996, she adopted four-year-old twins from Russia, Kristyn and Kaitlyn Hickey.

Hoover-Kelley, who came close to committing suicide after her son’s death, became a born-again Christian and is penning a book about her experiences.

“If I had not become a born-again Christian, I would not be here today,” she said. “I also had to forgive Michael Ardila for what he did in order to survive.”

Richard and Ann Pompelio said Ardila is a name rarely uttered in their home.

Deidre Fedkenheuer, spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Corrections said Ardila is housed at the South Woods State Prison. “He had a choice and now we make his choices for him,” Fedkenheuer said.

Pompelio would have turned 38 on June 8, a day which Hoover-Kelley remembers annually with a cake in his honor.

Pompelio’s classmates have set up a Facebook tribute and will be having a voluntary donation offering at their 20th reunion festivities for the fund.

“I feel badly Tony couldn’t experience things in life which I’ve since had the opportunity to,” said Koy. “I’m most upset about what he was robbed.”

“Tony’s legacy is now older than he was,” said Godfrey.

“Tony was an only child the first ten years of his life, and he ended up with four half-siblings, three step-siblings and two adopted siblings,” said Ann Pompelio. “And we feel he watches over them all.”

“When something which could have turned out bad is avoided, I say it’s because of my brother watching over me,” said Katherine Pompelio.

His adopted sisters concur, and Kaitlyn Hickey listed him as her hero on her MySpace page.

Hoover-Kelley said, “Grief is not measured by the length of time, but by the depth of love.”

To make a donation to the Tony Pompelio Memorial Fund for the Tony Pompelio and Schoolmates Award of Courage, checks can be dropped off at First Hope Bank in Sparta or mailed to: First Hope Bank, 220 Woodport Rd., Sparta, NJ 07871.