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Heartbreak and remembrance of three women slain in Hempstead

Denis and Wendy Simpson, parents of Janel Simpson,

Denis and Wendy Simpson, parents of Janel Simpson, stand with family and friends as Nassau County police investigate the scene of several killings in a home on Perry Street in Hempstead on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Janel Simpson, 29, of Uniondale, was one of three women found dead in the house. Credit: Howard Schnapp

By all accounts, Melissa Vanderhall was a star.

She had reaped more than a dozen awards, from academic to athletic, her resume shows. Her alma mater, the University of Tampa in Florida, said Saturday she was “one of the most prolific student-athletes in school history.”

Her mother was just as well-regarded. Lynn Reichenbach-Vanderhall, 58, was preparing to celebrate 30 years of community service at Hempstead’s Family and Children’s Association, where she coordinated the group’s nursery co-op.

Janell Simpson, 29, one of Melissa’s buddies from high school, returned home after going to college in Buffalo. Known for her giving spirit, she had worked late Friday night in her job as a secretary at Northwell Health.

The mother, daughter and Simpson — along with another young female friend whom police did not name — were all together in the Vanderhall house on Perry Street in Hempstead. In the early morning hours of Saturday, police said, they were attacked and bludgeoned by Bobby Vanderhall, the son of Reichenbach-Vanderhall and brother of Melissa. The unnamed friend, who fled the house, was the sole survivor.

With the three deaths came an outpouring of grief.

Melissa Vanderhall and her two friends all were graduates of Uniondale High School. Simpson’s mother, Wendy, called them “three peas in a pod.”

Vanderhall, also 29, had played volleyball for Uniondale’s Knights and dreamed of playing at the college level, friends and family said. She realized that dream.

Chris Catanach, the university’s head volleyball coach, said Saturday she was an unusual player. At 5 feet 8 inches, she was small for the sport and even smaller for her position on the front line, at the net.

“She was our most outstanding player. She always came to work hard, no drama,” Catanach said. “She was all about her teammates.”

Vanderhall drew inspiration from her father, Bobby Vanderhall Sr., her coach said. He didn’t understand volleyball, but Catanach said he cheered the loudest from the stands.

When Bobby Vanderhall Sr. had a heart attack and died in June 2010, Catanach said it devastated Vanderhall and her mother. The college student doubled down and channeled her energy into improving her record in her senior year, he said.

By the time she graduated, the university said, Vanderhall had led her team to a championship game. She won Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year and Daktronics South Region Player of the Year and made American Volleyball Coaches Association First-Team All-American — achieving each multiple times — along with membership in the National Honor Society and Science Honor Society.

Reichenbach-Vanderhall was a happy, loving person who was devoted to her children, said a niece, Juanita Johnson. She grew closer to her children when her husband died.

“She did anything for anyone,” Johnson said. “Both her kids were her world.”

Reichenbach-Vanderhall loved children and connected with them, said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association. Known to all as “Miss Lynn,” she cared for 20 to 30 kids daily at the nursery — children of mothers in English as a second language and GED classes.

“Every time I was in that nursery, she was right in there, mixing it up with the kids, playing with the kids, talking with the moms, giving them very good, practical advice,” Reynolds said.

Friend and co-worker Donna Raphael, FCA service director, said Reichenbach-Vanderhall had just finished up running a summer camp program.

“Lynn definitely was a woman who had a really, really big heart,” she said, adding Reichenbach-Vanderhall had texted on Friday night to ask how Raphael was feeling after experiencing back problems. “We had planned to get together this summer.”

Wendy and Denis Simpson called their daughter a good person who was loving to her two older brothers. Janel Simpson had gone to college at SUNY Buffalo State and returned home to Uniondale afterward, remaining close with her friends from high school.

Wendy Simpson said that when she recently underwent cancer treatment, the Vanderhalls opened their home to Janel to stay for two weeks.

Simpson was working late Friday night as a secretary at Northwell Health, but was still meeting with her friends after work, before planning to work early Saturday morning, Wendy Simpson said.

“She said ‘Mom, I can do it.’ They were young and having fun,” the mother said. “Melissa was an excellent friend.”

Catanach said Melissa Vanderhall recently told him that her family’s life was finally returning to a good place. She had taken a job as a physician assistant in Manhattan and was planning to travel, as well as saving money to take her mother on vacation.

“She was having a really good life,” he said. “The world was starting to open for her, and that’s what so devastating.”

With Mark Morales

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