A life in prison — (Bucks County Courier Times)

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A life in prison

Bucks County Courier Times

By: AMANDA CREGAN

January 17, 2010 02:36 AM

“I feel like this is my destiny, like God wanted me to be here,” Mary Jane Fonder said last week, as she finishes the first year of a life sentence for murdering a church secretary in Springfield.

MUNCY, Lycoming County – Mary Jane Fonder doesn’t mind spending the rest of her life behind bars.

After more than 20 years of struggling to find acceptance among the members of her small, rural Springfield church, Fonder, 67, finally has found sisterhood at a state women’s prison.

The murderer, once described by her own attorney as the “aunt nobody wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving,” now has her place at a table of women who do not judge her by her strange ways or even her most evil act.

Fonder said she no longer can imagine her life outside of prison.

“I feel like this is my destiny, like God wanted me to be here,” she said last Sunday.

Fonder, the Kintnersville woman who a jury convicted for the cold-blooded killing of Rhonda Smith in the office of their Upper Bucks church, said she is happy now.

She finally has come to accept responsibility for the murder of the younger woman who she irrationally thought was a rival for the attention and affection of the congregation and its pastor.

Fonder is serving a life sentence at Muncy State Correctional Institution after a Bucks County jury found her guilty of first-degree murder in October 2008. A jury agreed she shot Smith in a jealous rage over the affection she believed Smith was getting from Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church’s handsome, bachelor pastor.

Fonder maintained her innocence throughout the trial.

But as she marks her first year of a life sentence, she is beginning to recall the actions that brought her there.

On Jan. 23, 2008, she cornered Smith in a basement church office, snapped back the hammer of the pistol and fired two bullets into her brain.

For the first time, Fonder is taking responsibility for Smith’s murder and said she regrets telling everyone – the judge and Smith’s family – she was innocent.

With time to think in prison, the hours and events that led up to the 42-year-old Hellertown woman’s murder are beginning to become clear, she said.

Just two months ago, she looked at a newspaper picture of Smith and said she realized what had happened to her.

She cried for days, recalling how bad she felt about Smith’s murder.

With tears in her eyes, Fonder said she never meant to hurt her.

A murder in a house of God

For decades, the embarrassing struggle to fit in, emotional isolation and cold rejection by church members buzzed in her ears like “white noise.”

But as 2008 approached, Fonder told herself that, once and for all, life would be different. Maybe, somehow, she could start over and be a new person.

Instead, what she described as her white noise kept getting stronger.

Fonder soon lost her job as a home health care aide; her relationship with her brother, with whom she shared a home, grew increasingly strained; and her car kept needing repairs and was creating financial burden.

At the same time, Smith, who had attended Trinity for the past two years, was dealing with her own personal struggles and reached out to congregants for help.

From the shadows, Fonder watched as this younger woman was so easily supported and cared for by the same church members Fonder spent years trying to connect with.

Then she starting losing track of time and events, and couldn’t account for portions of her day, Fonder recalled last week – a description of her life prior to the murder that was not presented during her trial.

As Fonder grew increasingly frazzled over her blackouts, she said she called her psychiatrist, thinking the cocktail of anxiety and depression medications she was prescribed needed to be adjusted.

But he was on vacation that week, and [she] was told she would have to wait, Fonder claims.

On Jan. 22, 2008, the day before the murder, the white noise grew stronger, telling her she was an outcast.

She again seemed to black out that morning, and recalls suddenly finding herself on a park bench at Lake Towhee in Haycock. She estimates she had been there for hours, but did not know why or how she got there.

That afternoon, trying to get her mind back on track, she remembered chatting at church with Smith about the nice apartment building Smith lived in.

Maybe that was just the place to start over, Fonder thought.

So, she called the landlord and toured the apartment next to Smith’s that same day, but it was too small and the rent was too high, she concluded.

Fonder said she went to church choir practice that evening, but as she left, Pastor Gregory Shreaves ran past her, toward the front door, as if, she believed, he was trying to avoid her. She called out to him, and even joked that he should slow down because he was still sick with a head cold, but he didn’t respond.

She said she became hurt and confused by the pastor, the only friend she said she had.

She went to her car, and looked up and saw lights on in an upstairs church room along with a number of cars parked in the lot.

It must be a birthday party for Smith, she thought. Yet another social event she was not invited to.

There was no birthday party, just another assumption that she was not included.

The following morning, Jan. 23, Fonder said she woke to that sound pounding in her head like a drum; bringing her clarity amid the confusion.

It’s what led her to the church office, where she cornered Smith, who was helping out as a secretary.

Fonder said she wishes she never went into the church that day, noting that it’s the last memory she has of the events of that fateful day.

Fonder shot Smith twice in the head point blank and left her to die.

She said she does not remember shooting Smith. But with all the evidence added up, Fonder acknowledges it had to be her.

The murder frightened a community for months as police searched for a suspect. Then a boy fishing with his father found Fonder’s gun submerged in the shallow waters of Lake Nockamixon. Bullets in the gun matched the ones that killed Smith.

A new life

The killing within church walls led to one of the most unusual murder cases in recent Bucks County history.

Police, prosecutors, newspaper headlines and even a Dateline NBC episode portrayed the murder motive as jealousy stemming from a love triangle Fonder perceived between two troubled women and a charming pastor.

Prosecutors say Fonder was in love with Pastor Shreaves, and flew into a jealous rage over the attention he and other church members were showing Smith.

Fonder continues to say she wasn’t jealous of Smith. However, Fonder still believes the pastor was interested in a romantic relationship with her and perceived some of their dealings as flirtation.

When he walked into a room, Fonder said the pastor would look around to see if she was there, an action she perceived as proof of his interest.

Shreaves has denied any romantic interest or involvement with either woman.

He even notified church leadership when he felt Fonder was becoming obsessed with him. She was asked to leave the church, but never did.

On Sunday mornings, Fonder was tolerated at Trinity, where church members likely found her to be too chatty, too nosy, too eager, and just downright annoying.

Last Sunday, she walked through the visiting area of the women’s prison with a sense of belonging as fellow inmates waved to her and gave her an easy smile and hello.

As one of the older inmates, Fonder is treated more like a matriarch than a murderer.

She spends her days talking with the other women, studying her Bible, doing crossword puzzles and attending to her cleaning duties.

She also sees a therapist, and said she was immediately put on a whole new track of depression and anxiety medication upon entering prison.

Although a cousin has come to see her, she said, Fonder doesn’t see too many visitors in Muncy. She communicates with her brother, cousin and even a couple of elderly women from Trinity through letters.

Overall, Fonder is flourishing the strict routine of prison, and has even lost 50 pounds.

Fonder said she has no plans to continue with her appeal of the murder conviction. Last year a Bucks County judge ruled she was eligible for a public defender but she would have to put up her house as collateral to pay the legal bills. The property she co-owns with her brother, a home on 11 acres in Kintnersville, is valued at nearly $400,000.

She said money was a factor in deciding not to go forward.

Yet, the appeal is still active in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, according to first assistant district attorney David Zellis. In her appeal there are claims made that her trial counsel was ineffective, he said.

Her trial attorney, Michael Applebaum, could not be reached for comment.

At her trial, Fonder claimed she didn’t commit the crime so there was no testimony about blackouts or problems with medication for depression.

A mental health report prepared for the case was not introduced at her sentencing. At the time Zellis said the report did not reveal that Fonder is suffering from any kind of mental illness.

Her attorney for the appeal, Ann Russavage-Faust of the Bucks County Public Defenders office, declined to be interviewed for the story.

Fonder is the oldest woman convicted of murder in Bucks history. Her sentence offers no chance of parole.

However, she is still being investigated by Bucks County prosecutors for her 80-year-old father’s disappearance in 1993. Fonder said she doesn’t know what happened to her dad, and concludes he may have suffered from the same sort of blackouts and confusion as she does.

Continuing to cope

A year after he described to the newspaper his struggle with anger and bitterness over the murder, Pastor Shreaves said he’s finally forgiven Fonder, but the event has changed him.

“I’ll never be the same person. I always will be a different person in some ways,” said Shreaves. “I’m trying to be more attentive, to look for signs of needfulness in individuals.”

It’s also taught his congregation a little more about their faith.

“We’ve learned a great deal about forgiveness, and how difficult and messy that can be, and I’ve learned that God’s grace will always overcome evil and tragedy.”

Throughout the time he had known and counseled Fonder, she never vocalized feelings of rejection, he said.

“Rhonda asked for help. Mary Jane didn’t. If she had asked for help, we would have given it to her,” said Shreaves, who noted Fonder never discussed any blackouts or the psychiatric medications she said she was taking.

“When people have a need and let it be known, then we respond,” he said. “I know Mary Jane struggled, and I also asked her if we could help and what we could do, and she never let me know that she needed anything. That’s the best we can do.”

But he never doubted Fonder felt like she was a part of the church body.

“Mary Jane was different. I felt like she felt at home here. I think she found it as a place of comfort and safety and inclusion.”

In the end, Shreaves is glad to hear that Fonder has found the acceptance she so deeply craved.

“I think its God’s grace that Mary Jane is where she belongs,” said Shreaves. “I’m happy for her. I’m happy that she’s found a community that embraces her and that she feels a part of. We all deserve that.”

Two years after their only daughter was gunned down, Jim and Dorothy Smith, both 74, say they struggle daily with grief.

This Christmas season felt the emptiest, said Jim Smith, a Hellertown resident.

“It’s been even more of missing Rhonda this year than last year because everything was going so fast before our eyes with the trial and everything.”

Upon hearing that Fonder has taken responsibility for his daughter’s death, Jim Smith said it will never make up for his family’s loss.

“It doesn’t make us any happier. We gain nothing. We lost a daughter. Nothing changes my feelings right now. We’re going to go through this the rest of our lives” said Smith, who, along with his wife, visits Rhonda’s grave each day. “No matter what happens, that’s not going to bring Rhonda through this door.”

Making amends

Like Fonder, Smith struggled with depression and was hoping for a new start in life.

Yet Smith represented all that Fonder could not attain.

As she wrestles with Smith’s murder, Fonder said she’s trying to make things right where she can.

She said she doesn’t dare contact Smith’s parents for fear of upsetting them, but she wrote her first letter to Pastor Shreaves in December, apologizing for hurting him and asking for his forgiveness.

He received Fonder’s letter, but has refused to read it.

“I have to move on,” said the pastor. “I just had to draw a boundary and say ‘I’m not going to deal with it anymore.’ ”

Rhonda’s father, Jim hopes it’s a letter he’ll never receive.

“I wouldn’t want something like that. If there’s any forgiveness, it’s just between her and God.”

Fonder has sought forgiveness from God, and said she’s looking forward to seeing Rhonda Smith again one day.

She believes they will meet again in heaven.

Editor’s note: Staff writer Amanda Cregan visited Muncy State Correctional Institution on Sunday, Jan. 10, and spoke with Mary Jane Fonder for two hours following the exchange of letters over the past couple months.