Church murder arrest sparks more questions

April 2, 2008 10:01:35 AM PDT
A 65-year-old woman has been charged with last January's church murder in rural Bucks County.

Police arrested Mary Jane Fonder for the January murder of Rhonda Smith. Smith's body was found inside the offices of the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran in Bucks County, Pa. in by a cleaning woman. Shortly after the crime Judy Zellner, who found Smith's body, spoke exclusively with Action News. Zellner said "I'm the cleaning lady at the church and I went to clean and I just found the person who had been (shot)." Zellner noted there didn't seem to be any sign of forced entry and no obvious sign of a struggle.

Investigators believe that Fonder called Smith at the church and learned she was getting emotional, financial and spiritual support. Police say two days later Fonder shot Smith twice in the head while Smith was working in the church. Police say Fonder was jealous of Smith and her relationship with their church pastor.

Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry told reporters, "(Fonder) indicated that she had romantic feelings for this pastor. And the issue was the victim was receiving some attention from the pastor."

Police say the break in the case came during the weekend when a boy from Quakertown was fishing at nearby Lake Nockamixon. While there, he found a gun that investigators believe is the murder weapon. It was registered to Fonder and forensics linked it to the crime.

On Tuesday, Action News spoke to the parents of murder victim Rhonda Smith. Smith's mother and father say they were shocked when they learned the woman arrested for their daughter's murder was not only a member of their church, but had been in their house and was at a church lunch with them just hours before being arrested.

James Smith, the victim's father, says, "The woman sat right close to me as you are. You know? I had no idea what was going on."

The suspect, 65-year-old Mary Jane Fonder, was arrested just hours after she had lunch with James and Dorothy Smith. They say Fonder even started visiting their home after Rhonda was murdered.

Smith's mother, Dorothy, says of Fonder, "One Sunday she had tears in her eyes. She said, 'I just talked to her. I thought she was nice,' and just agreed with us."

Action News went to the home of the suspect, which she shares with her brother Edward. He opened the door just long enough to proclaim his faith in his sister. "My sister is innocent," he said.

Church spokesman Paul Rose told Action News, "We're all shocked. We're surprised and very sad that this could possibly be one of our members."

Tuesday, Fonder pleaded not guilty to first degree murder. She was denied bail.

Since January there was speculation Smith, who battled bipolar disorder for two decades, committed suicide. Her parents believe the arrest has put that speculation to rest.

Now, the arrest is raising new questions about an old, unsolved mystery. Edward F. Fonder, the suspect's father, disappeared 15 years ago. The elder Edward was 72 at the time and suffered a heart condition. He disappeared without a trace in the summer of 1993 and was never seen again. Mary Jane and her brother Edward were treated as persons of interest in the case, but never deemed suspects.

The affidavit says Fonder once threatened a fellow Denny's employee and that she called the pastor so much he blocked her number.