This report aired on Dateline NBC on Friday, Feb. 20 at 10 p.m. ET.
Everyone said it was such a good fit, the new pastor and his rural flock. And a good thing, too, given what was going to happen: the sacrilege in God's house. Wasn't a soul alive who could’ve predicted that. Certainly not the big handsome ex-golf pro - Greg Shreaves - who had traded in his clubs for a clerical collar here at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, Buck's County, Pa.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd end up being a pastor at a-- at a Lutheran church, or any church, for that matter.
And it was not so much a revelation that made him see the wisdom of pursuing this new life that got him through the seminary in about half the time it normally takes. No, maybe he finally just came to understand this was probably what he ought to be doing in the latter part of his life.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I love dealing with people and the-- the joys and the sorrows of their lives.
And out here, of all places. A real country parsonage.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: And I often measure this congregation by the hands I see at communion every Sunday-- with the furrows and the fingers- and the dirt under the nails.
He had taken the time, as had the members, to find the right place - he liked them and they quite clearly liked him.
Sue Brunner: He's a wonderful pastor, you know, we wanted him. He wanted to come to us, in this little town, where there's not a whole lot happening.
Deep Buck's County: This is where good country Lutherans still value tradition and community and their old church, the reassuring history of things. Members who fought the Revolutionary War are scattered beneath the grass back here.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: This congregation has been worshipping regularly in this building since 1763-- before there was a United States of America.
So now he was Pastor Shreaves. Had a good sound to it.
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Sue Brunner sings in the choir.
Sue Brunner: His compassion for people, his-- his w-- his way with people-- he seemed so caring.
It was inevitable, probably, that of the few women would respond to the dashing bachelor pastor - innocent crushes, most likely - though there was no sign whatsoever at all that Greg Shreaves was anything but the soul of rectitude when he offered himself as sounding board or adviser. He didn't seem to notice the darting looks, extra attention, the attempts at mothering. Though church council President Paul Rose certainly did.
Paul Rose: Unfortunately for him, he's single and he's handsome.
There was the cheerful teasing from the happily married ladies of the church. Sexton Judy Zellner and choir member Sue Brunner were just two among many. Lots of characters in a county church: neighbors, friends, occasionally, like all of us, gossips.
There was the slightly eccentric Mary Jane Fonder, always around, like a resident maiden aunt.
Keith Morrison: Nice person.
Paul Rose: Yeah. A little eccentric sometime, but aren't we all.(laughs) Imagine there are people sayin' that about me someplace.
Then there was the new girl - Rhonda Smith - though, at 42, she was not such a girl anymore. When Rhonda showed up, Judy could see she needed someone.
Judy Zellner: She needed a friend and I was there for her.
But for Rhonda, it was the pastor who seemed to be a lifeline.
Sue Brunner: Maybe that's kind of what kept her comin' back. 'Ya know, his-- his-- his sermons. And the way he is with people.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I suppose I met with her a half-dozen times in my office.
As he had done with other parishioners, men and women.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: She would tell me that she had no money to pay her rent. She had no money for medication.
Rhonda's bipolar disorder had filled her life with trouble, trouble supporting herself, trouble holding a job.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: She was very fragile at times. And then there were other times when she was fine.
And if anybody wanted to harbor some tabloid fantasy about the pastor's help for Rhonda.. well, that's what it was: a fantasy.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: People who know me here know that it’s not something I would ever do. I was her pastor, and that's all I was.
In isolation, the unusual events, when they began to happen, didn't seem so terribly significant, though they certainly would later. There was the day, for example, when he learned that good, attentive ministering can present its own special hazards. It was when one of those friendly women of the church was helping the pastor prepare for Sunday service.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: It just never crossed my mind that-- what started out as some kind of an-- infatuation would have led to where it did.
At some point she said to me, you know, you can't deny what's going on between us and, at that point, I had to stop the conversation and a boundary had been crossed in my mind. And she got very upset. I mean, she got really upset.
Then there was that Sunday as fate was closing in, when Rhonda Smith got up in church - a rare thing for these old-fashioned Lutherans…
Judy Zellner: It was emotional. We had tears in our eyes.
...to thank the parishioners for the secret spiritual and financial help they'd been giving her.
Perhaps God in his wisdom understands these things. Did he allow it to happen? Was he, that Wednesday morning, not watching? It was the 23rd of January, 2008. The sexton, Judy Zellner - as she had done so many times - turned into the old churchyard about 12:30 p.m. It was cleaning day. Cleaning is what a sexton does.
Judy Zellner: And there was a car in parking lot, but I had to use the ladies room so bad, I just parked my car, and came to the door, and went, and put my key in, and the door opened already. I mean, it was--
Keith Morrison: So it wasn't locked. Video: A polite churchgoer, or something else?
Judy Zellner: It wasn't locked. And I said to myself, "whoever's in this church is gonna get a piece of my mind."
Keith Morrison: 'cause it's supposed to be locked.
Judy Zellner: 'cause it's supposed to be locked.
It was that on her mind as she crossed the threshold. As she opened the door to the church office, as her eyes caught the presence behind the desk...
Judy Zellner: I didn't even see who it was. I knew her hair was brown, and it was flowing in this blood.
Judy Zellner: As I get to the desk-- I see this person on the floor, and it just, you know, it just startled me.
On Jan. 23, 2008, just after lunch, Judy Zellner stumbled on the body behind the desk in the church office.
Judy Zellner: I just stared at her. And I-- I could tell. She was shot.
Who was it? Judy couldn't tell who it was. All the blood.
Judy Zellner: She had blood on her head, and she was in a pool of blood. And the first thing that came to my mind was CSI, you know, don't touch the crime scene. And I ran around the desk, grabbed the phone, and I ran out.
It was when the paramedics arrived they discovered that whoever it was wasn't dead.
Judy Zellner: They went, "oh my God, she has a heartbeat."
Now there was a rush to get her out of there. The paramedics gathered up the bleeding woman, got her on a stretcher, and rushed past Judy in the hallway.
Judy Zellner: Her head just rolled to my side and I thought, oh my God, I said, “That is my friend Rhonda.”
Rhonda Smith! What was she doing there in the church office? And what had happened to her?
Judy Zellner: And they picked her up and the blood was jus dripping. And I just thought, oh my God!
The policemen came then, took Judy into the sanctuary, asked her about a gun, about the possibility this was suicide.
Judy Zellner: "No, I did not see a gun." "Did you kick a gun?" "No, if I would have kicked a gun, I would of known I kicked a gun." "Are you sure you didn't, you know, help Rhonda --," I said, "No, I would not do anything like that."
At the hospital, the doctors took a look at Rhonda. And then someone picked up the phone and called her parents. It was her father, Jim Smith, who answered the phone.
Jim Smith: And they said, "I’m calling from St. Luke's hospital.and your daughter's had an accident down at the church. I said, "Whoa, what'd she do, fall and break her arm or something?" "No," she said, "She's been shot and she's not gonna live." Video: Letter to ‘Daddy-O’
Keith Morrison: Over the phone?
Jim Smith: Over the phone. That's how I got that message. And-- and know what? It still grates me inside. I says to Dot, I said, "come on, we're goin' Rhonda needs us, you know."
Pastor Shreaves was out of town, knew none of what happened, until somebody found him at a three day church retreat in nearby Wayne, Pa.
Judy Zellner: I didn't know pastor was gone for those three days. And I didn't know why Rhonda was there.
Rhonda had been covering the office in the Pastor's absence. He suggested it: a way for her to make a little money.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I figured it would help with her sense of self-esteem and so forth. So it made sense.
Pastor Shreaves rushed back to the hospital in Bucks County to join the little group at Rhonda's bedside.
Judy Zellner: And we all went in to Rhonda’s room and-- circled around and-- said a-- a prayer for her.
Prayer was about the only thing anybody could offer Rhonda.
Jim Smith: They said as far as they're concerned, she's brain dead now and the exact words I said to my daughter was this: "Take my hand, precious lord, lead me home."
It was about 7 o'clock in the evening when they let Rhonda go. Pastor Shreaves did what comforting he could, all the while wondering if that little job he had given Rhonda became her death warrant.
And Jim Smith noticed that one of the men in the room didn't look like a doctor.
Jim Smith: And he was takin' notes on everything that was bein'-- people comin' in and how they reacted and everything else.
Trooper Greg Stumpo: I just sat and listened to what was being said and what was going on, trying to get a feel.
Stumpo was the man's name. Trooper Greg Stumpo.
Trooper Greg Stumpo: Because at that point we really didn't know what had happened.
Except that this young woman was unaccountably dead. In a church! The ultimate sacrilege.
But the detective, a closer observer perhaps of life's profanities, already understood what dawned that awful night on pastor Greg Shreaves. Video: Grief, shock from the altar
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I knew that my ministry would never be the same in this congregation.
Keith Morrison: Just like that.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: That we would forever be changed as a worshipping community and me as a pastor.
But what he didn't know, no one did, was that the death of Rhonda Smith would put into question everything this quiet country parish had ever believed about itself... or its members, its fellow Christians.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: No way we thought anybody in here. That wasn't even on our radar screen.
Sue Brenner: It was-- it was a really-- a-- an emotional time for all of us.
Unbearably sad, and quite disturbing. A neighboring church offered its sympathy and opened its doors for a special memorial service for Rhonda. Members brought in flowers and cards. They clung together for support. Offers of help and sorrow arrived from Lutherans all across the country. Then there was the funeral, of course a few days later.
Sue Brenner: Here's our wonderful, beautiful church. And-- and we've been violated at t-- a tragedy. It was really tough.
But, had this poor woman killed herself? Or had someone killed her?
Trooper Greg Stumpo: Really didn't know.
Troopers Greg Stumpo and Bob Eagan had been investigating murders for years, but in a church? Never.
Trooper Greg Stumpo: You know, maybe it was a suicide, and maybe it was a homicide. And we had a lot of work to do to figure that out.
The detectives examined the church computer, and could see that Rhonda had been online until 10:55 a.m. that Wednesday, when activity abruptly stopped.
Trooper Bob Eagan: She was actually on a dating Web site.
Stumpo listened carefully when Rhonda's parents talked about her troubles, her bipolar disorder, her various boyfriends and romantic attachments. Maybe it had all been too much.
Jim Smith: They thought a suicide, you know.
But once Stumpo heard from Rhonda's father, Jim Smith, he found himself doubting that it was suicide.
Keith Morrison: Would Rhonda commit suicide?
Jim Smith: No. Absolutely not.
Keith Morrison: How do you know?
Jim Smith: I know because of the simple fact of one thing, Rhonda lived alone, okay. And Rhonda took all kinds of pills-- for psychiatric problems. Any time, she could have gave herself a complete over-- a handful of pills and been gone.
And then the medical report came in. And right away, it was obvious to both Stumpo and Egan. Somebody wanted Rhonda dead.
Trooper Bob Eagan: The victim-- Rhonda Smith had two gunshots to the head. In addition, she had stippling on the back of her right hand. And stippling only occurs-- when gunpowder comes out of the barrel of a bun at-- at a high velocity. It appeared as-- as though she put her right hand up-- in a defensive posture, when the gun was fired.
But who had done this? And why sweet, harmless Rhonda?
As the two detectives traveled up and down the wooded rolling hills of the parish, they encountered not just shock, but among church members, a brand new feeling: fear.
Paul Rose: Can this ever happen again? Am I safe here? What caused it? All those questions go through your mind.
Church Council president Paul Rose was certainly not the only one.
Paul Rose: There's an elementary school about half a mile down the road. Those kids were not allowed to go outside for recess.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I began to fear for my safety living right next door to the church. I had to change all the locks. I didn't sleep here for a few days. And it was very, very upsetting.
It could have been a random killing, the pastor thought, strange though that might seem out here in the country.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I frankly for a few weeks I thought it was a drive by shooting.
Or maybe her killing was part of a church invasion robbery of a sort. Some of the members told the two detectives about a strange visitor in the church the Sunday before Rhonda was murdered.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: There was a stranger in here for worship the week before.
Judy Zellner: He just made everybody feel so uncomfortable.
Sue Brunner: He told three different people that he had come from di-- three different states. And he told somebody, this would be a good church to rob.
Judy Zellner: And he tried to keep the communion glass. Yeah, he put it in his pocket and-- someone said, "We don't do that here." He was strange.
Had that stranger come back to rob the church, had he found Rhonda, there quite by chance, and shot her? There was investigators assigned to try to locate this mysterious man. No easy task, however. That stranger, whoever he was, had disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived...nor had anything been taken from the church. Except a life.
Back at headquarters, Stumpo and Eagan began to realize they might be dealing with something a little more personal than robbery or random violence.
Trooper Bob Eagan: I thought there were three questions we had to answer. Who had a motive to kill Rhonda smith? Who knew that she was at the church that Wednesday morning? And who owned a gun that could have fired the bullet we felt if we answered them, we would find the killer.
And so, as the good folk at Trinity Lutheran worked to absorb the shock and clean away the blood from the church office, Stumpo and Eagan returned to pay a visit to Pastor Greg Shreaves. Because, at that point:
Trooper Greg Stumpo: We really didn't know what had happened.
Nor, apparently, did the pastor. But then, just fishing now, they asked: Did he know any name, even a church member, anything that might help? And the pastor's expression changed.
Trooper Greg Stumpo: So then he said, well there's a woman who-- he--he was kind of embarrassed, I think, and really, in his position, felt uncomfortable talking about it. But we, you know, we spoke to him a little bit and got him to finally tell us.
A woman? But the pastor wasn't the only one. Around Trinity Lutheran, the whispers had already begun.
Keith Morrison: You were pretty suspicious by that point?
Judy Zellner: Yes, very suspicious. In fact, my husband the very night it happened.
Keith Morrison: The very night it happened?
Judy Zellner: The very night it happened my husband predicted it.
Detectives investigating the church office murder of Rhonda Smith in Bucks County, Penn., were confronted by a frightened congregation, a place in turmoil. And then the pastor, reluctantly it seemed, offered detective’s a name. A woman.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: She participated in a lot of ministries in this church.
Had the pastor formed an attachment to one of his female parishioners? Well, in a way, perhaps he had an attachment. Though, Lord knows he tried to avoid it. The name of this woman: Mary Jane Fonder.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: She sang in the choir. She had a great voice. She did a lot of things for the church. She-- helped me quite often at-- during communion to distribute the sacrament.
Mary Jane was older than the pastor - middle 60s - childless, lived with her retired brother. But she seemed prepared to do just about anything for Pastor Shreaves.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: And I’m grateful to have-- people who wanna-- wanna help.
Mind you, Mary Jane had been contributing her talents and services for years back when Greg Shreaves was still golf pro. The church was very important to Mary Jane.
Sue Brunner: And she felt there were people there that liked her and cared about her. And I think she was lonely--
But then he came along. And something in Mary Jane changed.
Sue Brunner: And then she's coming to 8 a.m. service. Then she was staying for Sunday school. And then she was coming to the late service.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: I just saw Mary Jane as a person who loved her church.
The pastor told the two detectives the story of Mary Jane's artistic talents, how since he was oblivious to any feelings she may have developed for him, he'd invited her to help decorate the church for Sunday services. And then he recounted for them what happened.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: She was actually in the church working-- on changing the bulletin boards and at-- at some point, she said to me, "you-- you can't deny what's going on between us," and I took that to mean that she had a romantic interest in me. And-- at that point, I-- I had to stop the conversation and-- a boundary had been crossed in my mind. And I dismissed it. Laughed it off. So we I ended the conversation.
It was soon after that, said the pastor, when the phone calls began.
Voicemail recording of Mary Jane: Welcome back pastor shreaves, this is Mary Jane and it's now 25 minutes of three.i know you're still out of town, I didn't expect you home until tonight. We all missed you Sunday. I hope you had a chance to get enough rest to soothe your soul.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: Long, rambling messages. And I would never answer the phone. Because I knew she just wanted to leave these rambling messages.
Keith Morrison: How often?
Pastor Greg Shreaves: Well, I’d say as often as 15 times a week.
Voicemail recording of Mary Jane:I had a wonderful dream today. All kinds of things. I couldn't believe it.
It bothered the pastor. He asked her to stop calling. She didn't. He spoke to council president Paul Rose.
Keith Morrison: What did you advise him to do?
Paul Rose: Well, it's-- you know, pastor-- Mary-- Mary Jane. She's harmless.
But was she harmless. Or a nuisance? Or worse? The pastor had generally left his house unlocked when he went out. But now?
Pastor Greg Shreaves: Food began appearing in my freezer at-- at the parsonage. She had put that food there, and then began delivering food-- in bags and leaving them-- the food on the-- on the porch.
Keith Morrison: Because by now, you were locking your door?
Pastor Greg Shreaves: Yes-- exactly.
Oh, he tried to be civil with Mary Jane, and the women of the church were friendly with her. But she seemed upset, depressed.
Sue Brunner: I think Mary Jane thought that somehow we were doing things-- and not including her.
Like that night after choir practice when Mary Jane concluded - quite mistakenly - that the other women were having a birthday party for Rhonda Smith, and hadn't invited her. And then there was that January Sunday morning when Rhonda Smith got up in church to thank the congregation for their financial and moral support. After church, Mary Jane phoned her neighbor, Sue Brunner, with a question:
Sue Brunner: "Sue, did you know that the church was helping Rhonda?" And I said, "Yes, I did." She seemed angry, a little upset.
Was this elderly church lady jealous of the younger, more popular Rhonda Smith? And if so, why? Time, the detectives decided, for a chat with Mary Jane. Stumpo and Eagan found her at choir practice.
Keith Morrison: This wasn't one of your classic interrogations, was it?
Trooper Greg Stumpo: No, it wasn't.
And when they took her to police headquarters to interrogate her they discovered that Mary Jane, it turned out, loved to talk. And talk. So the detectives listened. For hours...as Mary Jane told them about her life, her church, her pastor, and her fears about that younger woman.
Mary Jane: It's a possibility that my pastor's reputation is at stake. Lots of people say maybe that pastor was involved with that lady. I don't know that. That's such a terrible thing. Even today I have this thought: oh God, that poor pastor was in love with that lady.
And then the detectives asked Mary Jane the strangest question: Do you own a gun?
Trooper Bob Eagan: Yes, she did. She owned a .38 caliber Rossi.
They knew the right answer when they asked it, of course. They had checked the records.
Trooper Bob Eagan: A .38 Rossi was one of the guns that could have been used to shoot Rhonda Smith.
But only if she still had the gun. And Mary Jane told the two detectives that she had gotten rid of it years and years ago.
Trooper Bob Eagan: She said she threw it in a lake.
Keith Morrison: When?
Trooper Bob Eagan: Around 1994.
Lake Nocamoxin is the only one around here. They decided to mount a search for the gun.
For a week, a brace of state troopers peered into the shallow waters around the lake. Nothing.
Keith Morrison: Did you really expect to find it?
Trooper Bob Eagan: We believed that Mary Jane still had her gun.
She had an alibi, too, she told the troopers. A hairdressing appointment on the very day and, she said, at the very time the murder occurred. And sure enough. The salon confirmed it. But was it a real alibi? Perhaps Mary Jane had forgotten about the time sheet she signed when she arrived at the hairdressers. 11:22. Just enough time for the church lady to commit murder before getting her hair done. In fact, the troopers discovered, Mary Jane often wore a wig, and that day, after her hair appointment.
Trooper Greg Stumpo: Her wig was still at the salon. She had forgotten it and left it there.
Did Mary Jane leave the wig to support her alibi? Maybe. Or maybe the wig would be her undoing, a smoking gun. If Mary Jane had fired a gun that day, gunpowder residue would still be on the wig. They sent the wig out for testing. The result? She seemed to be telling the truth. The gunpowder test came back negative.
Trooper Greg Stumpo: It was a setback, yeah.
Around the church, meanwhile, and with the grieving family of Rhonda Smith, Mary Jane was, well, sweet - attentive. At a church event, for example, attended by Rhonda's parents. She sat down right next to them, Rhonda’s parents. Even though...
Jim Smith: I did not know who the lady was. I did not know the lady.
She sent away for this statue, an angel, a memorial gift which she offered in Rhonda's memory. And one day, she phoned the Smiths and offered to bring them one of her homemade pies.
Jim Smith: I said no to Dot. No, no, no. She says "I don't think we want one right now."
But Mary Jane showed up with that pie anyway, and invited herself in, where the Smiths noticed she needed new shoes.
Jim Smith: And Dot says, "well Mary, would you care for some of Rhonda’s shoes here?”
Keith Morrison: And Mary Jane accepted that?
Jim Smith: She accepted em. They sure do fit, ma'am.
Mary Jane began to hang around the Smiths quite a bit, often wearing Rhonda's shoes. Troopers Stumpo and Eagan were stuck. They suspected Mary Jane.
But the negative gunpowder residue test, the lack of a gun, the caring demeanor of the woman… Not much they could do about their suspicion without some irrefutable piece of tangible evidence that would tie Mary Jane Fonder to the murder of Rhonda Smith. So they seized Mary Jane's car. And inside they did find gunpowder residue in three places. Not much, not enough for an arrest. But, they let her know they'd found it. And then they waited to see what she'd do.
Trooper Bob Eagan: We wanted her to make a mistake.
And just a few days later, a boy named Garrett was down at Lake Noxamixon, fishing with his dad.
Keith Morrison: Then you came down here?
Garrett: Yeah, cause there was a gray heron over there and I was trying to get closer to it.
Keith Morrison: To have a look at it?
Keith Morrison: Then what did ya see?
Garrett: and then I saw the handle of a gun sticking out of the water.
And the trap was sprung.
It was an uncertain day in early spring, the sun's best efforts gave in to a cold afternoon wind.
Stumpo and Eagan had been trying for months to solve the execution style killing of Rhonda Smith, shot in the head as she sat in the office of a country church. They were frustrated, unable to prove a solid link to their chief suspect, church member Mary Jane Fonder.
But Garrett Sylsberry, eight years old, knew nothing of that. He was at nearby Lake Nocamixon, fishing with his dad.
Garrett: And then the wind started getting bigger and I was getting freeze to death.
That's when he saw it, just at the edge of the water, maybe 20 feet down a steep slope from the highway.
Garrett: it looked kind of rubbery. I thought it was just like a playtoy.
Keith Morrison: Once you realized what it really was…
Garrett: I just looked at it and was, like, "Hmmm. A gun." So I brought it to my dad.
Garrett’s dad: I opened the wheel and there was live rounds in it.
Garrett's dad called the police. Were they interested? Oh yes, they certainly were.
Trooper Bob Eagan: Immaculate. It was like in perfect condition, comparable to being left out in the rain overnight.
Stumpo and Eagan went back to the lake for another look. And there, sitting on a rock in the water police found a box of unused bullets, and a few spent shells.
Keith Morrison: And they all matched the gun?
Trooper Greg Stumpo: Yes.
The gun was a Rossi 38, the type Mary Jane said she'd thrown in the water 14 years earlier. The bullets - their cardboard container still intact despite its immersion in the lake - were a perfect match for the shells that killed Rhonda Smith.
But who could provide evidence to show Mary Jane actually threw the gun and the bullets into the lake herself? Her own brother? Yes. After police seized Mary Jane's car, she borrowed her brother's, who reported finding in his car a piece of bullet that didn't make it into the lake.
Trooper Greg Stumpo: We submitted that to the lab to see if it was fired from her gun.
Keith Morrison: And?
Trooper Greg Stumpo: It was fired from her gun.
Had Mary Jane Fonder driven her brother's car to Lake Nocamixon? He reported that she put enough miles on the car to have done so. Had she thrown the murder weapon and the box of bullets out the window as she sped across this bridge? And if so, was her timing off?
The gun was found just down there at the edge of shallow water as if somebody driving along this busy highway had tossed it out the window and over the edge. But had they thrown it off the bridge about 40 feet back on the highway it would have landed in much deeper water in the channel of the lake. It might have been unfindable.
It was that April Fool's Day Mary Jane Fonder was attending a meeting of the church seniors club and sat next to Rhonda's parents. Until the meeting ended.
Sue Brunner: She was there and we're cleaning up. And ...she's still there. And she's still there. It seemed like she just didn't wanna leave.
Did she know who was waiting outside? Did she understand what was happening when they pulled her over?
Trooper Greg Stumpo: She made a comment. She thought we would be coming today.
Dave Zellis: I’ve been working as a prosecutor in the bucks county district attorney's office for 24 years, and I’ve never seen a case like this.
Prosecutor Dave Zellis had been working with the troopers all along. He charged Mary Jane Fonder with first degree murder. At the trial, Pastor Shreaves testified, as did Sexton Zellner, and young Garrett Sylsberry. Thirty-two witnesses in all. The raw material for the case, the prosecutor presented.
Dave Zellis: She’s a cold, calculating murderer of the first degree. Somebody who is clever, manipulative, and egocentric and was driven to do this.
It was jealousy that did the driving, said the prosecutor. Mary Jane, he said, was furious that Rhonda Smith was embraced by the congregation. Rhonda, and not her. And she was convinced that Pastor Shreaves - her Pastor Shreaves - had fallen into the clutches of that woman.
Dave Zellis: She perceived, somehow, that pastor was having an affair with Rhonda Smith. When you listen to the tape, there's a portion in there where she almost believes that it was her job, or her duty, to protect the pastor from himself and protect the church from Rhonda Smith.
Even though, said the prosecutor, the pastor had in fact been entirely correct with all the women of the church.
Dave Zellis: So all these things were starting to really gnaw at her insides to the point when she called and found Rhonda Smith answered the phone, that was it.
That was when the Pastor had given Rhonda a three-day part-time job covering the church office in his absence.
Dave Zellis: And the door opens and Mary Jane walks in, walks up three feet away and pulls out a gun and fires away two shots.
Then, as police closed in, she tried to dispose of the gun in Lake Nocamixon. The ultimate church lady, exposed as a murderer. Maybe. And maybe not.
Michael Applebaum: She’s a very kindly, interesting woman who loves her church, loves the congregants, loves her neighbors.
Michael Applebaum was Mary Jane's defense attorney. Video: Grief, shock from the altar
Michael Applebaum: She actually loves mankind. And she takes her Bible very seriously.
The problem, said Applebaum, was that the police - not to mention church members - allowed themselves to caught up in gossip - allowed themselves to be swayed by Mary Jane's sometimes obnoxious personality.
Michael Applebaum: She talks to herself. And she rambles and she butts in. She really is the aunt you never wanna sit next to at the thanksgiving table.
Keith Morrison: No edit button in that woman.
Michael Applebaum: None whatsoever.
But was she guilty? No, said Applebaum, no more than those women accused of witchcraft up in Salem all those years ago.
Michael Applebaum: The case that was being put forward was fraught with reasonable doubt. Smoke and mirrors and rumors. And that's exactly what happened in 1692. Women were burned at the stake so the analogy seemed like a proper analogy to draw.
Mary Jane Fonder, the witch of Bucks County? The defendant herself did not testify. And the jury retired to consider its verdict, entirely unaware, as you are, most likely, right now, of another investigation just begun.
There was a bite in the Halloween wind that whipped around the country steeple in Bucks County, Pa.
At the courthouse in historic Doylestown, the county seat, the jury retired to consider the fate of Mary Jane Fonder, accused of killing - in a fit of jealousy - her fellow church member, Rhonda Smith.
And the congregation of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran held its collective breath... especially after a couple of alternate jurors offered their opinions to waiting church members outside the courtroom.
Sue Brunner: And the one was s-- so adamant that he felt that she was not guilty. That the pastor hadn't done enough to help her, and he had pushed her away, and the facts weren't there.
The jury was not allowed to know, of course, what Sue Brunner and the Pastor and some of the others at the church were all too well aware of: the investigation of Mary Jane wasn't quite finished yet.
DaveZellis: We have long memories in law enforcement. We don't forget things, especially when it's a missing father who's still missing to this day.
Missing father? That would be the story of Ed Fonder III, crotchety, old, ill and virtually lame, who, according to Mary Jane, simply walked out of the country house they shared, surrounded by its deep woods, miles from any town, and was never seen again. That was back in 1993, before Mary Jane bought that gun of hers. Did Mary Jane murder her own father? She denied it, then and now.
But Prosecutor Zellis has discovered cause, he says, to reopen the investigation. No statute of limitations on murder.
DaveZellis: We, you know, now have a-- a bit more information. We certainly know a lot more about the dynamics that were going on in that house than we did before. So, stay tuned.
But the jury, last Halloween eve, knew none of that, and Prosecutor Zellis was nervous as Mary Jane moved in and out of the courtroom with her best Sunday manners sweetly in place.
Question: Do you still say you're innocent, Mary Jane?
Mary Jane: What was that, dear?
Question: Do you still say you're innocent?
Mary Jane: Yes, I am innocent.
Sue Brunner: I was a little worried. I’m thinkin', "Oh, boy. Mary Jane’s coming back. She would just start coming back to church like nothing happened. How could we deal with that?
But in the end, they needn't have worried. The jury was not swayed. Not by Mary Jane.
The verdict? Guilty. Murder in the first degree. Video: A polite churchgoer, or something else?
Mary Jane: I’m glad it’s all over.
This past December, she was sentenced to life. No parole. And outside, faced her fate with an almost ecclesiastical calm.
Mary Jane: It doesn't sound appealing. But mark our word, the lord as God will plan me. I’ll go wherever I’m supposed to.
This is a story, after all, about religion, as much as it is about the ultimate sin.
Jim Smith: As far as me judging her, I’m not gonna judge that woman at all.
Rhonda Smith's father Jim never paid much attention to churchy things, he said. But he's descended from Mennonites, so he's been thinking about forgiveness.
Jim Smith: I leave to God forgive her. I’ll let God do that.
At Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, the country church in deep Buck's County, the Rev. Greg Shreaves and his little flock still have some work to do on forgiveness, on grace. But they'll make it, said Pastor Shreaves, and so will he... in the wake of Mary Jane Fonder.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: God’s grace is not beyond the-- the door of a jail cell. She's on our prayer list/and we pray for her every week, and we'll heal in our own time.
Keith Morrison: People are still pretty angry.
Pastor Greg Shreaves: People are angry, yes, I’m angry. And-- but that doesn't-- that doesn't mean god's grace is being withheld from her. She's where she needs to be and I’ve learned, in my own way, that there is grace even in that. Even in her incarceration. And I trust and believe that.
Question: Is there anything you'd like to say to-- members of the church who have been here to follow the trial who--
Mary Jane: God bless all of- my friends at the church of trinity, I’ll miss you all.
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