Upper Bucks murderer, questioned in father's unsolved disappearance, dies in prison

Mary Jane Fonder, center, is escorted by a Pennsylvania State Trooper to her arraignment hearing in 2008. Fonder, 79, died Monday in prison.

The newly revived investigation into the disappearance of Edward Fonder III was complicated Monday by the death of his daughter — the last person to see him alive 25 years ago.

Mary Jane Fonder, 75, was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at the state correctional facility in Muncy, according to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office. Fonder had been incarcerated at the prison since 2008, when she was convicted of killing Rhonda Smith in a bizarre murder that drew national media to her quiet corner of upper Bucks County.

Fonder’s name was thrust back into the headlines in May, when investigators from the District Attorney’s Office began to look more closely into her father’s disappearance. Their renewed focus came after John Brunner, a longtime neighbor of the Fonder family who purchased their long-empty home on Winding Road in Springfield Township, gave detectives “unfettered access,” according to District Attorney Matthew Weintraub.

During a visit to the property on May 22, investigators were unable to find any definitive sign of the elder Fonder by using ground-penetrating radar. Weintraub promised that the probe would continue, a point he echoed Tuesday, saying in a statement that his office “is still concerned about returning the remains to the family for closure and a proper burial.”

After being granted access to the Fonder house, investigators approached Mary Jane Fonder anew, but she declined to speak with them.

Neighbors and sources close to the case recalled her recently as a polite if eccentric woman who kept to herself and had a knack for sculpting and painting, often making gifts of her artwork for friends. She moved in with her parents in Springfield Township in 1987 to help care for them after losing her job as a bookkeeper in Philadelphia, she told the Inquirer in 1994.

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub stands outside the Fonder family’s former home in upper Bucks County. County detectives came up empty-handed during a search for remains of Fonder’s father.

Over the years, her relationship with her father grew especially strained. And when he walked out of his home for the last time in 1993, she bristled at what she called “harassment of the highest order” by police probing his still-unresolved disappearance.

A decade later, she left rambling, often incoherent voicemails for Gregory Shreaves, the Lutheran preacher she believed Smith was having an affair with. Fonder later told investigators she had “very sexual [and] warm feelings about” him.

After Smith’s slaying, Fonder threw herself at the younger woman’s family, baking them pies and writing heartfelt letters of condolence. The gestures seemed especially strange when, months later, detectives cracked the case after recovering a pistol registered to Fonder in nearby Lake Nockamixon, a pistol with ballistics that matched the fatal wounds dealt to Smith.

Even after her conviction, Fonder maintained her innocence.

“I’m sorry, so very sorry this poor woman was murdered,” she said at the end of her jury trial in 2008. “But in the name of God … I did not kill Rhonda Smith.”