Edward Fonder III walked out his front door and into history in August 1993. The home he left behind, built with his own hands, came down this month after weathering a tortured legacy as a place where dark thoughts form and violence takes root among a thick canopy of trees.
Its most recent resident, Mary Jane Fonder, now lives 140 miles away, occupying a cell in the state correctional institution at Muncy. She won’t be leaving: Fonder was sentenced to life in prison in 2008 for slaying a church secretary in a bizarre, brazen murder that thrust Bucks County’s rural Springfield Township into national headlines.
After clearing decades’ worth of trash and clutter, all that’s left of the Fonder house on the aptly named Winding Road is its foundation, cinder blocks jutting out of the earth like so many jagged teeth. As empty as the property is, investigators still hold hope that it bears some hidden knowledge, shreds of information that may finally determine the fate of the family’s patriarch, who vanished a month after his 80th birthday.
John Brunner is eager to help find those clues, should they lie somewhere on the 12 acres of dense forest that he purchased from Fonder’s children last year. He granted county detectives full rein of the house and the woods around it when they caught wind that the property had changed hands.
It was, as he put it last week, an obvious decision.
“Someone out there is guilty, and they need to be held responsible,” Brunner, 75, said from his kitchen table, a few dozen yards from the ruins of the Fonder house. “Make no mistake, he was murdered. He didn’t walk away, and he ain’t missing. No one deserves that.”
Officially, Brunner’s theory about Fonder’s fate is just that. As far as police are concerned, the older man is still considered missing.
This week, investigators plan to examine the property with ground-penetrating radar before giving Brunner the go-ahead to finish clearing the skeleton of the home. Sources close to the investigation said detectives wanted to take “one last shot” at the cold case, closing up any loose ends left after being barred from the property by the previous owners.
Edward Fonder wasn’t what Brunner would describe as a friend, but they were friendly. Brunner would strike up conversations with the older man when he’d see him, learning about his years working as a master tool and die maker in Philadelphia, about his passion and skill as a pianist.
When his daughter, Mary Jane, called Brunner’s wife early on Aug. 26, 1993, to say that she couldn’t find him, Brunner immediately knew something was wrong.
The 80-year-old could barely walk, he said, relying on a cane after undergoing two hip replacements. And he needed daily doses of his heart medication. Brunner, an avid outdoorsman, grabbed the yellow Labrador he used as his hunting dog and scoured the Fonder property that morning – the first in what would become a parade of people looking for the missing man.
“I walked over the whole 12 acres,” Brunner recalled. “He wasn’t there.”
Days later, when a search party of about 40 volunteers met in Brunner’s driveway to march, arm-in-arm, through the woods, he didn’t join them. After a few hours, they reached the same conclusion he had on that first day.
Police ramped up their search, sweeping the ground with bloodhounds and a helicopter. Eight months after he disappeared, Fonder’s wallet was found in a mailbox in Allentown, Lehigh County, its contents intact.
At the time, police identified Mary Jane as a person of interest in the case, since she was the last person to see her father alive. She bristled at the questioning by police, saying it was “harassment of the highest order.”
Meanwhile, friends and family described her relationship with her father as strained and contentious, prone to bickering.
“I had a doozy of a father,” she told investigators years later, describing him as an “always mad, raging man.”
Her brother, Edward Fonder IV, said his father told him “he couldn’t take it anymore.”
“They were similar in personality,” he told the Inquirer in 1994. “It’s hard to have a relationship with just one person. They were two needy people living together.”
No charges were ever filed in Fonder’s disappearance. He was legally declared dead in 2000, under a Pennsylvania law that makes such rulings automatic after seven years.
The case was reopened in 2008, when prosecutors discovered that Fonder had never reported her father’s disappearance to federal authorities and had collected nearly $33,000 in payments from his pension. That issue was settled in U.S. District Court, but it was the least of Fonder’s worries at the time.
Rhonda Smith, a volunteer secretary at the nearby Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, was found mortally wounded in the church office on Jan. 23, 2008. Fonder, a fellow churchgoer, initially threw herself at Smith’s family, sending sympathy cards, baking pies, and sitting near them at the woman’s funeral.
“That should have been me in the ground instead of Rhonda,” Fonder wrote in a card revealed during the investigation. “…This never should have happened. Anyone could have been there that day.”
It was, apparently, a calculated act. A .38-caliber revolver registered to Fonder was found in nearby Lake Nockamixon by a father and son out fishing. Ballistics matched it to Smith’s wounds.
While on trial for the murder, Fonder was characterized as being infatuated with Pastor Gregory Shreaves, the church’s spiritual leader, who she believed was having an affair with Smith. Prosecutors said Fonder showed obsessive behavior, sneaking food into the priest’s home while he was away and leaving long, rambling messages for him on his answering machine at all hours of the night.
She later admitted to investigators she had “very sexual [and] warm feelings about” Shreaves. Fonder was sentenced to life in prison in December 2008.
Late last year, Patricia Nemetch, to whom Mary Jane Fonder and her brother granted power of attorney, contacted Brunner to see if he’d be interested in buying the property. Nemetch declined to comment for this story, saying her dealings with the Fonder children are confidential.
In September, Brunner closed on the land, paying $175,000, property records show.
“I bought it simply for privacy, and it was a good investment,” Brunner said. With the land from the Fonder property, he now owns about 60 acres along Winding Road in Springfield Township.
But his latest acquisition came with a few headaches, even beyond its association with a missing-person case.
The Fonders’ house was so densely packed with clutter that Brunner could barely open the door. He and a crew he hired needed to use pitchforks for the first two days of work, making piles that investigators later sorted through.
Weeks later, the county paid for the home’s demolition. Once their work is done, Brunner plans to fill in the foundation and clear another nearby building.
“I hope they solve this case, I really do,” he said. “This has bothered me for some time.”