In Mich. neighbor feud, some side with suspected killer

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Nunica — The day after Christmas, amid arctic cold and drifting snow, Wendell Popejoy executed his longtime neighbor with a bullet to the back of her head, police say.

Wendell Earl Popejoy

Her offense: “Shelia (sic) was snow blowing the easement driveway out in front of his residence,” a sheriff’s detective told a judge, according to a court transcript. “Wendell stated that he made the decision when he saw Shelia to kill her.”

Popejoy, 63, of Nunica is being held in Ottawa County’s jail on open murder and felony firearm charges in connection with the Dec. 26 killing of Sheila Bonge, 59. A court hearing to consider evidence is Wednesday.

So why are some residents rooting for him?

“It’s sad she got killed, but I feel for the guy who killed her,” said Andy Groenink, who can see both homes across a wintry farm field. “I wouldn’t care if he got nothing, because he wouldn’t shoot you or me.”

Police say Wendell Popejoy shot neighbor Sheila Bonge after she blew snow in front of his house.

The turn-of-the-year shooting in a rural community was as startling as it was abrupt. Popejoy confessed to approaching Bonge from behind on the private drive they shared before he shot her with a revolver, police say.

But if Popejoy snapped, it was years coming. Police and court documents portray an increasingly toxic feud with neighbors where Bonge is often described as the aggressor.

Complaints attracted police at least two dozen times since 2015 — some 13 times alone in 2016.

Many complaints seemed trivial: trespassing ducks, the questionable death of three chickens, the poaching of a rabbit.

Sheila Bonge's house in Nunica, Mich.

Most centered on a private, gravel drive to their properties. Among complaints: stakes were wrongly placed along the drive; a parked semi-truck obstructed the shared easement. A handful involved Popejoy or his longtime girlfriend. Most documented back-and-forth complaints with another couple at the dead-end drive’s entrance. Some confrontations were videotaped.

Deputies on various occasions described Bonge as “seething with anger,” “extremely hostile” and “irrational and hard to understand.” One deputy wrote about a Nov. 3, 2015, incident: “Not sure if she remembers why she called 911.”

Another deputy wrote on March 22, 2016, he was told by Bonge to “(expletive) off” and “get the (expletive) of my property.” “The behavior from Sheila is common during police contact,” the deputy wrote.

Not all incidents involved police visits.

Donetta Gould, 81, offers a recent run-in. Last month, Bonge drove past Gould on Gould’s daily walk. Bonge lowered her window and, unprovoked, shouted, “Hey (expletive), I hope you fall down and break your hip,” Gould said.

Gould raised a middle finger; Bonge, she says, raised two.

“Even now it’s hard to believe she did that,” Gould said. “That’s just the way she was. She flipped people off all the time.”

Her account was echoed by others. The most recent complaint against Bonge was for a personal protection order in September.

Nunica, Mich

The complaint by a neighbor — not Popejoy — listed examples of alleged harassment, including obscene language and gestures.

The protection order was denied by a judge, who noted “insufficient evidence of immediate, irreplaceable harm.”

Bonge and Popejoy lived three miles south of Nunica, about 25 miles west of Grand Rapids, closer to Grand Haven.

She and Popejoy lived on one-acre parcels. Popejoy bought his in 2009; hers was bought in 2005, according to assessment records.

The side-by-side home sites are surrounded by farmland, hence the need for the long, graveled easement to their one-story houses. Snow blankets the barren fields. This part of Michigan is known for its heavy lake-effect snow dumps.

On a recent day, orange Xs, sprayed by authorities on the driveway, mark points of evidential interest.

On Popejoy’s two-stall detached garage, four small American flags adorn the doors. Four snow shovels lean against the house and garage. A wooden greeting reads: “An old toad lives here with his ladybug.”

About 275 feet to the north, a rusty blue pickup with a snowplow rests in Bonge’s side yard. Covered with snow, it appears not to have moved in some time.

Above Bonge’s front door a sign reads: “Home sweet country home.” Patriotic bunting hangs from the deck and another carved wooden sign with raised white letters greets visitors: “This is an American home/ run Japanese style/ please take off your shoes /and stay a while.”

Wendell Popejoy's house in Nunica, Mich.

Bonge was found by police, two days after she was killed, in the woodlot behind Popejoy’s home. The downhill woodlot is small, opening west to a farm pasture, then a larger woodlot and finally the Grand River’s Jubb Bayou.

The site provokes the question: Why would a man, with no criminal record, hide a body here, so close to home, so easily found?

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office is releasing few details; Capt. John Wolffis did not respond to interview requests.

Graying, stout and 5-foot-8, Popejoy was known as even-keeled and helpful, according to nearby residents.

If he saw a neighbor bailing feed, he’d help. When he saw another neighbor hanging shutters, he jumped in. When there was trouble, he tried to be an intermediary.

Bonge once worked at a local nursing home and was a certified nurse aide, according to her obituary.

She graduated from nearby Coopersville High School and had three children, the obituary said. A man described as her fiance is the actual owner of the property where she lives, county records show.

Family members, said to be devastated, have been reluctant to talk.

“At this time we are in shock due to the heinous nature of the crime,” read a prepared statement provided to local station WOOD-TV. “We are deeply saddened by the fact that there is nothing we or anyone can do to bring our mother back. She was loved dearly by so many for her sweet and caring nature. She was selfishly and brutally taken from us far too soon. ... We are praying that she gets the justice she so desperately deserves.”

A GoFundMe page started by Bonge’s brother seeks help with funeral expenses.

“My sister Sheila was tragically murdered over the holidays,” the page reads. “She went missing on Christmas and they found her body a few days later. She was suddenly taken away from her family in such a cruel senseless way. She was a mother, a grandma, a great grandma, aunt, and a sister. She was loved very much and will be deeply missed.”