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Violence not 'on radar' for authorities before rural Michigan feud turned deadly

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News
Wendell Popejoy Jr. stands with his lawyer Jeff Kortes to hear his sentence of life in prison for the murder of his neighbor Sheila Bonge on Nov. 5 in 20th Circuit Court in Grand Haven.

Nunica — A Lake Michigan westerly wind muffled the killer's approach, as did the victim's droning snow blower.

Wendell Popejoy Jr. slipped between two front-yard pines toward his neighbor. Driving snow scoured the barren hayfield. As it was perhaps 10 degrees, an unsuspecting Sheila Bonge had her hood pulled against the elements.

Popejoy raised his black revolver from behind her and fired. The .22-caliber long bullet passed forward through the right side of Bonge’s brain, according to autopsy records.  Popejoy later told detectives she likely never knew he was there. 

Searchers found her body two days later on Dec. 28 in Popejoy’s back woodlot near Nunica, which is 25 miles west of Grand Rapids. She was covered with snow and was nude, save for earrings, a white-metal necklace, a white hair tie,  lip ring and a rose tattoo, the autopsy showed.

Popejoy first denied knowledge of her killing, and then confessed. It seems no one could stop the neighbors’ fight to the death on 104th Avenue.

Not police, who were summoned more than 50 times to this feuding cluster of homeowners in rural Ottawa County, records show. Not judges, who five times denied neighbors’ requests for personal protection orders against each other. Not prosecutors, who at least twice chose not to bring charges.

These details and others are in hundreds of pages of public court filings, police reports and other records reviewed by The Detroit News. Neighbor videos also were obtained.

Jurors were told none of it.

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

Nevertheless, Popejoy Jr., 64, was sentenced to mandatory life in prison for the execution-style killing of his 59-year-old neighbor earlier this month. He had no previous criminal record.

“Obviously, it is a very tragic and extreme case,” Ottawa County Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Bennett said.

Popejoy, a former Air Force mechanic, fixed anesthesia equipment at Grand Rapids’ Spectrum Health and the motorized toys at its DeVos Children’s Hospital. Bonge was a nursing-home aide before medical issues sidelined her.

Bonge was snow blowing their shared drive in Ottawa County’s rural Crockery Township last winter, just a day after Christmas, before her disappearance.  When family members reported Bonge missing the next day from her home, police knew their way.

At least 54 times, police were called to the neighborhood from 2014 through 2017, records show. That’s dozens more than a sheriff’s investigator acknowledged shortly after the killing, The News found.

Bonge did not like her neighbors and the feeling was mutual. She flashed her middle fingers and shouted obscenities, incident reports and neighbor videos show. Police were summoned for verbal threats, parking disputes, trespassing complaints, errant farm animals and more. Bonge was accused of blowing snow into Popejoy’s driveway. Both sides videotaped the other.

Bonge made a number of the police calls then refused to cooperate, said Ronald Frantz, the local prosecutor. Reports corroborate him. One deputy wrote “not sure if she remembers why she called 911”  about one 2015 incident. Deputies on various occasions described Bonge as “seething with anger,” “extremely hostile” and “irrational and hard to understand.”

Underlying the feud was a property fight that turned toxic. Neighbors Mark and Beth Meurer were suing to assert ownership of the driveway easement past the Popejoy and Bonge residences. Bonge and her boyfriend claimed control.

Bonge lived in a one-story home on an acre bought in 2005 by her long-haul trucker boyfriend, but lived there largely alone, neighbors say.  Popejoy and his longtime girlfriend, Rhonda Clark, moved to an adjacent one-acre lot four years later in 2009. The homes were accessed off 104th Avenue by a private easement. The Meurers bought the acreage surrounding the homes and easement in 2012.

Popejoy and Clark lived between the sides — caught in the middle.  

“Anything we tried, everything was by the law. And this happens,” Clark said. “I miss my Wendell.”

Popejoy told police that Bonge was a “nuisance” and the killing was a “snap decision” after seeing Bonge outside his kitchen window.

“I just wanted to take care of a problem in the neighborhood. That was my thinking,” he told Clark later in a taped phone call from jail.

Two days earlier, on Christmas Eve, at a gathering with family and friends, he learned he and his girlfriend were subpoenaed to testify in the property dispute.

Video documenting his denials and confession were played for jurors. Popejoy admitted removing Bonge’s clothes and throwing them into a burn barrel. He placed Bonge’s body on a camo-colored game sled he pushed downhill.  

“She went in backside up. I didn’t cover her or nothing,” he told police at 1:55 a.m. Dec. 29, video shows.

He threw the gun from a bridge into the half-frozen Grand River.

“It is impossible for me to imagine a more premeditated crime than what happened here,” Frantz said his sentencing.

Circuit Judge Karen Miedema presided over Popejoy’s trial. She declined comment.

On Sept. 5, 2017, Miedema denied protection orders requested by the Meurers against Bonge. The Meurers cited more than 50 incidents of alleged harassment. Miedema found “insufficient evidence of immediate irreparable harm.”

Wendell Popejoy Jr. , seen with his longtime girlfriend Rhonda Clark, moved into the house beside Sheila Bonge's in 2009.

Likewise, Circuit Judge Jon Hulsing denied a protection order sought by Bonge against Mark Meurer in May 2014.

“This is a property dispute,” Hulsing said. A year later, May 29, 2015, he also rejected protection orders for Beth Meurer and Bonge against each other. Muerer claimed Bonge threatened she was “out for blood” and “I have a gun.”  

Bonge had a few run-ins with the law for misdemeanor marijuana and alcohol offenses. After one incident in 2014, Popejoy wrote directly to Frantz, calling Bonge “mean, nasty, and socially unacceptable.” He asked for severe punishment. She pleaded to a reduced charge.

Relatives described Bonge as a caring sister, a mother of three, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. She had coffee with her sister in Florida daily by phone.  

“We’ll never see her smile or hear her laugh. … All of this is gone because of a whim, as Wendell called it,” said Val Flaherty, one of Bonge’s 11 siblings.

Bonge’s and Popejoy’s loved ones say authorities should have done more to derail escalating tensions before it ended in death.

 “The judge and prosecutor, they knew this was going on. They knew it and didn’t do anything about it,” said Clark, Popejoy’s girlfriend.

Prosecutor Ron Frantz talks to victim Sheila Bonge's family after Wendell Popejoy Jr. was sentenced to life in prison on Nov.  5 in Grand Haven.

Jane Luke, Bonge’s daughter, said: “I think they could have paid attention that there was something more to this.” Dennis Luke, Bonge’s brother, nodded agreement.

Years of neighborhood conflict preceded the bloodshed as frustrated authorities mostly stood by, court records show. Whether intervention would have helped was on the minds of many.

“The judge can’t order police to be nice. It can’t order people to be respectful,” Circuit Judge Edward Post wrote in a running dispute over property rights. “What the court is particularly disinclined to do is to be the personal police officer for your neighborhood disputes.”

The prosecutor acknowledged there were “a lot” of police calls to 104th Avenue.

“The reports I saw were incidents that really were not chargeable, for example, kicking snow on someone’s car,” Frantz said. “With hindsight, had anyone thought he had a potential for violence? That was not on anyone’s radar.”

Bennett of the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office said he does not know what more officers could have done. The department sent “a few cases” to prosecutors but nothing came of them, he said.

Often, officers are peacemakers, he added. They defuse situations, juggle conflicting accounts and often issue warnings in the absence of criminal wrongdoing. Still, this case could merit review, possibly for future training, Bennett said.

"Would charges have escalated things even more?” he asked. “Hell, I don’t know how much more escalated you can be."