Guilty verdict in Bucks killing Mary Jane Fonder faces an automatic life sentence for slaying a fellow church member she saw as a rival.

Posted: October 31, 2008

Mary Jane Fonder, a dowdy, limping woman who made her upper Bucks County church the center of her life, was convicted last night of murdering a fellow congregant in the office of that church.

A Bucks County Court jury deliberated for six hours before finding Fonder, 66, guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of Rhonda Smith.

Smith, 42, of Hellertown, was shot to death Jan. 23 while working as a receptionist at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield Township. She struggled with bipolar disorder, and Fonder allegedly was jealous of the emotional and financial support that Smith had received from the church.

Fonder did not react to the verdict, and proclaimed her innocence as she was led away. "That's the sad part; I am innocent," she said.

Spending the rest of her life in prison, she said, "doesn't sound appealing. But I'll go wherever the Lord sends me." She faces an automatic life sentence because prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

Outside the courtroom, First Assistant District Attorney David Zellis called Fonder a "stone-cold-blooded killer" and "the most defiant person I've ever seen in my life as a 25-year prosecutor. She will never, ever acknowledge or take responsibility for this murder."

Fonder's attorney, Michael Applebaum, said that he was not surprised by the verdict, but that he had not decided whether to appeal.

In closing arguments, the lawyers agreed that Fonder, who suffers from bad knees, diabetes and other ailments, seemed an unlikely murderer.

Her "oddball" personality made Fonder an outcast who was easy to target and frame, said Applebaum, who likened the case to the Salem witch-hunts. He accused police of shoddy investigative work and of ignoring leads that might have cleared her.

"Take this woman into your heart," Applebaum told the seven-man, five-woman jury. "She has been set up by somebody; she did not do this."

Zellis urged jurors to see Fonder as a calculating killer beneath her awkward, church-lady veneer.

"She might be the most pathetic, sympathetic person you've ever seen," Zellis told the panel. "You might go back into that room and think, 'This lady is crazy.' "

Fonder, Zellis said, is neither.

"She is clever. She is egocentric. And she is a murderer," he said. "All the evidence points to it."

Fonder was arrested April 1, after her .38-caliber handgun was recovered, with little surface rust, from Lake Nockamixon. Ballistics tests determined the gun had been used to shoot Smith twice in the head.

Applebaum maintained that Fonder had discarded the gun in the lake in 1994, and theorized that someone had found it, used it to kill Smith, and thrown it back into the lake. That someone, he suggested, could even have been Fonder's brother, with whom she lives.

"Who shot Rhonda Smith? In all honesty, many people could have done it," Applebaum said.

Over two weeks of testimony, Zellis methodically presented a string of circumstantial evidence.

Fonder was one of a few church members who knew that Smith was working temporarily in the church office. On the day of the shooting, Smith's activity on the church computer ceased at 10:54 a.m., which Zellis said was the likely time she was shot.

By 11:22, Fonder had signed herself in to have her hair done at a Quakertown salon, eight miles from the church. Gunshot residue was found in her car. And the day before the gun was found, she had taken a drive in the car of her brother, who later found bullet fragments from her gun on the driver's floor.

Still unresolved is the 1993 disappearance of Fonder's elderly father, with whom she lived. Edward Fonder III never was found.

"I would never expect her to say anything about her father," Zellis said. "Except that he's still missing."

Zellis declined to say whether Fonder remained a suspect in the disappearance.

"We're not going to get into that right now," he said. "I think everybody can draw their own conclusions."

Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.

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