Popejoy guilty of 1st-degree murder

Becky Vargo • Oct 15, 2018 at 6:49 PM

Pam Crumley said that her sister received justice with the guilty verdict handed down Monday afternoon to Wendell Earl Popejoy.

An Ottawa County Circuit Court jury took about three hours to find the 64-year-old Crockery Township resident guilty of premeditated, first-degree murder. They also found him guilty of using a firearm to commit a felony.

Popejoy now faces life in prison without parole when he is sentenced Nov. 5 in front of Ottawa County Circuit Judge Karen Miedema.

Popejoy shot and killed his next-door neighbor, 59-year-old Sheila Bonge, while she was blowing snow from the easement driveway on the morning of Dec. 26, 2017.

When her sister didn’t answer the phone for their daily coffee time the next day, Crumley said she knew something was wrong.

We all knew Sheila’s habits,” she said. “I called her every morning.”

The jury listened to more than 10 hours of audio and video recordings of police interviews with Popejoy during the 4.5-day trial. In the third interview, Popejoy wrote a confession saying, that on the “spur of the moment,” he grabbed a gun and went outside and shot his neighbor. 

Jurors also heard testimony from 20 witnesses for the prosecution. Defense attorney Jeffrey Kortes rested without calling any witnesses.

During closing arguments, Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney Ron Frantz emphasized that Popejoy’s actions that blustery winter day were basically an execution.

Despite testimony describing Bonge as a “horrible neighbor” over a period of several years, Frantz said that Popejoy testified that he had not seen her, nor had any interaction with her, for several days prior to the shooting. This was no “spur of the moment” thing, Frantz said.

Frantz outlined the steps Popejoy took that day:

— He sees Bonge outside and makes a decision to get his gun and shoot her.

— He has plenty of time to reflect on his actions, while putting on his boots, getting the gun out of a dresser in the bedroom, walking through the pine trees and coming up behind Bonge.

— Once he shot his neighbor, he left her lying in the snow while he took the running snow blower back to her house. Popejoy then went to his own house, put the gun in the garage and grabbed his ice-fishing sled.

— Frantz said that Popejoy told police he put Bonge’s body in the sled “like a sack of potatoes,” slid her down the driveway behind his house and gave the sled a shove down the hill.

— Popejoy then removed the clothing off her body, used the sled to take the clothes to a burn barrel and burned them a little at a time, adding gasoline to make sure they burned. 

— Popejoy left Bonge’s body at the bottom of the hill, where it was quickly covered by the heavily falling snow.

Kortes argued that the conflict between the neighbors had built up so much over time that his client finally snapped when he saw Bonge outside that morning. He asked Miedema to instruct the jury to consider a voluntary manslaughter charge during deliberations, but the judge denied the request, saying that such a verdict would require a “heat of passion” element.

Miedema said that the repeated name calling, swearing and blowing snow onto the neighbors’ driveways was annoying and disturbing, but not provocation.

Kortes, in his closing argument, said everything that happened after the shooting confirmed that it was not planned out.

“He was in shock,” the attorney said. “He didn’t plan on this happening. He didn’t know why he did it.”

Kortes said there was no forethought, plan or premeditation. Because of that, he asked the jury to find Popejoy guilty of a lesser offense.

“Obviously, we were disappointed,” Kortes said after the verdict was given. “... We hoped, based on the evidence and the circumstances, for a lesser verdict.”

Kortes asked for a poll of the jurors. He added that they would regroup and talk about what steps to take next, including a possible appeal of the verdict. 

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