Mary Jane Fonder (born July 5, 1942) is an American criminal
who murdered Rhonda Smith, a fellow congregant, inside their church in
Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 2008.
Fonder has also been investigated, but not charged, in connection with
the disappearance of her father, Edward Fonder III, in 1993.
Mary Jane Fonder was born on July 5, 1942, to Alice and Edward Fonder
III of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fonder and her brother, Edward
Fonder IV, grew up in West Philadelphia, where their father was a
machinist and their mother was a proofreader.
Fonder experienced emotional problems during her childhood. When
Fonder was eight ears old, her family purchased a second home in
Springfield Township, a small rural town in Bucks County,
Pennsylvania. She attended John Bartram High School in Philadelphia,
but had difficulty with her schoolwork due to emotional issues. She
was institutionalized for one month during her childhood after
attempting to commit suicide by overdosing on chloral hydrate. Shortly
afterward, Fonder dropped out of high school and found social
interactions increasingly difficult.
Fonder worked various jobs during her early adulthood, including at a
ceramics studio, a department store, various knitting factories, and
the J.P. Lippincott publishing company, where she was a punchcard
operator. Fonder did not start dating until her late thirties and
never formed any serious romantic relationships.
In 1987, at age 45, Fonder moved back to Springfield Township to care
for her aging parents. In 1992, her mother had a leg amputated due to
circulation problems, but the surgery went badly and she died after
spending four months in a coma.
Edward Fonder III became depressed after his wife's death and began
fighting with his daughter more often. Mary Jane Fonder later claimed
their relationship became damaged beyond repair after two of Edward's
elderly cousins visited from the Philadelphia area and harshly
criticized how Mary Jane ate chicken.
On August 26, 1993, the 80-year-old Edward Fonder III disappeared from
the Springfield Township residence he shared with his daughter. Mary
Jane Fonder claimed she had heard the front door open while lying in
bed that morning and believed her father was stepping outside to get
Fonder claimed she went back to sleep and, after waking up at around
11:00 a.m., found that her father had disappeared. Fonder contacted
the police and unsuccessfully searched for her father with the
assistance of neighbors. Township police were suspicious of Fonder's
claims that her father had wandered off, partially because the elderly
man had trouble moving by himself and had no money or access to his
Mary Jane Fonder became the primary suspect for the possible homicide
of her father. The investigation was led by Springfield Township
police officer Kimberly Triol. During one interview in Fonder's home,
Triol discovered a bucket filled with pinkish water along with towels
and a mop. She also found the corpse of a dog wrapped in plastic
inside Fonder's freezer. Fonder also displayed a Taser gun in a
non-threatening manner to Triol during one of their interviews.
Fonder initially cooperated with police in their investigation, but
ceased contact with them after she perceived Triol had attempted to
elicit a confession from her. In February 1994, about six months after
her father's disappearance, Fonder voiced her displeasure with police
tactics, claiming they had forced her to hire a lawyer and to ban
police from her property.
Murder of Rhonda Smith
On January 23, 2008, 42-year-old Rhonda Smith was shot as she did
volunteer work in the office of the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran
Church in Springfield Township, Pennsylvania. Smith, shot twice in the
head, died at a hospital after being disconnected from life support.
Fonder, then 65 years old, became a suspect early on in the
investigation after the church's pastor told police about Fonder's
history of inappropriate behavior, which included leaving rambling
voicemail messages for him and surreptitiously placing food in his
kitchen without his knowledge or consent.
According to police and prosecutors, Fonder had called the church on
the day of the murder and discovered that Smith would be alone in the
church's office that day. Fonder, who often wore a wig, kept an
appointment to have her natural hair washed and styled after shooting
Smith and left her wig at the hair salon, where police later retrieved
On April 1, 2008, Fonder was arrested for Smith's murder, some weeks
after fishermen found a 38-caliber revolver on the shore of Lake
Nockamixon. During police questioning, Fonder had already admitted to
having purchased and registered a .38; she claimed to have thrown it
into Lake Nockamixon in 1994, though she gave police two different
reasons for having done so. Forensic testing found that the recovered
gun and ammunition had been placed in the lake much more recently,
contradicting Fonder's claims. The gun found was indeed registered to
Fonder and had been used to kill Smith.
Fonder's trial began on October 21, 2008. Prosecutors argued that
Fonder, a member of the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church for 14
years, was jealous of new member Smith, who had received sympathetic
attention and some financial assistance from the church's pastor and
Fonder's defense attorney told the court that his client was not
present at the scene of the crime and did not shoot Rhonda Smith.
Fonder's attorney further argued that Smith's death might have been
suicide, or a homicide committed by a jealous wife or a lover. During
closing arguments, Fonder's attorney told the jury that Mary Jane's
brother, Edward Fonder IV, was also a likely suspect, pointing out
that he had hired a lawyer after finding bullet fragments in his car
and notifying police.
On October 30, 2008, a jury found Fonder guilty of first-degree murder
and possession of an instrument of crime. On December 5, 2008, she was
sentenced to serve life in prison. At her sentencing hearing, Fonder
made the following statement:
I did not kill Rhonda Smith—I thought she was a lovely girl... and I
certainly wasn't jealous of this woman for any reason. I'm so sorry
she's gone, but in the same respect, I will be gone, too. I'm the
second person in the church to be murdered, by the system.
In February 2010, Fonder dropped her appeal of the conviction.
A life in prison
By Amanda Cregan - Bucks County Courier Times
January 17, 2010
"I feel like this is my destiny, like God wanted me to be here," Mary
Jane Fonder said last week, as she finishes the first year of a life
sentence for murdering a church secretary in Springfield.
MUNCY, Lycoming County - Mary Jane Fonder doesn't mind spending the
rest of her life behind bars.
After more than 20 years of struggling to find acceptance among the
members of her small, rural Springfield church, Fonder, 67, finally
has found sisterhood at a state women's prison.
The murderer, once described by her own attorney as the "aunt nobody
wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving," now has her place at a table of
women who do not judge her by her strange ways or even her most evil
Fonder said she no longer can imagine her life outside of prison.
"I feel like this is my destiny, like God wanted me to be here," she
said last Sunday.
Fonder, the Kintnersville woman who a jury convicted for the
cold-blooded killing of Rhonda Smith in the office of their Upper
Bucks church, said she is happy now.
She finally has come to accept responsibility for the murder of the
younger woman who she irrationally thought was a rival for the
attention and affection of the congregation and its pastor.
Fonder is serving a life sentence at Muncy State Correctional
Institution after a Bucks County jury found her guilty of first-degree
murder in October 2008. A jury agreed she shot Smith in a jealous rage
over the affection she believed Smith was getting from Trinity
Evangelical Lutheran Church's handsome, bachelor pastor.
Fonder maintained her innocence throughout the trial.
But as she marks her first year of a life sentence, she is beginning
to recall the actions that brought her there.
On Jan. 23, 2008, she cornered Smith in a basement church office,
snapped back the hammer of the pistol and fired two bullets into her
For the first time, Fonder is taking responsibility for Smith's murder
and said she regrets telling everyone - the judge and Smith's family -
she was innocent.
With time to think in prison, the hours and events that led up to the
42-year-old Hellertown woman's murder are beginning to become clear,
Just two months ago, she looked at a newspaper picture of Smith and
said she realized what had happened to her.
She cried for days, recalling how bad she felt about Smith's murder.
With tears in her eyes, Fonder said she never meant to hurt her.
A murder in a house of God
For decades, the embarrassing struggle to fit in, emotional isolation
and cold rejection by church members buzzed in her ears like "white
But as 2008 approached, Fonder told herself that, once and for all,
life would be different. Maybe, somehow, she could start over and be a
Instead, what she described as her white noise kept getting stronger.
Fonder soon lost her job as a home health care aide; her relationship
with her brother, with whom she shared a home, grew increasingly
strained; and her car kept needing repairs and was creating financial
At the same time, Smith, who had attended Trinity for the past two
years, was dealing with her own personal struggles and reached out to
congregants for help.
From the shadows, Fonder watched as this younger woman was so easily
supported and cared for by the same church members Fonder spent years
trying to connect with.
Then she starting losing track of time and events, and couldn't
account for portions of her day, Fonder recalled last week - a
description of her life prior to the murder that was not presented
during her trial.
As Fonder grew increasingly frazzled over her blackouts, she said she
called her psychiatrist, thinking the cocktail of anxiety and
depression medications she was prescribed needed to be adjusted.
But he was on vacation that week, and was told she would have to wait,
On Jan. 22, 2008, the day before the murder, the white noise grew
stronger, telling her she was an outcast.
She again seemed to black out that morning, and recalls suddenly
finding herself on a park bench at Lake Towhee in Haycock. She
estimates she had been there for hours, but did not know why or how
she got there.
That afternoon, trying to get her mind back on track, she remembered
chatting at church with Smith about the nice apartment building Smith
Maybe that was just the place to start over, Fonder thought.
So, she called the landlord and toured the apartment next to Smith's
that same day, but it was too small and the rent was too high, she
Fonder said she went to church choir practice that evening, but as she
left, Pastor Gregory Shreaves ran past her, toward the front door, as
if, she believed, he was trying to avoid her. She called out to him,
and even joked that he should slow down because he was still sick with
a head cold, but he didn't respond.
She said she became hurt and confused by the pastor, the only friend
she said she had.
She went to her car, and looked up and saw lights on in an upstairs
church room along with a number of cars parked in the lot.
It must be a birthday party for Smith, she thought. Yet another social
event she was not invited to.
There was no birthday party, just another assumption that she was not
The following morning, Jan. 23, Fonder said she woke to that sound
pounding in her head like a drum; bringing her clarity amid the
It's what led her to the church office, where she cornered Smith, who
was helping out as a secretary.
Fonder said she wishes she never went into the church that day, noting
that it's the last memory she has of the events of that fateful day.
Fonder shot Smith twice in the head point blank and left her to die.
She said she does not remember shooting Smith. But with all the
evidence added up, Fonder acknowledges it had to be her.
The murder frightened a community for months as police searched for a
suspect. Then a boy fishing with his father found Fonder's gun
submerged in the shallow waters of Lake Nockamixon. Bullets in the gun
matched the ones that killed Smith.
A new life
The killing within church walls led to one of the most unusual murder
cases in recent Bucks County history.
Police, prosecutors, newspaper headlines and even a Dateline NBC
episode portrayed the murder motive as jealousy stemming from a love
triangle Fonder perceived between two troubled women and a charming
Prosecutors say Fonder was in love with Pastor Shreaves, and flew into
a jealous rage over the attention he and other church members were
Fonder continues to say she wasn't jealous of Smith. However, Fonder
still believes the pastor was interested in a romantic relationship
with her and perceived some of their dealings as flirtation.
When he walked into a room, Fonder said the pastor would look around
to see if she was there, an action she perceived as proof of his
Shreaves has denied any romantic interest or involvement with either
He even notified church leadership when he felt Fonder was becoming
obsessed with him. She was asked to leave the church, but never did.
On Sunday mornings, Fonder was tolerated at Trinity, where church
members likely found her to be too chatty, too nosy, too eager, and
just downright annoying.
Last Sunday, she walked through the visiting area of the women's
prison with a sense of belonging as fellow inmates waved to her and
gave her an easy smile and hello.
As one of the older inmates, Fonder is treated more like a matriarch
than a murderer.
She spends her days talking with the other women, studying her Bible,
doing crossword puzzles and attending to her cleaning duties.
She also sees a therapist, and said she was immediately put on a whole
new track of depression and anxiety medication upon entering prison.
Although a cousin hascome to see her, she said, Fonder doesn't see too
many visitors in Muncy. She communicates with her brother, cousin and
even a couple of elderly women from Trinity through letters.
Overall, Fonder is flourishing the strict routine of prison, and has
even lost 50 pounds.
Fonder said she has no plans to continue with her appeal of the murder
conviction. Last year a Bucks County judge ruled she was eligible for
a public defender but she would have to put up her house as collateral
to pay the legal bills. The property she co-owns with her brother, a
home on 11 acres in Kintnersville, is valued at nearly $400,000.
She said money was a factor in deciding not to go forward.
Yet, the appeal is still active in the Bucks County Court of Common
Pleas, according to first assistant district attorney David Zellis. In
her appeal there are claims made that her trial counsel was
ineffective, he said.
Her trial attorney, Michael Applebaum, could not be reached for
At her trial, Fonder claimed she didn't commit the crime so there was
no testimony about blackouts or problems with medication for
A mental health report prepared for the case was not introduced at her
sentencing. At the time Zellis said the report did not reveal that
Fonder is suffering from any kind of mental illness.
Her attorney for the appeal, Ann Russavage-Faust of the Bucks County
Public Defenders office, declined to be interviewed for the story.
Fonder is the oldest woman convicted of murder in Bucks history. Her
sentence offers no chance of parole.
However, she is still being investigated by Bucks County prosecutors
for her 80-year-old father's disappearance in 1993. Fonder said she
doesn't know what happened to her dad, and concludes he may have
suffered from the same sort of blackouts and confusion as she does.
Continuing to cope
A year after he described to the newspaper his struggle with anger and
bitterness over the murder, Pastor Shreaves said he's finally forgiven
Fonder, but the event has changed him.
"I'll never be the same person. I always will be a different person in
some ways," said Shreaves. "I'm trying to be more attentive, to look
for signs of needfulness in individuals."
It's also taught his congregation a little more about their faith.
"We've learned a great deal about forgiveness, and how difficult and
messy that can be, and I've learned that God's grace will always
overcome evil and tragedy."
Throughout the time he had known and counseled Fonder, she never
vocalized feelings of rejection, he said.
"Rhonda asked for help. Mary Jane didn't. If she had asked for help,
we would have given it to her," said Shreaves, who noted Fonder never
discussed any blackouts or the psychiatric medications she said she
"When people have a need and let it be known, then we respond," he
said. "I know Mary Jane struggled, and I also asked her if we could
help and what we could do, and she never let me know that she needed
anything. That's the best we can do."
But he never doubted Fonder felt like she was a part of the church
"Mary Jane was different. I felt like she felt at home here. I think
she found it as a place of comfort and safety and inclusion."
In the end, Shreaves is glad to hear that Fonder has found the
acceptance she so deeply craved.
"I think its God's grace that Mary Jane is where she belongs," said
Shreaves. "I'm happy for her. I'm happy that she's found a community
that embraces her and that she feels a part of. We all deserve that."
Two years after their only daughter was gunned down, Jim and Dorothy
Smith, both 74, say they struggle daily with grief.
This Christmas season felt the emptiest, said Jim Smith, a Hellertown
"It's been even more of missing Rhonda this year than last year
because everything was going so fast before our eyes with the trial
Upon hearing that Fonder has taken responsibility for his daughter's
death, Jim Smith said it will never make up for his family's loss.
"It doesn't make us any happier. We gain nothing. We lost a daughter.
Nothing changes my feelings right now. We're going to go through this
the rest of our lives" said Smith, who, along with his wife, visits
Rhonda's grave each day. "No matter what happens, that's not going to
bring Rhonda through this door."
Like Fonder, Smith struggled with depression and was hoping for a new
start in life.
Yet Smith represented all that Fonder could not attain.
As she wrestles with Smith's murder, Fonder said she's trying to make
things right where she can.
She said she doesn't dare contact Smith's parents for fear of
upsetting them, but she wrote her first letter to Pastor Shreaves in
December, apologizing for hurting him and asking for his forgiveness.
He received Fonder's letter, but has refused to read it.
"I have to move on," said the pastor. "I just had to draw a boundary
and say 'I'm not going to deal with it anymore.' "
Rhonda's father, Jim hopes it's a letter he'll never receive.
"I wouldn't want something like that. If there's any forgiveness, it's
just between her and God."
Fonder has sought forgiveness from God, and said she's looking forward
to seeing Rhonda Smith again one day.
She believes they will meet again in heaven.
Editor's note: Staff writer Amanda Cregan visited Muncy State
Correctional Institution on Sunday, Jan. 10, and spoke with Mary Jane
Fonder for two hours following the exchange of letters over the past
Church Lady Gets Life for Killing
By Dan Stamm and Jillian Mele - NBCPhiladelphia.com
December 5, 2008
Church Lady Mary Jane Fonder committed an ultimate sin by killing her
fellow congregant Rhonda Smith and now will have the rest of her life
Fonder will serve life in prison after being found guilty for the
January 23, 2008 murder of Rhonda Smith inside a Bucks County church.
In October Fonder was found guilty of first degree murder in the
killing of Smith, who was working at the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran
Church in Springfield Township when she was shot.
"She was just finishing up her three hour job -- [Fonder] knew to get
in there and do away with her like she wanted," said the victim's
mother Dorothy Smith.
The motive was jealousy, according to police. Jealousy of the
emotional and financial support the 42-year-old Smith was getting from
the church and its pastor led Fonder to pull the trigger, said police.
Fonder maintains that she didn't murder Smith. "I didn't do it -- you
can't say you're guilty when you're not," said Fonder.
Fonder said she was never jealous and that she is just another victim.
In court Smith's family read aloud letters that Smith wrote to them
before she was killed.
Fonder's lawyer told NBC10 that she will not appeal the ruling.
Police: Jealousy led to church murder
By Erin O'Hearn - 6abc.com
April 1, 2008
A 65-year-old woman has been charged with last January's church murder
in rural Bucks County.
Action News spoke to Rhonda Smith's parents, and as you can imagine
their shock when they learned the woman arrested for their daughter's
murder was not only a member of their church, but had been in their
house and was at a church lunch with them earlier this afternoon.
James Smith, the victim's father, says, "The woman sat right close to
me as you are. You know? I had no idea what was going on."
The woman was 65-year-old Mary Jane Fonder, and just hours after she
had lunch with Jim and Dorothy Smith she would be arrested for the
murder of their daughter. They say Fonder even started visiting the
Smith's at their home after Rhonda was murdered.
Smith's mother Dorothy says of Fonder, "One Sunday she had tears in
her eyes. She said, 'I just talked to her. I thought she was nice,'
and just agreed with us."
But police say Fonder was jealous of Smith and her relationship with
their church pastor.
Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry told reporters,
"(Fonder) indicated that she had romantic feelings for this pastor.
And the issue was the victim was receiving some attention from the
Investigators say in January Fonder called Smith at the church and
learned she was getting emotional, financial and spiritual support
from the Trinity Lutheran Church. Police say two days later Fonder
shot Smith twice in the head while Smith was working in the church.
Church spokesman Paul Rose told Action News, "We're all shocked. We're
surprised and very sad that this could possibly be one of our
Police say the break in the case came this weekend when a fisherman
found the gun in Lake Nockamixon. It was registered to Fonder and
forensics linked it to the crime. Tonight, Fonder pleaded not guilty
to first degree murder. She was denied bail.
Since January there was speculation Smith, who battled bipolar
disorder for two decades, committed suicide. Her parents believe the
arrest has put that speculation to rest.
The affidavit says Fonder once threatened a fellow Denny's employee
and that she called the pastor so much he blocked her number.