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Popejoy murder trial hinges on premeditation

Becky Vargo • Oct 9, 2018 at 6:36 PM

It’s not a question of whether or not Wendell Earl Popejoy murdered his neighbor; it’s whether or not he did it with premeditation.

That’s what attorneys will argue and attempt to prove during the 64-year-old Coopersville man’s trial that started Tuesday in Ottawa County Circuit Court.

The first day ended with the murder victim’s fiancé passionately declaring that Sheila Bonge was “not a crazy woman” as portrayed by the neighbors.

“She was normal,” said Wayne Holman of his longtime partner.

Both Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz and defense attorney Jeffrey Kortes highlighted the conflict between the neighbors during their opening statements and in their questions of the three witnesses who took the stand Tuesday.

Frantz said an important aspect of the case is that “there was no confrontation of any kind” leading up to the moment that Popejoy shot and killed his Crockery Township neighbor on Dec. 26, 2017. Family reported her missing the next day and her body was discovered on Popejoy’s property on Dec. 28.

The prosecutor told jurors that Popejoy looked out the window that morning and saw Bonge, 59, blowing snow. Frantz said that Popejoy got a gun, slipped between the pine trees, walked up behind Bonge and shot her in the head.

Popejoy then put her snowblower back at her house, put the gun in the garage, put her body on a sled and took it down the hill behind his house. He then removed all of her clothing and burned it in his burn barrel, Frantz said, noting that all of those facts point to premeditation.

Kortes said it was a “spur of the moment” incident, in which his client was finally pushed over the edge by his neighbor’s harassment.

“With Wendell’s own words, you’re going to understand this was not a premeditated murder,” the defense attorney said to the jury.

Kortes emphasized that there was no love lost between the neighbors, and that witnesses would testify that Bonge constantly bullied and berated them. The attorney noted her small stature, but said, “she had the presence of an elephant.” 

Witnesses taking the stand after a drawn-out jury selection included neighbors Mark and Beth Meurer, as well as Holman.

Beth Meurer testified that Bonge was blowing snow from the driveway on the day she was killed and that she was yelling and carrying on, as she usually did. 

Meurer also said that Bonge always blew snow back into her neighbors’ driveways. That and a lawsuit between the neighbors and Bonge sparked Popejoy’s reaction, Kortes said. 

“This is years and years of the same type of antagonistic behavior,” Kortes said. “He finally snapped.”

Kortes said there was no planning, that Popejoy was not thinking of the consequences before shooting the woman. And that’s why he panicked and tried to dispose of the body.

“He didn’t plan it — that’s why the body was found,” Kortes said.

The attorney said the clothes and sled were found.

“It was sloppy because it was spur of the moment,” he said.

Frantz told jurors there would be 20 witnesses for the prosecution and that they would listen to several versions of Popejoy’s confession. 

Judge Karen Miedema said it was likely the trial could extend into next week.

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