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Jurors question Popejoy's girlfriend in murder trial

Becky Vargo • Oct 11, 2018 at 6:51 PM

Jurors had a lot of questions for a somewhat defiant prosecution witness, Rhonda Clark, during the third day of her boyfriend’s murder trial in Ottawa County Circuit Court.

Wendell Earl Popejoy, 64, of Crockery Township is charged with first-degree premeditated murder in the Dec. 26, 2017, death of his next-door neighbor, Sheila Bonge, 59.

Clark, of Sand Lake, is Popejoy’s longtime girlfriend. She often stayed with him at his Crockery Township property on 104th Avenue, south of Leonard Road.

On Thursday, jurors wanted to know what kind of experience Clark had with guns. They also wanted to know where the sled with the blood on it was acquired.

Both Clark in her testimony on Thursday and Popejoy, through an audio-recorded interview, professed to have little knowledge of their guns. Popejoy said he hadn’t shot a gun in a long time and Clark said she used her .22-caliber long gun to “shoot varmints.”

Earlier in the day, Clark denied knowing anything about Bonge’s death, despite Popejoy’s testimony that he told her of talks with police about his neighbor being missing, and then being found dead in the woods behind their home.

Clark said she learned of Bonge’s death when an Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office detective arrived at her daughter’s home in Sand Lake late the night of Dec. 28, 2017, to question her. County Prosecutor Ron Frantz accused her of changing the story that she told the detective on the night that Bonge’s body was found.

In cross-examination, defense attorney Jeffery Kortes asked Clark if she had a copy of her statement from that night, or if she had reviewed the statement prior to this trial. She said no.

Kortes suggested that it was not because she was lying that her story was different, but that she didn’t remember. Clark agreed with that statement.

Thursday’s testimony again centered on the feud between the neighbors.

Clark said that she was not the instigator and she always felt like she was a prisoner in Popejoy’s home when she was there. She said that Bonge was always yelling at her and calling her vile names. 

Two forensic scientists who work in the Michigan State Police crime lab in Grand Rapids also provided testimony Thursday.

Forensic scientist Troy Ernst analyzed debris from the burn barrel and said he found gasoline, although he couldn’t say whether or not gasoline was used to start the fire in the barrel.

Forensic scientist Katherine Meredith works with body fluid and DNA analysis. She confirmed that one spot of blood found on a sled taken from Popejoy’s garage very likely could be Bonge’s blood. There was also evidence or “very strong support” that Popejoy’s DNA was on the rope used to pull the sled,” she said.

In the afternoon, jurors spent hours watching a video recording of an interview with Popejoy on Dec. 28-29 at the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office. In it, detectives Ann Koster and Michael Tamminga emphasized how important it was for Popejoy to tell the truth about what happened between himself, Bonge and Clark that day.

Tamminga mentions a letter found in Bonge’s home that notes, in part, that if she is ever found dead to look at Popejoy and Clark. Tamminga said bad relations between the neighbors must have really escalated for her to write such a letter.

During the interview, the detectives emphasized that evidence was being processed and that they would soon have a lot more information.

After making denials early in the interview, Popejoy stayed quiet for much of the process.

This is the interview in which Popejoy eventually asks for pen and paper and writes his first confession. Jurors are expected to view that part of the recorded interview on Friday.

The trial began Tuesday. The prosecution has called 20 witnesses, which is the number Frantz said he would call.

The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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