The Husband Did it: Kathy Bonderson

Kathy was found among the charred remains of her vehicle. Her husband killed himself instead of allowing police to interview him about her death.

This writing is part of a continuing series on cold cases linked to domestic violence. Cases taken from Unsolved Mysteries.

The case of Kathy Bonderson is on season 4, episode 24 of Unsolved Mysteries.

For legal purposes, the husband in this case was never charged with crimes against his spouse, however he would have been charged with his wife’s murder if he had still been alive at the time. I have no physical evidence at all, only circumstantial evidence, the narrative given to us by those involved, and extensive knowledge on the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence. I have tried to make it clear when giving my opinion versus stating objective facts of the case.

The narrative according to Robert Stack:

In North Dakota, on October 15, 1987, a 35-year-old woman named Kathy Bonderson argued with her husband over their teenage son who had left the house without permission. Her husband had already looked for him and given up, but Kathy was concerned because it was 2:30 am.

Kathy called in sick for her shift at the local convalescent home to go look for her son.

Around 2:30 am Kathy’s son was driving home when he saw his mother’s car driving past him heading out of town, with another vehicle following closely behind. He assumed it was his mother, but didn’t actually see the face of either driver.

An hour later a car was reported burning out of control on a country road a few yards west of a railroad crossing. The heat of the fire was so intense that the firefighters could not look inside the vehicle for over 15 minutes.

They found a body in a seated position on the floorboard of the passenger side of the vehicle. The victim was later identified as Kathy. The car was not cool enough to remove her body until that afternoon.

E. J. Allmaras, the former Sheriff, said that the whole interior of the car was burned down to the steel. He claimed evidence showed that as Kathy was driving up to the railroad tracks, she swerved abruptly to the right and then drove straight over the exposed tracks.

Allmaras believed that Kathy’s high speed impact with the raised tracks caused her vehicle to burst into flames and then threw her to the passenger side of the car. They declared Kathy’s death a tragic accident.

Kathy’s keys were found undamaged on the floorboard of the vehicle, even though the car’s interior was completely melted. Captain William Byram, of the Highway Patrol, believes Kathy was murdered. He developed this theory after visiting the scene to complete a report.

Byram said he arrived 24 hours after the accident and could not find any marks to show where a car had left the roadway. Additionally, the tall grass surrounding the area was undisturbed. He noticed the same marks on the tracks that Allmaras found, except he does not think they were made by Kathy’s car. The marks are red and matched the red fire hoses used by the firemen the night Kathy died.

Byram had Kathy’s car examined by the State Fire Marshal and they determined that there was no damage to the vehicle from impact, only from the fire. If the car had been involved in a crash, the vehicle would have signs, but he couldn’t find any.

The fuel tank was undamaged and still held 12 gallons of gasoline. The fuel line to the carburetor was intact as well. The Fire Marshal came to the conclusion that the vehicle had started on fire in several different areas, which would not be found in an accidental fire.

There’s no question in my mind, this fire was not an accident. This fire was intentionally set.

Three weeks later Byram requested that Kathy’s body be exhumed for an autopsy, but Allmaras refused to consent until he was threatened with legal action. Allmaras said the doctor in Minnesota who conducted the autopsy could find no cause of death.

Byram said the most important finding from the autopsy was that Kathy had been dead prior to her car starting on fire. According to the findings, there was no carbon monoxide found in her lungs. The doctor conducting the autopsy confirmed that Kathy could have been killed from a blow to the head from bouncing around after her accident.

Tests conducted on Kathy’s clothing and traces of carpet found evidence of gasoline. A few days after Kathy’s death, an empty gasoline jug was found 300 yards away from where the car was found burning. Despite the evidence, Allmaras refused to change his findings.

Allmaras said that no proof had been offered and that nothing in his investigation brought up the question of foul play. Byram said there are many facts that make him think Kathy was murdered. He said someone killed her and set the car on fire to make it look like an accident.

The original episode aired in 1992 and did not name any suspects at the time. In 2006 the episode included an update: 18 years after her death, police scheduled an interview with her ex-husband Robert. He killed himself before the meeting.

Based on interviews and a review of the evidence, authorities concluded that Robert Bonderson murdered his wife. The case was finally closed.

Since 1987, and the airing of the episodes, new information has come to light. Here’s what I found:

The son that Kathy went out looking for the night she was murdered was named Jamie. Kathy’s husband was named Robert and he was not named specifically in the first broadcast. Some supporters of Robert say that Kathy was out looking for Jamie because he had started using drugs. They claim Jamie had something to do with her death.

At the time of Kathy’s death, Robert had given a statement to Highway Patrol, but he was never officially interviewed as part of a homicide investigation.

Investigators say that Robert began a relationship with a woman named Nanette “Nan” Wobbema the June or July before Kathy died. He also took out an insurance policy in her name in August of that year. Police do not suspect Nan was involved in Kathy’s death.

The two married in May 1991. Nan claims that they didn’t start dating until after Kathy’s death, but Robert’s brother and sister-in-law say that Kathy told them she thought he was involved with Nan. However, they claim his taking out a policy in Kathy’s name was normal because he was “great” with policies.

Robert played the part of a grieving husband, but not well enough. Eventually his lies were unraveled—and that proved to be too much for him to live with. — authorities

The timeline according to police:
▪ 8 or 9 pm, Jamie snuck out of the house.
▪ Around this same time Kathy is seen at Nan’s apartment.
▪ Between midnight and 3 am Kathy called a coworker and said she wouldn’t be in to work.
▪ The Bonderson’s other son, Jason, woke up to what he thought was his parents fighting.
▪ Jamie reported seeing his father driving the family’s Ford Torino north of the family home. His girlfriend was with him and remembers him remarking “there’s my dad.”
▪ Jamie had spotted his father as he was driving Kathy’s already dead body to the railroad tracks.
▪ Around 3:30 am, hunters remember seeing headlights in the area of the tracks where the vehicle was found, and one heard a fire whistle blow shortly after returning home.
▪ The car fire was reported at 3:30 am.

Investigators say that the autopsy revealed that Kathy had neck and throat injuries inconsistent with a car crash and there was no evidence of carbon monoxide in her blood stream. Both facts indicated foul play. The doctor conducting the autopsy ruled her death a homicide. Kathy’s exact cause of death was never determined and nothing else was done to determine who was responsible.

Investigators scheduled an interview with Robert for February 22, 2006, but he never showed. On April 22, his body was found near his vehicle in Montana. He had tried asphyxiation and then shot himself with a handgun. He left a note that said “I didn’t kill my ex wife, Kathy.”

Police believe that they would have had enough evidence to charge Robert with her murder if he had not killed himself first.

We are now confident that sometime during the early morning hours of Oct 25, 1987, Kathy was murdered by her husband, Robert Bonderson (Source: The Associated Press, Authorities believe man killed wife nearly 20 years ago).

A fan message board reported that Roberts wife Nan and stepson Travis Pahl say that he could not have been responsible for killing Kathy and that he wouldn’t have hurt anyone unless it was to protect his family. They think he killed himself over the stress of the investigation being reopened because Robert had always claimed innocence. Pahl says that from his understanding of the case, the crime scene was terribly mishandled and that there were two other men who were suspects.

It’s pretty clear who’s at fault, but both of those guys are dead. — Pahl

Jason Bonderson, Kathy’s son, agrees with the investigators' conclusion that his father killed his mother.

The investigators introduced DNA technology to the old evidence in hopes of solving the case, however they didn’t actually use DNA to solve the crime. They blame incompetence of the previous Eddy County Sheriff, Allmaras, for botching the investigation.

Domestic Violence

Women are killed by intimate partners — husbands, lovers, ex-husbands, or ex-lovers — more often than any other category of killer… Intimate partner homicides make up 40 to 50 percent of all murders of women in the United States (Source: National Institute of Justice, NIJ Journal).

“The husband did it” is a popular phrase for a reason.

We’ve known for decades that domestic violence is strongly linked to homicide, however we didn’t identify the concrete steps leading up to intimate partner homicide until 2019. In her study, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide, Dr. Jane Monckton Smith established the eight stage process that most male abusers take before murdering their female partners.

The stages are not necessarily followed chronologically and sometimes couples loop back to earlier stages, for instance if an abuser is able to reestablish control. However, if the relationship culminated in homicide, all eight stages were likely involved.

For a full breakdown on the stages, read the article below.

Stage 1: Pre-relationship

A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator. Unfortunately, we do not have any information on the history of their relationships.

Stage 2: Early Relationship

The romance developing quickly into a serious relationship. We also do not have information on how quickly their relationship progressed.

Stage 3: Relationship

The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control. This is where most of the variation of abuse occurs among abusers.

Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour… Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage.

In Kathy’s case we do not have evidence of physical abuse, but we do have indications of psychological abuse. Robert cheated on Kathy, and like I have written about in other cases, infidelity in abusive relationships is considered abuse itself. It is used to manipulate, shame, or punish the victim.

“[D]oes your partner cheat on you and blame you for their behavior?” Answering in the affirmative is not only an indication of verbal/emotional abuse, but I would also consider it sexual abuse as well. This is because the partner being cheated on does not consent to breaking the vow of monogamy or to being exposed to sexually transmitted infections through the introduction of other sexual partners.

A study done in 2017 characterized infidelity not as “a precipitating factor for [intimate partner violence] or infidelity as part of a pattern of violent or aggressive behaviors,” but as domestic violence itself. That may seem extreme, but it all depends on situational context. In an abusive relationship, cheating is inherently abusive.

Domestic violence victim advocates agree that it is definitely an abusive tactic used.

[I]n some cases, cheating might be an abusive tactic where one partner uses it to control and hurt the other partner.

The biggest piece of evidence that this abuse was indeed occurring is the presence of DARVO, a manipulative tactic that perpetrators use when confronted with their crimes. Its existence alone is often proof enough of crimes. You can read the total breakdown of what DARVO is in my article below.

In 1997, Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd introduced the term DARVO to explain the gaslighting strategy perpetrators (typically people accused of sexual crimes) use to confuse and silence their victims. DARVO is an acronym that stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse the Victim and Offender.

Instead of admitting error and apologizing or offering evidence that the accusations are false, the perpetrator, outraged at having his power challenged, denies having done what he is accused of doing and attacks his accuser, thus reversing roles and assuming the mantle of victimhood. The true victim is transformed into an offender (Source: Dr. Freyd, When the True Victim is Blamed).

Robert implied that Kathy got herself killed by being irrational and refusing to listen to her husband. They fought before she died because she wanted to keep searching for her son and Robert thought that was ridiculous. Making those kinds of claims against a murdered woman, or an otherwise victimized woman, resembles DARVO, the tactic used by abusers, rapists, and other perpetrators to confuse and position themselves as victims instead.

It’s possible that Unsolved Mysteries is responsible for framing it in that way, however I believe they were just restating the narrative as they were told.

This is my purely made up, but entirely plausible guess on how Robert made his statement to police that would conform with DARVO:

“I don’t know what happened to Kathy, I stayed home and told her not to go out looking for him (Deny). She’s always so angry and irrational though, and she got mad at me and stormed out even though it was 2:30 am (Attack). She is always accusing me of not caring enough about the boys. I don’t know why she wants to turn them against me (Reverse Victim and Offender).”

See how ordinary and insidious that manipulation is? If Robert had murdered his wife, it would make sense for him to continue using abusive tactics to deflect attention from himself. An important aspect of DARVO to realize is that it clouds the judgment of the public as well as the victim. That’s exactly what would have happened here.

Stage 4: Trigger/s

A trigger to threaten the perpetrator’s control — for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty.

The reasons given for men killing their partners overwhelmingly revolved around withdrawal of commitment, or separation (Source: Dr. Jane Monckton Smith, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide).

It is possible that Robert was afraid that Kathy would divorce him after she found out that he was having an affair. Leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for the victim. This is because DV is about power and control. When an abuser realizes he has lost all control of his victim, he will do anything to “gain” that power back, even if it means ending her life. Abusers often resort to an “If I can’t have her, then no one can” mentality.

Leaving can be fatal: In 45% of the homicides in which a man killed a woman, an immediate precipitating factor of the fatal incident was the woman leaving or trying to end the relationship. For clinic/hospital women who were abused on followup, 69% of those who had left or tried to leave an abuser in the previous year but whose abuse continued despite their attempted departure experienced severe incidents compared to 44% of women who had not left or tried to leave (Source: Carolyn Rebecca Block, Risk Factors for Death or Life-Threatening Injury for Abused Women in Chicago).

Stage 5: Escalation

An increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner’s control tactics, such as by stalking or threatening suicide. I think the evidence of escalation is found when the two were fighting over continuing to search for their son. I think Robert was enraged that she was going against him.

Stage 6: A Change in Thinking/Decision

The perpetrator has a change in thinking — choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide. It is difficult to determine evidence of this stage based on the information we have, but it is clear that at some point Robert made the decision that he would rather kill Kathy than have her disobey him or undermine him in any way.

Stage 7: Planning

The perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone. I think we can see evidence of planning when Robert drove with Kathy’s lifeless body in the front seat in order set her on fire. At the very least, he planned the disposal of her body after the murder.

Stage 8: Homicide

The perpetrator kills his partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim’s children. Given what the police have said, I think that Robert murdered Kathy, drove her to the body dump location, and set her and the vehicle on fire in order to destroy the evidence of foul play.

Based on these markers for domestic violence, and the evidence presented by police, I think that Robert Bonderson murdered his wife, Kathy Bonderson, in 1987, after following the eight stage progression to domestic violence related homicide.

In other words, the husband did it.

A discussion on how and why I use the term domestic violence.

For other information on DV, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great place to start.

advocate for victim/survivors of violence || writing for They Matter & published in An Injustice!, COSY, The Collector, Equality Includes You, CrimeBeat, & more

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