Friday, September 14, 2007

Missing Daughter in a morgue--her Mom didn't know for 19 months. She searched the internet for unidentified bodies to find her daughter.

This story is so sad: Why are we allowing something like this to happen in the our Country? How can lawmakers ignore this? Do they think something aweful like this could never happen to them or anyone they love? No one deserves this--the pain of having a missing loved one--then the pain of knowing that there are thousands of unidentified bodies with no one to connect the dots. We need to pass legislation to help and we need to use DNA to solve these missing person cases sooner.

Palmer woman's daughter disappeared for 19 months
Photos of bodies on Web sites left mother with nightmares

Weir's hands frame a portrait of her daughter that was made when Bonnell was 16 years old. "I'd like to get her story out so that this doesn't happen to anyone else," Weir said recently. (EVAN R. STEINHAUSER / Anchorage Daily News)


Mary Weir is the mother of Samantha Bonnell, who lived in California after leaving Alaska in 2005. Police reports there show that Bonnell was struck and fatally injured by cars on Interstate 10 in Montclair in September 2005. Her body went unidentified for a year and a half. (EVAN R. STEINHAUSER / Anchorage Daily News)



(Published: September 14, 2007)
PALMER -- The phone call came Sept. 24, 2005.

Mary Weir's daughter, Samantha Bonnell, had left Alaska for California earlier that year, just two or three days shy of her 18th birthday.

Now, Samantha's boyfriend was calling. He told Weir he and her daughter had had a fight at a movie theater in Montclair. Samantha had run off. Had Weir heard from her daughter?

She said she hadn't.

It was the last she heard of Samantha for almost six months. And it would be a year and a half before she found out what had happened that night.

Her daughter died crossing a busy highway on foot. Her body ended up in a San Bernardino County morgue, one of hundreds of unidentified corpses waiting for family members or friends to find them, claim them and take them home, according to deputy coroner David Van Norman.

Even after all this time, her mother still doesn't know exactly what led to Samantha's death. The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department announced this week it had ruled out foul play, according to coroner's spokeswoman Sandy Fatland.

As authorities tried to piece together the girl's last minutes, Weir searched the Internet, scanning Web pages devoted to unidentified bodies for her missing daughter.

The search left her skeptical of -- and at times angry at -- the system that allows a body to go unidentified for so long.

"For the last 19 months I've been searching every Internet Web site I can find with unidentified bodies," Weir said in April. "It is, it's not something I would want anybody to have to go through,"

Though she said a handful of Web sites post photos of the actual bodies, photos that left her with nightmares, most show artist renderings or computer composite images instead.

But they still contain stories of what happened to the person. That, in some ways, is almost worse than the photos, Weir said.

"Before I knew what she was doing, she was staying up all night long while I slept, going through sites on the computer," said Weir's husband, Paul Weir.

"I thought as long as I kept it secret I wasn't looking for a dead body," Mary Weir said.


Samantha was an avid reader who wanted to be a corporate lawyer, her mother said. As a girl, she read law books and the entirety of Shakespeare before she left elementary school.

But her daughter was also a free spirit, Weir said. She got into the Valley meth scene in high school and was impossible to keep home. Though they'd fought in the past, it was strange Samantha hadn't called. The longest she'd stayed out of contact was six weeks.

Soon after Samantha's boyfriend called, Weir tried to file a missing persons report. She said she got the same response from all the agencies she called in California -- without a last known address she couldn't file a report. And besides, Bonnell was 18. It's not illegal for an adult to be missing, Weir said she was told.

Then, in February 2006, Bonnell's suitcases showed up, inexplicably, under a carport in Hanahan, S.C.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, she's still alive. There's hope. There's hope,' " Weir said. "But it just turned into another dead end."

The police in Hanahan called Weir asking if she knew her daughter's whereabouts. Weir told them the story and they told her to file a report with Alaska State Troopers, just to get the information into the system.

So finally a trooper, Sgt. Kathy Peterson -- now a lieutenant-- took the report.

Weir said she kept looking.

Nearly a year after they were found, Bonnell's bags arrived from South Carolina. Inside, Weir found one sock she'd bought her and a shirt that might have been hers. Otherwise, the contents belonged to someone else, probably a man, Weir said. She still has no idea how the bags ended up in South Carolina or who was using them.

In April she found a composite photo on a Web site,

"I looked at it and I said I think that might be her," Weir said.

April 1 she e-mailed the Web site to Peterson and asked that she check with San Bernardino County, where Jane Doe 17-05 was in cold storage. Peterson said she'd look into it.

More than two weeks later, on the 19th, Weir called San Bernardino herself.

"I said, 'I don't even know if I can do this but I think this is my daughter. I want to check it,' " Weir said.

Within 24 hours she'd sent them Samantha's dental records and been told they matched. In less than a week, she'd sent the coroner the originals and it was confirmed.

The young woman's body in that California cemetery belonged to her daughter.


Then more details of Samantha's death emerged.

Five months later, her mother says she's numb to the details but her words stall when trying to recount them.

The California police reports show that, within an hour of when Weir got that call in 2005, her daughter was hit by at least two cars on Interstate 10 in Montclair, Calif., Weir said.

"I don't even want to think about what kind of a mess it made," she said. "I'm afraid to ask."

The spot on the highway is close to a theater. Witnesses said Bonnell ran across the highway, as if being chased, Weir said. She was not carrying identification.

"No personal belongings whatsoever except for the clothing on her back," Paul Weir said.

"Nothing, not Chap Stick or lip gloss," Mary Weir said.

Once Samantha was identified, Weir talked to coroners in California. They told her they had kept Samantha's body in cold storage longer than most because she seemed like the type of person who had people who cared for her.

The only people at the burial were coroner's staff.

Weir said that at first she was planning on leaving her daughter there. But then the coroner's office told her she was in the county cemetery, in a grave used to store unclaimed bodies.

They told her "right now she was in there by herself," Weir said, "I said, 'She's in there by her ... what?' Well, they stack them up to five deep."

She arranged to have Samantha's body flown to Oregon.


Though she was noticeably more subdued during an interview this month, in April Weir was visibly angry with Peterson. What did Peterson do with the information she'd forwarded and why did she have to track her daughter down on her own? What took so long?

Earlier this month Peterson explained that law enforcement generally wants reports filed closer to where the person went missing.

"You don't have any idea where to start in another state," she said. "The reason I took this case is because she had already indicated she had tried those avenues and was unsuccessful."

Peterson said she did what she could, then forwarded the case to the state's Missing Person's Clearing House. Those folks have in-state cases to deal with that they prioritize before moving on to others, she said.

What angered Weir the most, she said, is her perception that she sent Peterson a link to Samantha's page and the trooper did nothing with it.

Peterson said she did do something -- she sent it to the clearinghouse. But she didn't feel right asking Weir to work directly with them as she'd been bounced around so much already.

Weir this summer started working to get legislation passed to make it mandatory for law enforcement agencies to take missing persons reports, even for people over the age of 18 missing out of state. She's been talking to legislators and, really, anybody she can buttonhole.

"You're not safe standing next to me at the grocery store," Weir said. "I've become the very thing I never wanted to be -- an activist."

She gets e-mails from people with missing children.

And she hasn't stopped looking at unidentified bodies on the Internet. There's one case she thinks she can solve -- a woman found wearing a necklace from a fraternity or sorority.

"I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to put a name to somebody," Weir said.

On Mother's Day, Samantha was buried in Rainier, Ore., where a lot of Weir's family lives.

The funeral was well attended. There was a collection box for donations to

Afterwards, they collected petals from Bonnell's coffin piece and spread them on the aisle at her sister's wedding.


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