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Column: Local's belongings returning to father

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The Republic photo by Joe Harpring  Brett Bonnell blows leaves into managable piles along Fifth Street in front of Irwin Gardens Tuesday.
The Republic photo by Joe Harpring Brett Bonnell blows leaves into managable piles along Fifth Street in front of Irwin Gardens Tuesday.

When Priscilla Burts purchased Brett Bonnell’s travel trailer at a sheriff’s department auction in Port LaVaca, Texas, earlier this month, she had only a vague recollection of the story about its former owner.

“I had heard about the case and dimly remembered the trial of the woman who killed him,” the Texas woman said in a phone conversation earlier this week. “However, I didn’t really put things together until I went through one of the storage compartments and found the boxes.”

The boxes had been stored in a compartment under the trailer and apparently had been overlooked when police cleaned out the interior in preparation for the public auction.


It had been listed as unclaimed, although it had been held by the sheriff’s office since 2008, when the former Hope man was killed in a roadside incident.

Police had initially been told the death was the result of a hit-and-run incident, but further investigation cast suspicion on Brett’s wife, Janice. Under questioning she confessed to killing her husband in an effort to obtain insurance benefits. She was sentenced to 48 years in prison.

Priscilla became more familiar with Brett when she opened the boxes. One contained a collection of stuffed animals. A second held scrapbooks, family photos mostly, but there were a number of images of farm animals and pets.

They turned out to be some of the few personal possessions left behind by the 40-year-old man who had abruptly moved to Texas from his lifelong Hope home with his wife and her 13-year-old daughter early in 2008. He was dead a few months later.

The news was devastating to Brett’s family and friends, who had difficulty matching his end with his easygoing personality and willingness to work. He loved gardening and plant life, working as a caretaker of Irwin Gardens for 14 years and also at Elsbury’s Greenhouse in Hope.

For several years he was a fixture as a volunteer at the Rural Youth homemade ice cream stand at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fair. Jeff Schwartzkopf, a friend and fellow volunteer, recalled that “Brett was there before the fair opened for the day and still there hours after the stand closed.”

More than two years after his death, the ice cream stand where he had loved to work was named in his honor.

I wrote a column about Brett and the naming of the ice cream stand in 2010. Priscilla came across it when she did a Web search using Brett’s name. She called earlier this week, explaining that she had been unable to find any contact information on Brett’s family. She wanted to make sure that they got Brett’s belongings.

Larry Bonnell, Brett’s father, was emotional when I told him of Priscilla’s find.

“We really didn’t get many of his belongings after his death,” he said Wednesday morning. “His stepdaughter had sent us a few things, including a locket that contained some of his mother’s ashes, but beyond that there just hasn’t been that much. It will really mean so much to us to receive this material. I’ll be happy to pay any shipping costs or other expenses this woman has incurred. What she’s doing is simply


I passed on Larry’s contact information to Priscilla, and she is making arrangements to get Brett’s belongings to his family.

He died a horrible and unjustified death. Out of this tragedy, however, have emerged qualities of goodness and caring.

Priscilla and Brett’s family were strangers until a few days ago. I imagine that’s no longer the case.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at

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