An Indecent End : Unwanted Cremation Robs Murder Victim's Widow of Final Rites

Times Staff Writer

In Bonnie Bartelli's way of thinking, death is just a fact. It's what you do to honor a person after he or she is gone that matters.

That means selecting a burial plot, as Bartelli did for herself and her husband, Fred. It means having a proper funeral accompanied by the right words and songs, with the body of the loved one present.

As a friend of Bartelli put it: "That's our idea of what going to the Master means. We call it burying them decently."

Given those beliefs, Fred Bartelli's end was anything but decent.

During a visit to Los Angeles, 70-year-old Bartelli was beaten and stabbed to death last May. His body, clad only in socks, was discovered in a landscaped area just off the Harbor Freeway near Slauson Ave.

When she finally received news of the death at her Denver home, Bonnie Bartelli said she was prepared to go to Los Angeles and claim the body.

But after a frustrating round of calls to county offices, Bartelli was referred to the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where she was told that her husband had been cremated 40 days after he was found. On his chart were the words: "Relatives unknown."

Bartelli, 62, said she believes the Los Angeles County coroner's personnel made little attempt to locate her to determine what she wished done with her husband's remains.

"That's where the hurt comes from," she said, sitting in the kitchen of a friend's home here on a recent afternoon. "Someone didn't care or they were too busy to check things out and they just said 'Next.' He was taking up space."

Space limitations are indeed a consideration at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, said spokesman Bob Dambacher. "We're constantly getting new bodies in here. Sometimes you can't find people (relatives) and you can't keep the body forever."

Dambacher said the coroner's office gets 50 new cases every 24 hours, with between 400 and 500 John and Jane Does (unidentified bodies) a year.

"It's not like you can donate all the time in the world to one case," he said. "Most bodies get identified. But we're not soothsayers."

What happened to Fred Bartelli, he said, "is not unusual. It's a common occurrence."

Fred and Bonnie Bartelli's marriage survived for 31 years upon a mutual understanding that, according to a friend, went like this: "I'll see you down the road."

A lifelong rambler, Fred Bartelli was known to stay put for periods at his wife's home. And when it was time to travel again, he routinely left his wife a phone number where he could be reached until his next visit.

Bonnie Bartelli had an early clue that her husband was destined to be a traveling man. When she first met him in her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, he was breezing through while working as a waiter on the railroad.

Bartelli, who had already been married once and had two sons, said she was wary of getting entangled again. But Fred Bartelli had some things going for him. "He was very kind," she said. "My mother and father worshiped him."

After the couple had been married one year, she remembered, Fred Bartelli called from work one day and said: "Let's go to California."

"I can't," Bonnie replied. The couple had just purchased a home and had a newborn baby, Gary. (Gary is now 31 and lives in Denver. Bartelli's two other grown sons live elsewhere.)

Characteristically, she recalled, Fred responded: "If you don't mind, I'll just go out there for the weekend."

The family ended up settling in Los Angeles for awhile, then they moved to Denver. But Fred's wanderlust wasn't satisfied by an occasional change of scenery. It got so that he was gone for months at a stretch, Bonnie Bartelli said. While he was traveling he would stay with distant relatives and find work detailing cars, she said, and he never failed to mail money home for the family.

As Fred Bartelli grew older, he wasn't able to round up work as readily, so he bought a plant shop in Denver in 1982 that Bonnie ran while he was away. Age seemed to only increase his need to roam, she noted.

Last March, Fred Bartelli departed for what would be his last trip to Los Angeles.

In July, disturbed because she hadn't heard from Fred for a couple of months, Bonnie Bartelli dialed the phone number of her husband's nephew in Los Angeles where Fred was supposed to be staying.

Couldn't Reach Her

The nephew told her that Fred had been killed, Bonnie Bartelli said, and that he had misplaced her phone number and address and hadn't been able to reach her to tell her. (The nephew refused to be interviewed for fear of retaliation from his uncle's murderers, according to Bonnie Bartelli.)

According to an investigator's report, Fred Bartelli's body was discovered on the morning of May 31 by a CalTrans worker on clean-up duty alongside the Harbor Freeway.

Detectives determined that Bartelli had been assaulted in a pedestrian tunnel nearby and dragged to the site. His sports coat, slacks with attached suspenders, and loafer shoes were apparently removed before he was stabbed three times in the chest and abdomen, and beaten numerous times with an unknown object.

Officer Donald Kalash of the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton Homicide Division said the victim's clothes may have been removed to inhibit any attempt to run for help. Two juvenile suspects have been charged with robbery and homicide in the Bartelli case, a Newton Division spokesman said.

Body Identified

Kalash said the body was identified through fingerprints at the coroner's office. The officer then obtained an address where Bartelli was staying in Los Angeles. The street number turned out to be incorrect, but by going door-to-door in that neighborhood with a photograph of the victim, Kalash eventually found Bartelli's nephew.

Dambacher of the coroner's office said they proceeded to do a routine check to locate next-of-kin.

The case was referred to the county public administrator's office, which aids in the search for surviving relatives and assists in settling the estate--if any--of the deceased. Gene Kent, assistant public administrator, said "the only information we had available (on Bartelli) was the name of the deceased and the place of death." On that basis, he said, his office returned the paper work to the coroner's office with a designation of "not handling," meaning that there was no known estate for their office to process.

According to Dambacher, notification-of-death letters were mailed from his office to two different addresses where Bartelli might have been staying. (The victim's name was incorrectly spelled as Bartelly throughout the coroner's report.)

"Apparently they (the addresses) were not good," Dambacher said.

Also in the coroner's file is a notation that a nephew of the deceased called the office on June 10 and again on June 18 saying he was trying to locate relatives of Bartelli in the Denver area.

Asked whether his office made any attempt to reach authorities in Denver to help locate the dead man's family, Dambacher answered that because many different people work on each case, all he can go by is what's in the file. There is no indication in the file that anything further was done to locate relatives.

The coroner's office mailed the nephew a letter "telling him he's obligated to do something (with the remains) or the county will," Dambacher said. (Bonnie Bartelli said the nephew told her he never received the letter.)

"There comes a point where there is nothing else you can do," said Dambacher of the search for next-of-kin. He said while there is no set number of days a body is held by the county, "we try to get everything done in 60 to 90 days at the outside. It may occur faster."

On July 10, 40 days after he arrived at the coroner's office, Fred Bartelli's body was sent to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for indigent cremation.

After she received word, Bonnie Bartelli said she made a number of futile calls to the coroner's office and other agencies trying to determine how she should go about retrieving her husband's ashes.

It wasn't until a relative heard a television report on the work of Norma Johnson, victim's assistance coordinator with the L.A. City Attorney's office, that Bartelli found a savior.

Johnson, who is known for her work with the families of homicide victims, said: "Mrs. Bartelli was not able to get anywhere with anybody in the coroner's office as to what the procedure was. It took me a little while--an entire day--but I eventually found someone who could tell me."

Johnson found that Bartelli would need to pay L.A. County-USC Medical Center $113 for the cost of cremation to have the ashes released. ("The law says there's a responsibility for the next-of-kin to take care of (pay for) the disposition or internment," said assistant hospital administrator Andrew Bliss.)

Bartelli, who has moved into a motel room since her husband's death and lives modestly on savings from the plant shop that is no longer in business, was not able to come up with the money, Johnson said. So a Los Angeles-based group called The Loved Ones of Homicide Victims paid the sum.

Bartelli signed papers for the ashes' release and mailed them back to the mortuary office at the medical center. Hospital spokesman Bliss said that last week the ashes were mailed to a Denver area mortuary selected by Bonnie Bartelli.

The ashes arrived Friday and Bartelli is setting up a memorial service for her husband. But there will be no wake, and Bonnie Bartelli's vagabond husband won't be laid to rest in a Denver graveyard.

The family plot has been broken up, Bartelli's longtime friend Flora Mae Danforth said, because "she has a burial plot and he has an urn."

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