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BISMARCK, N.D. — Authorities believe they have solved the mystery of Kathy Bonderson's death nearly 20 years ago but they say the chief suspect, her husband, killed himself before he could answer for it.

A newly formed team of cold case investigators began taking a fresh look at the death of Bonderson late last year. The body of the 35-year-old New Rockford woman was found Oct. 25, 1987, in a burning car just north of that town.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the death first was determined to be a traffic accident. An autopsy done after Bonderson's body was exhumed in late 1987 found she had neck and throat injuries and had died before the fire.

Stenehjem said the death was ruled a murder, but nothing was done to determine who was responsible.

"That is a question for the sheriff of Eddy County at that time, who is now deceased," he said.

Cold case investigators, after reviewing police reports and autopsy reports and interviewing witnesses, determined that Robert Bonderson killed his wife, Stenehjem said.

"We're glad it's over with," said Kathy Bonderson's father, Milton, who still lives near New Rockford.

Robert Bonderson had moved to Thermopolis, Wyo., and married his girlfriend, Nanette Wobbema, Stenehjem said. In February, state crime bureau agents Dallas Carlson and Dale Maixner contacted Bonderson and arranged to interview him. The agents said Bonderson asked that the meeting be held in Billings, Mont.

"We thought it was a little unusual," Carlson said.

Stenehjem said Bonderson disappeared on the day he was supposed to meet with the investigators, leaving behind cash and credit cards. Recreational horseback riders found his body April 22 about 50 miles south of Billings, Carlson said.

He said investigators in Montana determined that Robert Bonderson had first tried to asphyxiate himself, then shot himself with a handgun.

It appears he had killed himself rather than face questioning about Kathy's death, Stenehjem said.

"Robert Bonderson played the part of a grieving husband, but not well enough," Stenehjem said. "He tried to cover up the truth but eventually his lies were unraveled — and that proved to be too much for him to live with.

"We are now confident that some time during the early morning hours of October 25, 1987, Kathy was murdered by her husband, Robert Bonderson," Stenehjem said. "Whether he killed her in a cold and calculated act, or in the heat of an argument, we will never know for certain."

Eddy County State's Attorney Travis Peterson said there was sufficient evidence to charge Robert Bonderson with murder had he been alive.

Stenehjem said some of the evidence included the fact that Bonderson had been seen in the car driving down the same road where his wife's body was found, and that a "unique" gasoline container had been found in a nearby field.

He said Robert Bonderson also had taken out a $50,000 life insurance policy on his wife two months before her death.

Stenehjem said the case was solved not through any DNA analysis, but by "good old-fashioned pounding the pavement."

Carlson said there is no evidence that Wobbema knew anything about the crime.

Stenehjem said the Cold Case Investigations team is now reviewing other old files to decide which to concentrate on next.

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