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

January 19, 1988|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — 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.

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