The Brutal Rape and Murder of Six-Year-Old Lisa Bonham

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Photo by Stephan Müller from Pexels

Lisa Jane Bonham was born on November 6, 1970, to Vernon and Doris Bonham. She has an older brother, Darin. The Bonham family resided in Martinez, California.

In early September 1977, the family was headed home to California when they decided to stop in Reno, Nevada, to visit Vernon Bonham’s relatives at 2485 Riviera Street near Idlewild Park.

On September 3, 1977, Darin, 12, and Lisa, 6, spent time riding the amusement park rides at Idlewild Park, about half-mile away. At 2 pm, Lisa walked back to their family’s home to ask Doris for a dollar.

When Lisa had not returned after 30 minutes, Darin went to the residence, but she was not there.

At 5 pm that day, a Reno couple stopped at the eastbound Scenic View pull-out from Interstate-80 at Mogul, about four miles west of Reno. They were looking in trash bins for aluminum cans to recycle when they found a grocery bag containing girls’ clothing and some pine needles.

The couple did not know about Lisa’s disappearance and took the bag home. When they read about Lisa in the next day’s newspaper, they took the bag to the police. It contained Lisa’s red short-sleeve blouse, red and white checked shorts, red sandals, white socks, and a purse still holding the dollar bill.

A witness told police that one of three men in a Volkswagen convertible talked to Lisa and gave her an apple before she disappeared. Police found the convertible sitting at Idlewild Park at 5 am on September 4. They ran a check on the car and found it listed as stolen at South Lake Tahoe. Police arrested a man found in the vehicle, a 29-year-old Las Vegas dealer, Danny Lee Palmer.

Palmer admitted talking to Lisa and giving her the apple but denied any involvement in her disappearance. About ten days later, the police cleared him as a suspect in that case.

Police had little evidence in Lisa’s case, and no one had witnessed the abduction.

Law enforcement instigated a search for Lisa Bonham from Idlewild Park to Verde, NV, near the California-Nevada border. They searched the land along the Truckee River, where divers probed deep pools and underwater tree branches, and nearby areas toward Reno. Searchers even went into California, but the massive search was unsuccessful.

Authorities then issued an all-points bulletin to all western states for the missing girl because they believed she might have been taken across state lines into California.

About ten days after her disappearance, authorities set up a command post at the summit of Old Dog Valley Road, approximately 14 miles west of Reno, and searched the area. Fourteen officers were on horseback, and searchers fanned out at 7:30 pm and continued until dark. They checked campgrounds, logging roads, quarries, and other places to no avail.

A Strange Map

On Wednesday, September 21, 1977, Reno police released an image of a map indicating a possible location for Lisa Bonham’s body. They had received the map via the postal mail the week before, which instigated another search. The envelope was postmarked from Oakland, CA. The pine needles found in the grocery bag came from this area. After searching the site suggested in the note, authorities came up empty-handed and chalked it up to a hoax.

The Discovery of Lisa Bonham

The search for Lisa Bonham ended in mid-November 1977 when a young couple, Jane Lazovich, 16, and Mickey Cutler, 19, found a jawbone near Dog Valley Road’s summit in Sierra County, California.

“It was just laying on the surface of the ground,” Jane told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The couple put the jawbone in their truck.

Lisa said, “We thought it might have been too old for a 6-year-old, but I looked at a book, at tooth development, and it seemed to fit.”

On September 4, Jane’s mother looked at it, decided it was human, and called the police.

Authorities searched the area where the couple found the jawbone and discovered some rib bones and a shoulder bone — overall, about a quarter of Lisa Bonham’s skeleton. No additional bones were found. Animals likely scattered the rest. Investigators said her killer had not buried the body, just discarded it. Identification was made through dental charts.

Sierra County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI joined the murder investigation that would take over two decades before an arrest.

23 Years Later A Killer is Finally Caught

Doris Bonham had high hopes that DNA technology would help solve her daughter’s murder. Her wish came true 23 years after her sweet little girl was taken from her.

On Wednesday, May 31, 2000, authorities arrested Stephen Robert Smith, 57, and charged him with murder. Smith was a dealer at the Peppermill Hotel-Casino in Reno and a registered sex offender.

In the late 1960s, Smith had molested two sisters, ages 15 and 12, at Sparks’ construction site. Even though he was convicted, he spent a minimal amount of time in prison and was paroled in 1976, 10 months before Lisa’s abduction. Despite his criminal history, he was never looked at as a possible suspect in Lisa Bonham’s kidnapping and murder.

In 1992, a major crimes task force was formed to investigate unsolved murders, but Smith’s DNA was not in the database.

Anjeanette Damon of the Reno Gazette-Journal wrote, “Smith’s parole officer persuaded him to submit a blood sample, which was entered into a DNA database at Washoe County. When a new DNA-indexing system became available, local police departments began submitting their unsolved cases.”

Detectives in the Bonham investigation did not believe that any semen remained on Lisa’s clothing after multiple blood and DNA tests had been previously conducted. However, Renee Romer, the lead molecular biologist in the DNA Unit of the sheriff department’s crime lab, cut samples from the edges of the original stain and found enough DNA to make a match.

Stephen Robert Smith confessed to raping and murdering Lisa Bonham in 1977. Smith said he saw Lisa walking near Idlewild Park on her way to her family’s residence and spoke to her. He knew she would be coming back, and as she was returning to the park, he grabbed her and forced her into his back seat, then covered her with a blanket.

Smith drove to Dog Valley near Verdi, where he tied her up and raped her. He tried unsuccessfully to smother Lisa; she had escaped from her bonds. Smith then squeezed her neck, possibly breaking it. He raped her again when she stopped moving.

Smith removed Lisa’s clothes and placed them in a bag in a garbage can at the scenic overlook along I-80 near Mogul, where the couple eventually found the bag and took it to the police.

During the trial, Doris Bonham confronted her daughter’s killer on the stand.

“Mr. Smith, do you understand at all what you have done to us?” she asked.

“After your first molestation … castration and penile amputation should have been performed on you. I hope you suffer an agonizing death in prison, and I know you will spend an eternity in hell.”

After Doris returned to her seat, Smith addressed the judge.

“I’m very sorry,” Smith said. “I am very, very sorry that I took your daughter’s life. I know that this can’t make up for what I did.”

Stephen Robert Smith was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. District Attorney Richard Gammick did not seek the death penalty because he had hoped Smith might disclose information about other unsolved child abductions and murders. Detectives interviewed Smith, but he claimed he knew nothing about them, and he passed a lie detector test. Regardless, authorities did not rule him out in other cases due to the unreliability of polygraph tests.

There is little information currently available on Stephen Robert Smith, but a poster commented in an online article that Smith died in 2009.

Lisa Bonham’s father, Vernon Bonham, passed away from cancer in 2010. Her mother and brother still reside in California.

Sources

Barber, Phil. “Police Suspicious of Sighted Car: Girl Still Missing.” Reno Gazette-Journal. September 5, 1977. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

Barber, Phil. “Lisa Bonham Skeleton Found: Clues Sought in Dog Valley.” Reno Gazette-Journal. November 14, 1977. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

Damon, Anjeanette Damon. “Sparks Man Arrested in 1977 Reno Killing of Girl.” Reno Gazette-Journal. June 1, 2000. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

Henderson, Mike. “Mother Confronts Daughter’s Slayer.” Reno Gazette-Journal. November 10, 2000. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

Henderson, Mike. “Sparks Man Admits Abduction and Assault.” Reno Gazette-Journal. October 4, 2000. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

“Man Cleared in Bonham Investigation.” Reno Gazette-Journal. September 13, 1977. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

“Mystery Mapmaker Sought; New Search.” Reno Gazette-Journal. September 22, 1977. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

Stevenson, Jack. “Lisa Bonham Searchers Come UP Empty-Handed in Dog Valley-Verdi Area.” Reno Gazette-Journal. September 15, 1977. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com.

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I have owned a true-crime blog since 2010. Follow my blog at https://truecrimediva.com

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