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Her sad heart tries to embrace vengeance and mercy for a killer

Published Sep. 13, 2005

When peace finally arrived Tuesday morning, Thelma Bonzagni was sitting in a pink chair in the Florida room of her Holiday home.

Out the window, she admired the bright day rising, as well as the orange and grapefruit trees gracing each side of the lawn. In her hands, she fingered a rosary. Mrs. Bonzagni is 67 and a Catholic of deep faith. She believes in justice as well as mercy. Still, it is an odd thing to do, to say a rosary for the man who murdered your brother.

The man was Daniel Remeta, executed in the electric chair Tuesday morning. He killed four people in Arkansas and Kansas, but he killed first in Ocala, when he shot Mrs. Bonzagni's brother, Mehrle Reeder, at a convenience store and gas station in February 1985. Remeta ran off with $52.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Bonzagni recalled that her husband identified her brother's body. "He had a bullet hole on his left cheek below his eye, one on the jawline by his ear, one under his chin. The fourth was by his heart," she said.

"My husband said he looked like Jesus Christ on the cross."

Mehrle Reeder is buried next to his mother, in an old family cemetery in Maryland. He went by the nickname of Chet, had hazel eyes, a beard. If he were alive now, he would be 73. He was the second oldest of five children. Mrs. Bonzagni came next, and he was best man at her wedding.

He had been a sergeant in the Army Air Forces in World War II and served in France and Italy. He died without a wife, without children, but he had run at various times in his life a small restaurant, an antique store, an ice cream shop. He had worked for Hertz Rent a Car and Western Union. According to the Ocala Star-Banner, the convenience store where he died had been open only a few weeks when he was killed. The grand opening was planned for later that day, the day of the murder.

Whenever Florida executes a killer, the killers get all the ink. Their names are remembered, not the names of their victims. It doesn't matter what you think of the death penalty, whether you believe the chair is barbaric or a blessing. To forget the victims is its own offense.

Remeta also will be remembered because his execution helped contribute to a record, a record four people electrocuted in nine days. The others were Judy Buenoano, Leo Jones, Gerald Stano.

There. I've done it myself. Given them ink.

But the ink apparently has given some solace to Thelma Bonzagni. Over the years, she has saved every story she could find about her brother's murder, even though most revealed little of who he was. As the date of Remeta's execution approached, she reread them all.

That helped. So did a call to her church, St. Ignatius of Antioch in Tarpon Springs.

The church has a prayer line, a group of people who will, if asked, include the names of people in need in their daily prayers. Mrs. Bonzagni had Daniel Remeta's name added to the list.

She wanted prayers that would open his heart.

Although Chet Reeder's killing was the only one he denied, Remeta issued a striking statement that was read after his death. In it, he wrote, "If this death brings comfort to the friends and families of those harmed and initiates real healing, justice is truly served."

Justice must have been served, for Thelma Bonzagni's sense of balance has been restored. "What he did to my brother," she said, "he got in return."

As for mercy, that was why Mrs. Bonzagni prayed.

Daniel Remeta was somebody's son, she said. What's more, he had a soul. She even talked as though she wanted his to reach heaven.

It is an odd thing to pray for the man who murdered your brother, odder still not to want the killer forever in hell.

"Why should I say where he should go?" Thelma Bonzagni said. "That's God's work. Not mine."