Searching for Answers
An 8-Year-Old Boy's Death in 1953 Is Still a Mystery to His Brothers, Who Hunt to Find Those Responsible
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
October 17, 2005
ALBANY -- Ernie Bonneau reaches for the small, faded photo by his hospital bed. His eyes shine with unspilled tears.
He sinks into his pillows, staring at the solemn face of his long-dead 8-year-old brother.
The 62-year-old is tired. A tan baseball cap covers a head stripped of hair from chemotherapy. An oxygen line loops over his ears.
Cancer is destroying his lungs and attacking a kidney. But this is not the fight of his life, he insists.
The real opponent, Ernie says, is a veil of silence that for half a century has surrounded the mysterious death of Gilbert Bonneau.
Ernie was 10 when his younger brother died at an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. He is still so traumatized by his own experience at the former St. Colman's Home for Boys and Girls that he is unable to recall Gilbert's face. "I do remember looking at him dressed in altar boy's gown, and his little white coffin. But I cannot picture my little brother. I have no remembrance of Gilbert at all."
Hence the photo. And the tears that finally fall.
The Bonneau brothers are convinced at least one of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary contributed to Gilbert's death in November 1953 by repeatedly smacking the boy on the back of the head with a broom handle to silence his cries. Before he died, his brothers had been placed in another child-care facility in Albany.
Most of the 52-year-old medical documentation says Gilbert died of natural causes, yet Ernie, Bill and their surviving siblings believe records were doctored to hide a crime.
They are undeterred in searching for the truth.
"Many people suggest that we just let this go and forget all about it," Bill says. "But I ask you, if this child were your brother or sister, or perhaps even your son or daughter, would you be able to let it go so easily?"
Bill's wife, Rosemary, remembers the night the phone rang in 1978, when the voice from the past offered shocking details about Gilbert's death that everyone previously had believed was tragic but natural.
The caller identified herself as Marion Maynard. She also grew up at St. Colman's at about the same time. She came forward to say she saw a nun beating the child. Then she dropped out of sight.
The story begins in 1947 when the former Joyce Baker, a young mother of six kids, had a breakdown and was hospitalized.
Three of her sons -- Danny, Ernie and Gilbert, who was 2 -- went to St. Colman's. A daughter, Darlene, headed to foster care. Bill, the second oldest, stayed with their father. Patrick went with a family friend.
In 1953, though, like others approaching puberty, Ernie and Danny were removed from St. Colman's and were sent to the LaSalle School in Albany.
Gilbert was now alone in the red-brick orphanage along Boght Road. He was terrified, his brothers say. Two months later, he would be dead.
His mother was never told of his death and would die herself six years later at age 39.
All four brothers have spent close to $30,000 of their combined savings since 1995 trying to prove a crime was committed. They recently established a Justice for Gilbert Web site with the help of a friend. On it, they chronicle Gilbert's brief life as well as the questions surrounding his death.
The site has been frequented by former St. Colman's residents as well as strangers from around the globe who sympathize with their claims of abuse as children.
A fund has been established to help with legal costs.
Gilbert Bonneau would have been 60 this year. Instead, he's buried in a potter's field. His siblings bought the stone marker that, besides Gilbert's name and the dates of his birth and death, says, simply, "Brother."
The pauper's grave in St. Patrick's Cemetery is about a mile from St. Colman's Home, in the working-class burial ground along Route 2. Ernie, Bill and the others visited plot No. 353 frequently as the years rolled on, as if bunches of flowers could salve their grief over such an early end.
In 1995, Ernie began running newspaper ads looking for anyone with details of Gilbert's death. That led to a flurry of news stories and an emotional public debate.
Many former St. Colman's residents were incensed at allegations the nuns were murderers, insisting the home was a happy oasis in an otherwise grim childhood.
Several of the nuns were interviewed at that time by the Times Union; they denied the allegations.
Other former residents stepped forward to support the Bonneaus' description of St. Colman's as a veritable hell on Earth. Descriptions of their own abuse at the home are contained in an extensive police file.
Attorney Al Sabo, who represents St. Colman's, would not allow the sisters to be interviewed for this story. He also declined to comment.
In the past, Sabo has denied the allegations against the nuns, saying they were made by troubled people. Interviews in the police file show the nuns insist the allegations are lies.
The Bonneaus' memories of St. Colman's are quite different.
"It was a terrible place," says Bill, now 68, sitting in Ernie's room at St. Peter's Hospital. Unlike Ernie, he has vivid memories of those days in 1953 at St. Colman's. "I'd take the bus down from Albany to visit. And when I left, my brothers would cry."
As a boy, Bill was in many ways the backbone of the struggling family, trying to hold them safe from an absent mother and an at-times-abusive father. Years later, the former Marine still tries to make sense of a family tragedy.
"It isn't right," he insists. "We need answers."
Ernie can barely talk about St. Colman's. Or the nuns.
He shakes his head as tears course down his cheeks.
"No one deserves that," says Ernie, a career firefighter with Albany's Engine 3 and the father of six.
In 1997 the Bonneaus gained permission to exhume Gilbert's remains so tests might prove their theories.
Tests, however, came back inconclusive. The small coffin was submerged in water for decades, and with such extensive decomposition it was impossible to learn anything, experts said.
In 2001, through the Bonneaus' Web site, another former St. Colman's resident, Bob Vonzurlinde of Florida, came forward. He said he witnessed a nun smothering a screaming Gilbert with a pillow as he lay in the home's infirmary recovering from beatings. Vonzurlinde claims he was sick in the infirmary that night.
Colonie Police Detective Michael Ruede clearly wanted to reopen the murder investigation and explore Vonzurlinde's claims, according to a December 2001 memo in the case file.
In a memo labeled St. Colman's follow-up 95-211971, Ruede wrote that he and Sgt. Ray Milham spoke about the case with then-Albany County District Attorney Paul Clyne on Dec. 27, 2001. "We were looking for a subpoena for records on Mr. Vonzurlinde while he was at St. Colman's."
But then, the memo goes on, "At this point the DA wishes to review his files and he really doesn't want to get involved in this case."
Clyne refused last week to speak about his decision and the St. Colman's case. But Albany County Chief Assistant District Attorney Mike McDermott insists his office did everything it could to explore the allegations.
The brothers disagree, and years of similar roadblocks leave them unmoved.
They continue to search for new evidence while designing Web sites and forming survivors groups.
After being in and out of St. Peter's Hospital in recent weeks, Ernie came home again last week. He grows sicker by the day. If it's possible to cheat death, he says, he will. He says he has too much at stake to go quietly -- he has his three sons and three daughters to consider, his second wife, Rosa, who is herself hospitalized and headed for a nursing home, and his surviving siblings.
And, always, there is Gilbert.
"We'll never give up," Bill promises, offering what comfort he can for Ernie's anguish. "We'll get justice for Gilbert."
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