Woman, who was 13 at the time, found guilty in gruesome 2009 Chattanooga killing; co-defendant acquitted

Angel Bumpass
photo Angel Bumpass

A jury on Thursday evening found Angel Bumpass, who was 13 at the time, guilty of first-degree felony murder and attempt to commit especially aggravated robbery in the 2009 killing of 68-year-old Franklin Bonner. Mallory Vaughn, her co-defendant, was found not guilty on both counts.

Bonner's wife, Linda, was the one who found him lying on the floor, bound to a kitchen table and chair inside their Washington Hills home on Jan. 16, 2009. He had duct tape around his feet, arms and head, nose and mouth. Suffocation was the cause of death, Hamilton County Medical Examiner Dr. James Metcalfe later determined.

The case had gone cold up until 2018 when Franklin Bonner's relatives called prosecutors asking them to take another look. They did, and got a match for two fingerprints found at the scene. The match was for Bumpass, who is now 24.

They also reexamined 2010 interviews with federal inmate Nicholas Cheaton, who claimed Vaughn, his cousin, confessed to him about robbing and killing Franklin Bonner.

But there have been problems with the case, the defense argued.

Cheaton was hoping to get a lesser sentence in exchange for his statement, and could have learned details of the case through the news and friends. Early reports did state that police had called the case a robbery and that duct tape had been used to bind Franklin Bonner.

Apart from Cheaton's statement, the prosecution had no physical evidence that linked Vaughn to the scene. A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent testified that no fingerprints found at the scene belonged to Vaughn, only Bumpass.

photo Mallory Vaughn

Another problem, defense attorneys noted, was that one of the detectives involved - the lead investigator, Karl Fields - was fired from the Chattanooga Police Department for neglect of duty and unbecoming conduct after he made sexual advances toward a woman while he investigated her rape and kidnapping case.

During his time as an officer, defense attorneys had accused Fields of coaching witnesses to lie during a murder trial, losing audio recordings of witness interviews and failing to collect and test all the evidence at the scene of an attempted murder.

In 2016, Fields faced criminal charges of tampering with or fabricating evidence and official misconduct after he allegedly never included a potentially exonerating video of an alleged rape in a case file sent to District Attorney General Neal Pinkston's office.

Those charges were dismissed in 2017 after Judge Barry Steelman decided the state couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Fields concealed evidence.

In regards to the death of Franklin Bonner, defense attorneys argued Bumpass' fingerprints were not conclusive enough evidence to link her to the scene. Duct tape is a mobile object, attorneys argued. Anyone could have moved it there.

photo District Attorney General Neal Pinkston gives a statement about the 2009 murder of Franklin Augustus Bonner during a news conference at the Newell Towers on June 12, 2018 in Chattanooga.

They called her grandfather, who testified that Bumpass used to be very "crafty" and played in their garage building things. One of the tools she could have used was duct tape, he said.

The grandfather also did handyman work and had been to Franklin Bonner's house to show him how to make repairs. It was possible he could have loaned Franklin Bonner some duct tape, he testified.

And finally, it wasn't reasonable to believe that a 13-year-old girl was friends with a 26-year-old man and that she could have taped a man as tightly as he had been found.

Nevertheless, the state, in closing arguments, asked the jury to not abandon common sense.

The evidence pointed to Vaughn and Bumpass - and possibly a third person - going to Franklin Bonner's house with the intent to rob him of money and marijuana.

They admitted the inmate Cheaton was a "little rough around the edges," but noted there was other evidence that corroborates his claim, such as Cheaton stating that Vaughn told him that Franklin Bonner was "duct taped like a mummy."

photo Linda Bonner holds onto a photo of her late husband, Franklin Bonner, during a news conference at Newell Towers on June 12, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

"That's exactly what they did," prosecutors said.

They called the idea of her playing with duct tape a smokescreen.

"That is just a supposition that is tossed out there by the defense because they have nothing else, because they know how damning these fingerprints are," prosecutors said. "There is no other way that these fingerprints are at that crime scene, other than the fact that she was there and she was the one who wrapped this 68-year-old man up in tape while Mallory Vaughn ransacked the house."

And after deliberating for close to five hours, the jury decided to convict Bumpass and acquit Vaughn.

Bumpass was immediately taken into custody. She awaits a sentencing hearing to take place on Nov. 21.

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