| May 2010
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By Corrie M. Anders
He had a smile that told you everything about his love of life and family. A smile so big it often overflowed into laughter.
Charles McAleer-Bonilla was known for his friendly smile and devotion to family. Photo courtesy the Bonilla family
"Here comes sunshine," his coworkers at the Water Department used to say.
But that smile disappeared on Thursday, April 8, when Charles J. McAleer-Bonilla, 30, was fatally stabbed on the threshold of the home he shared with his mother and 13-year-old son.
The murder has baffled police and devastated a tight-knit Noe Valley family, and in its wake prompted friends to honor McAleer-Bonilla--a single parent--with fund drives to pay for his son's education.
The San Francisco Police Department, which is still investigating the crime, has been reluctant to divulge details about the case. However, one high-ranking official suggested that McAleer-Bonilla might have known his assailant.
"It's not a random event," Capt. Louis Cassanego of Ingleside Station told the Voice. "I can't go beyond that."
The victim's sister, Jessica Lawlor-Bonilla, said the family was in "constant contact" with homicide investigators. "The police are on the ball," she said. "They're doing good."
Bouquets of Roses
The death was San Francisco's 14th homicide this year. But it was the first slaying in Noe Valley in many years, according to neighbors (see sidebar).
Police said the violence erupted following an altercation about 8:50 p.m. outside McAleer-Bonilla's apartment at 305 28th Street near Sanchez Street. He was taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where he died an hour later.
McAleer-Bonilla lived on the ground floor of a brown two-unit building. Nearly two weeks after his murder, a makeshift memorial of prayer candles, helium-filled balloons, and bouquets of red roses still lay in the porch entryway.
A police bulletin taped to the building's front door asked for the public's help. The flyer stated, "One or more persons may have been injured in this homicide and may be bleeding."
As McAleer-Bonilla lay mortally wounded from multiple stab wounds, a four-block trail of blood showed that his attacker fled uphill on 28th Street, veered left on Noe Street, crossed Valley Street, and then turned left downhill on 29th Street for one block, where the trail ended. The police bulletin said the volume of blood along the escaper's route indicated a wound severe enough to require medical attention.
Eleven days after McAleer-Bonilla's death, a crowd of more than 500 people paid their final respects during a requiem mass April 19 at St. Paul's Catholic Church.
A color portrait, chosen for the mass, showed a cheery young man with dark eyes, mustache, and a neat tuft of black fuzz beneath his chin. "Charlie" was what his friends and coworkers called him, his family said. The family had their pet name, too: "Chuckie."
"He was half-Salvadoran and half-Irish," said his sister, 26. Their grandmother immigrated in 1965 to San Francisco from El Salvador, with two young daughters, including their mother, Carmen Bonilla.
When Jessica was 12 or 13, she said, "I decided to hyphenate [add] my mom's name out of respect." Charles subsequently changed his name as well.
"He said life is too short and you need to cherish the relationships you have."
McAleer-Bonilla graduated from St. Paul's K-8 School in 1994, and then attended Riordan High School for one year before getting his diploma from International Studies Academy.
He took a few college courses, and before his death was studying to become a plumber. But he often said he regretted not pursuing an academic degree, his sister said. He urged his son, Charles Jr., to study hard in school.
"He said, 'Son, education is the key to success,'" recalled Lawlor-Bonilla. "'While you're doing homework, I'm sitting here studying for this plumber's test. I'm the proof that you have to have education.'"
Trying to Be Attentive
The Bonilla family runs four generations deep in Noe Valley. They've lived at several locations in the neighborhood, mostly within three blocks of St. Paul's, their spiritual base at Church and Valley streets.
In recent years, McAleer-Bonilla had started to help out at the church, where his grandmother was a well-known and frequent presence.
St. Paul's pastor, Father Mario Farana, said McAleer-Bonilla showed up the day before Easter Sunday and spent four or five hours vacuuming, cleaning pews, removing old church bulletins, and working on the floral arrangement of Easter and calla lilies.
He didn't attend St. Paul's services every Sunday. But "in the last few years of his life," said Farana, "he was trying to be more attentive to the things of the heart and soul and the spirit."
According to family members, McAleer-Bonilla was a loving father and provider. He doted on his son, who's now in sixth grade at St. John School, as well as his mom, a San Francisco public health educator. (Carmen Bonilla is currently caring for her grandson.)
"He'd pick up my nephew from St. John, and every single day after work he'd cook dinner for them," his sister said.
McAleer-Bonilla loved cooking, the family said, but sometimes went overboard with garlic. He once cooked up a pot of ham hocks and lima beans with so many garlic cloves it was difficult to discern which were limas and which were cloves, his mom recalled.
At the funeral mass, several people spoke about McAleer-Bonilla's happy disposition, which was punctuated by a laugh they described as "loud as a hyena."
Lawlor-Bonilla said her brother sounded like Laffing Sal, the Musée Mécanique icon at Pier 45. "Sometimes it'd be so annoying, but then I'd start laughing just because he was laughing."
McAleer-Bonilla's job, delivering interoffice mail, was another thing that made him smile. On more than a few occasions, his mother said, "he wanted to work on weekends. I'd say, 'Get a life, Charles.'"
'Everybody Loved Him'
The murder stunned McAleer-Bonilla's coworkers at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Water Department's umbrella agency. He had worked for the PUC since 2004, making daily rounds to Water Department offices from San Francisco to Millbrae to Sunol.
"I know it sounds hackneyed when people pass on to say they're a good person and when you have nothing but good things to say. But gosh, with Charlie it was really true," said David Briggs, a PUC manager in Millbrae.
"Every time I saw him he had a smile on his face. He thoroughly enjoyed coming to work. He wrote countless Christmas cards to the managers and the people he worked with every day," Briggs remembered.
Distribution manager Myrtell Bass-Kuma said she got to know McAleer-Bonilla during his twice-a-day mail runs.
"Everybody loved him," she said. "He was polite and respectful. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. It just broke my heart."
In the weeks following his death, Bass-Kuma, Briggs, and other Water Department employees collected approximately $4,000 to help McAleer-Bonilla's family.
A Noe Valley Fundraiser
Two Noe Valley parents, Claudine Ryan and Joanne Kapsack, have set up a trust fund to help pay for Charles Jr.'s high school and college education. They knew McAleer-Bonilla through his sister, a babysitter for the Ryan family.
"It is times like these that we as a community need to come together and support each other," Kapsack said.
The trust fund drive started at Alvarado Elementary School, where many students and parents knew Lawlor-Bonilla because of her connection to Ryan's and Kapsack's children.
If you wish to help, donations can be made payable to Jessica Lawlor-Bonilla and sent to her, care of Claudine Ryan, 21 Jersey Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Write "Charles McAleer Trust" in the subject line.
Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call homicide inspectors John Cagney, 734-3181; Brian Delahunty, 553-1336; or David Martinovich, 734-5405; or the SFPD's anonymous tip line, 575-4444.
RARE EVENT IN NEIGHBORHOOD
Violence is not unknown in Noe Valley, but seldom is it murder. Voice archives record a 1997 homicide in the 1000 block of Church Street. Neighborhood activist Eileen Bermingham noted that another homicide occurred in 2004 at Guerrero and 27th streets.
The April slaying of Charles McAleer-Bonilla "could have been anywhere, quite honestly," said Bermingham, a board member of the group Upper Noe Neighbors. "I don't think it signals there is going to be some kind of rise in crime in Noe Valley."
"It was just a shock," said Mike Gutierrez, 29, a childhood friend who attended grade school with McAleer-Bonilla and now works for Tuggey's Hardware on 24th Street.
"You don't hear about stabbings in Noe Valley. I'm not going to start carrying a gun, but I hope the police step up their game or the neighborhood starts a neighborhood watch program."
For information about San Francisco SAFE, which offers tips on starting a watch program on your block, call 553-1967 or go to www.sfsafe.org.