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The Strange Death Of Conspiracy Book Publisher Ron Bonds
Widow: 'All we did was go out to eat'
By Jim Auchmutey
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
Ron Bonds sold conspiracies. The Atlantan published books on unsolved
mysteries and unexplained phenomena, from the Kennedy assassination
to the ominous black helicopters of the New World Order. In the
subculture of the paranormal, his reputation was such that writers
for "The X-Files" used to call him for ideas...
Ron Bonds fell sick after he and wife Nancy Kratzer ate Mexican for
But nothing Bonds published was stranger than the final chapter of
On a beautiful spring Saturday last year, Bonds and his wife, Nancy
Kratzer, rose before dawn to work on the house they had just bought
in the Morningside neighborhood of Atlanta. Late that morning, they
broke for lunch and headed to a nearby Mexican restaurant, El Azteca
on Ponce de Leon.
Bonds ordered a No. 7 combo -- beef burrito, enchilada, beans and
rice. He asked the server to make sure the food was hot. It hadn't
been the last time he ate there.
"Is it hot enough?" Nancy asked when their lunches arrived.
"Lukewarm," Ron said -- but he was too famished to send the plate
Fifteen hours later, after an agonizing evening of vomiting and
diarrhea, Bonds was taken by ambulance from their home to Grady
Memorial Hospital. As Kratzer waited among the families of trauma
victims, she thought to herself: When this is over, I'm going to yell
at Ron for putting me through this.
Not long before sunrise, she was shown into a private room. Doctors
burst in. One of them broke the news: "Your husband didn't make it."
Kratzer glared at him in disbelief. "I don't think you have the right
person," she said. "All we did was go out to eat."
A rare statistic
Around 5:30 on the morning of April 8, 2001, Ronald W. Bonds, a 48-
year-old Atlanta native whose black goatee was beginning to show
flecks of gray, who liked to play guitar and argue politics over a
beer and take long walks with his wife, became a statistic.
Every year in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention estimates, more than 5,000 people die of food-borne
illness -- about 40 percent from something they ordered at a
In Bonds' case, suspicion quickly fell on his last meal. The Fulton
County medical examiner determined he died of internal bleeding
caused by toxic bacteria in contaminated ground beef. He ruled the
death accidental and listed the scene of the accident as 939 Ponce de
Leon Ave: El Azteca.
If the finding is correct -- and the restaurant strongly disputes it -
- Bonds became the first person in decades to die of food poisoning
from a metro Atlanta restaurant. County and state health authorities
cannot remember the last local dining fatality.
"I've been here 29 years, and I've never heard of another death like
that one," says Ferrell Curlee, who oversees restaurant inspections
for the Gwinnett County Board of Health.
The death of Ron Bonds illuminates an area of government regulation
many people take for granted. The public rarely thinks about
restaurant inspections unless an outbreak of food poisoning hits the
news, as it did a decade ago when four children died from E. coli-
tainted hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants.
Georgia law requires county health departments to inspect restaurants
at least twice a year. But the task has become increasingly difficult
as eateries have mushroomed with the population, making restaurant
safety another area, like traffic or air quality, where growth has
authorities scrambling to keep up.
In the past five years, the number of permitted food service
establishments in metro Atlanta -- from restaurants to school
cafeterias to sandwich carts -- has increased by more than 50
percent. Yet the number of full-time inspectors has changed little
and has declined in one county, Fulton, home of 15 percent of the
state's restaurants. Budget cuts have reduced the county's inspection
force from 35 to 23.
"We're having to do more with less," says Adewale Troutman, director
of the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness.
Whether more frequent or tougher inspections would have spared Bonds,
however, is an open question.
"We still don't know what happened in that kitchen," says attorney
Mark Harper, who represents Kratzer in a wrongful death lawsuit
against El Azteca.
The suit, now in the deposition phase, does not specify damages.
Kratzer says she doesn't care about the money.
"I just want people to know what can happen," she says. "And I want
to see that dump closed."
It has been more than a year since her husband died, but his presence
still inhabits the cream-colored bungalow they shared in Morningside.
His guitar rests in a stand in the living room. His Fabulous Fifties
Bakelite radio decorates the mantel. His Mission-style easy chair
faces the big-screen TV, as if he had just stepped out.
"It was months before I could bring myself to sit in it," says the 47-
year-old widow, a slender Michigan native whose nervous manner
suggests the emotional turmoil within. She's still struggling with an
They met in the mid-'80s when both were working at the Turtle's
record store chain. Bonds was a character, an opinionated ironist who
wanted to be a music promoter and had started his own record label,
EOD ("Elvis on Drugs"), and his own mock faith, the Church of Beaver
Bonds had always been fascinated by conspiracies and mysteries.
Shortly after the couple married in 1990, he announced he was getting
into the publishing business. He didn't have to look far for an
author: Kerry Thornley, a down-and-out veteran who was washing dishes
at a Mexican joint in Little Five Points. Thornley had served in the
Marines with Lee Harvey Oswald, and his novel based on the
experience, "The Idle Warriors," became the first product of Bonds'
company, IllumiNet Press.
The press issued three or four books a year, Bonds handling the
manuscripts while Kratzer did the typesetting and accounts. One
title, a UFO thriller called "The Mothman Prophecies," became a movie
starring Richard Gere. Their best seller, at 40,000 copies,
was "Black Helicopters Over America," a diatribe against the New
World Order that Bonds cooked up with author Jim Keith.
"They laughed all the way to the bank with that one," Kratzer
says. "Ron didn't really believe all that stuff. But there were
people who did, and he just fed their craziness."
In his final spring, Bonds had every reason to feel good about
himself. The publishing business was perking along, and the couple
had just bought a second house intown as an investment. What's more,
he had gone on a low-carb diet and shed 30 pounds.
Bonds did have a health problem, though. He suffered from
diverticulosis, a common condition in which the intestines are
scarred by small saclike growths. He avoided nuts, strawberries and
other foods that could lodge in the sacs and untrack his digestion.
Toxic bacteria could lodge in the sacs, too.
After lunch that Saturday, the couple ran some errands and returned
home for the evening. Ron settled in with his shortwave radio while
Nancy curled up with a TV movie. She says he ate nothing else except
some carrot cake.
Around 9 p.m., Ron told her he was feeling sick and disappeared into
a bathroom. Nancy checked on him from time to time, thinking he had a
stomach virus, then drifted off to sleep. She woke before midnight
with cramps of her own and retreated to the other bathroom. She
didn't know Ron had gotten worse and was vomiting repeatedly.
About 3 a.m., he asked her to call 911.
By the time the ambulance arrived, Ron was sprawled on the dining
room floor, dehydrated and complaining of muscle seizures in his
legs. The paramedics helped him back into a bathroom. After a while,
Nancy called out to see how he was doing. No answer. She cracked the
door and saw Ron mumbling to himself, his eyes rolled back.
"Your husband's in bad shape," one of the EMTs told her as they
loaded him onto a stretcher and sped off to Grady.
It was the last time she saw him alive.
Unraveling the mystery
Kratzer suspected food poisoning all along, but she received no
confirmation until the death certificate arrived more than a month
after her husband's body was cremated.
During an autopsy, the medical examiner found copious amounts of
blood in the bowels, so he sent a stool sample to the Georgia Public
Health Laboratory in Decatur. The lab discovered high levels of
Clostridium perfringens Type A, a bacterium often seen in small
quantities in beef and poultry. When it occurs in larger quantities --
anything above 100,000 organisms per gram is considered unsafe -- it
can release toxins that cause diarrhea, vomiting and, rarely,
hemorrhaging. The bacterium figures in 250,000 cases of food
poisoning a year, the CDC estimates, only seven of which result in
"It's not one of the common forms of food poisoning," says Paul Mead,
an epidemiologist with the CDC's Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases
Four days after Bonds ate there, epidemiologists visited El Azteca to
collect samples of ground beef from the steam table. When C.
perfringens becomes dangerous, it usually has to do with cooked meat
being held at too low a temperature. The lab found 6 million
organisms per gram -- 60 times the safety threshold.
A microbiologist at the lab also ran genetic fingerprinting tests to
compare the bacteria from the food with cultures from Bonds' and
Kratzer's stool samples. The DNA strands were found to be almost
identical, suggesting the bacteria came from the same source.
In the meantime, the health department asked El Azteca for credit
card receipts covering the days when Bonds had eaten there and when
the food samples had been taken. Of the 35 customers reached by
phone, seven reported gastrointestinal problems.
On April 18, the department placed El Azteca on probation for six
months, meaning it had to meet stricter health standards during
frequent, unannounced inspections. The probation was eventually
lifted. Despite the death, the restaurant was never forced to close.
That infuriated Kratzer. Last summer, she fired off an e-mail to
colleagues at Emory University, where she works as an administrator
in the business school, warning them about El Azteca.
"Please pass this message on, and please, for your safety: DON'T EAT
THERE!" she wrote.
The e-mail ricocheted around Atlanta for weeks. Kratzer eventually
received more than 300 replies from people who wanted to express
sympathy or share their own gut-wrenching dining experiences.
As word spread, the restaurant's business plummeted. But it gradually
recovered, and by this spring, the patio out front was again teeming
with margarita sippers.
The sight galls Kratzer. "I drive by there," she says, "and I think:
In a way, El Azteca is a classic American success story. A family of
Mexican immigrants opened the first restaurant two decades ago in
Sandy Springs and expanded into a chain of more than a dozen outlets.
In 1996, they sold the location on Ponce to Bernie Eisenstein, an
Atlanta restaurant broker. He still owns the store -- which is not
affiliated with the others -- and can usually be found there before
lunch conducting business from a front table as oven-mitted waiters
dash to and fro.
Eisenstein declined to comment on the Bonds case. "He thinks he's
being inappropriately blamed," says his lawyer, Richard Foster.
The attorney is mounting a vigorous defense. In depositions, Foster
has raised questions about whether the food samples were handled
incorrectly, allowing bacteria to fester en route from the restaurant
to the lab. He also points out that Kratzer admits she and her
husband ate ground beef at home on the Thursday or Friday night
before they visited El Azteca.
"There's no question that Ron Bonds died because he had
diverticulosis and ingested this bacteria," Foster says. "The
question is: Where did it come from?"
The restaurant's health record has been scrutinized in the early
rounds of the lawsuit. Inspectors testified they received previous
complaints of sickness from meals at El Azteca, they found evidence
of rat infestation, and one caller reported finding a roach in a
Over the past three years, health officers have scored the restaurant
in the 80s and 90s (out of 100) with two exceptions: A 65 in October
1999 and a 69 in February 2001.
One of the items cited was improper temperature on the steam table.
The 'simple' theory
After Bonds died, some of his friends in the conspiracy underground
were suspicious. One of his authors, Kenn Thomas, editor of a Web
site called the Steamshovel Press ("All conspiracy. No theory."),
went so far as to suggest in a book that the Atlantan's demise was
part of a plot against another writer, Jim Keith, who was
investigating the Princess Diana "assassination" when he died under
odd circumstances three years ago. Keith injured his knee falling off
a stage at the Burning Man arts festival in Nevada and suffered a
fatal blood clot during surgery.
"I don't have all the dots connected, but my suggestion is that
someone wanted to silence Keith -- and Ron was Keith's publisher,"
Hearing this scenario, Kratzer rolls her eyes. While her husband
would have appreciated such a flight of imagination -- indeed, he
might have published it -- she doesn't need international
conspiracies to understand his death.
She subscribes to the single-burrito theory.
"It's simple," she says. "Someone went out to eat and died. That's
not supposed to happen."
Writer Jim Auchmutey used very little of what I told him about Ron
Bonds' unusual death ("Widow: 'All we did was go out to eat'" Atlanta
Journal-Consititution, 6/9/02 -- web only?). He ignored, for
instance, the interesting fact that a series of similar deaths
happened in Minnesota last November, due to closteridium bacteria
traced to a tainted tissue bank called Cryolife in Kennesaw, just
twenty miles north of Atlanta. These deaths resulted from knee-
surgery, a procedure halted for a while in Minnesota while they
traced the cause. The chief author working for Bonds' IllumiNet
Press, Jim Keith, died of complications after knee surgery. It
doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to acknowledge the questions that
remain in the deaths of both Bonds and Keith.
I also thought it was a bit unfair for Bonds' widow to characterize
him as "laughing all the way to the bank" over the books he
published. Perhaps it was a misquote. Ron, his writers and his
audience maybe laughed together at some of the absurdities of
parapolitics and conspiracy, but my impression was that he had great
respect for the material.
St. Louis, MO 63121
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