Bella Bulmer’s dad died in his Army barracks, killed by a stranger.
Her mother Beth Bulmer died almost exactly eight years later on a dark Tulare County road in California, the victim of a still-unsolved hit-and-run.
Now, the 55-year-old grandmother who’s raising Bella in California fights for veterans benefits while she hopes for a break in the case that haunts her.
“Bella is always asking me why she had to lose mommy and daddy,” said Anita Langdon, a Clovis-area resident who is Beth’s mother and Bella’s grandmother. “It is so difficult to explain to an 8-year-old.”
Different mysteries cloud the deaths of each of Bella’s parents.
An Army court martial, and eventual guilty plea, determined her father’s killer to be a fellow soldier, George D.B. MacDonald. Precisely why McDonald attacked the 23-year-old Rick Bulmer at Fort Benning, Georgia, on the evening of May 18, 2008, though, defies explanation.
A paratrooper and Eagle Scout who was being groomed for West Point, MacDonald claimed up until his 2015 guilty plea that the smoking cessation drug Chantix had deeply disturbed him. He complained of morbid dreams and a sense of unreality, symptoms similar to those identified on a Chantix “black box” label required by the Food and Drug Administration starting in 2009.
The FDA dropped the black box warning on Chantix last December, following additional studies. After his guilty plea, entered after a military appeals court threw out his first conviction and life sentence and ordered a new trial, MacDonald was sentenced to 45 years. He could be released much earlier.
I spoke to the investigator a couple of times, and I asked him if he had any leads. He said no.
But while Rick Bulmer’s death combines a known perpetrator with murky causation, the situation is reversed with his young widow. Investigators know the general circumstances of her death on the night of May 21, 2016. The identity of the pickup truck driver who struck her and kept moving is the puzzle.
“You could use the term ‘cold case,’” a Visalia-based California Highway Patrol spokesman, Officer Steve Beal, said in an interview. “There are not any leads at this point.”
Beth Bulmer’s death at the age of 27 cast Langdon back into the familiar roles of caretaker as well as grieving mother. Langdon had previously lost a son, Mark Prettyman, in May 2005.
For Bella, whose formal name is Izzabella, more than the usual postmortem complications have ensued. Family dynamics can be tricky.
As Rick Bulmer’s mother Wendy Smith said Friday, “Bella is blessed” to have cousins, uncles and others who want to be a part of her life.
Starting last June, in Fresno County Superior Court, Langdon began the laborious process of becoming Bella’s legal guardian. Separately, the Department of Veterans Affairs required blood tests to prove Bella was Rick’s daughter, because he died before she was born. Langdon said she’s still waiting for the veterans’ payments that will go into a secured account for Bella’s later use.
“I have been trying for months to get Bella’s (veterans’) benefits,” Langdon said. “A lot of paperwork involved.”
Born in Fresno, Langdon’s daughter Beth attended Clovis High School.
“She was an amazingly sweet little girl,” Langdon said. “She was free spirited and was always willing to help others.”
Beth was 19 years old and pregnant when her husband of about two months left for Army basic training, a lifelong dream for him. Two days after training formally began, Rick Bulmer returned to the barracks, apparently with a sore leg. He was sleeping when McDonald attacked him with a knife.
The loss hit Beth hard, but she met another man, with whom she had a son and to whom she was eventually engaged to be married. He could not be reached.
In a 2014 interview, Beth said she was sometimes too sad to do anything but take her daughter to school, but friends said she could also be an animal-loving bundle of energy.
“She was frenetic, always moving and on the go,” recalled Lacie Cates, who met Beth in Squaw Valley. “She was a kind person, with a good sense of humor.”
A 14-page CHP Traffic Collision Report, obtained through a Public Records Act request, and a separate Tulare County Sheriff’s Department report sum up what evidently occurred on Road 120 near Cutler on a clear, cool Saturday night last May.
Beth was riding in a car with a close acquaintance when the two got “involved in a verbal altercation,” according to the sheriff’s report.
“Upon pulling over,” the sheriff’s report stated, Beth “exited the vehicle while smoking a cigarette as they argued.”
Then, while she was walking or standing in the southbound lane of Road 120, one-quarter mile south of Avenue 404, Bulmer was reported to be struck on her left side by a dark-colored truck heading north.
At 9:28 p.m., a CHP officer was dispatched to a report of a traffic collision with injuries. About seven minutes later, a Dinuba Fire Department EMT who was on the scene pronounced Beth dead.
She was wearing a green dress, the Tulare County Sheriff’s deputy reported. She had two gold-plated rings on the index finger of her left hand.
CHP investigators reported speaking to three witnesses. Their individual accounts span a little more than a page, but are blacked-out. A headlight assembly recovered at the scene could not be traced, though investigators showed it to several local car dealers.
The CHP investigators attributed the accident to Beth having “placed herself in danger by walking in this dimly lit area.”
The driver who “fled the scene,” according to the CHP report, committed felony hit and run. This can result in a sentence of up to four years in state prison, if the mystery driver ever comes to light.
“The investigators have given me basically no hope that they’ll find the person responsible,” Langdon said. “All I can do is pray.”