Sonny Bono Is Killed in Ski Crash
By William Claiborne
Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), the easygoing half of the Sonny and Cher singing duo who evolved into an activist mayor and a respected congressman, was killed in this mountain resort Monday afternoon when he slammed into a tree after skiing off an intermediate slope for a solo run through the pines.
Bono's swift death -- a coroner's report said he died immediately of massive blunt trauma -- resembled the accident that killed Michael Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), as he played football with family members on Dec. 31 along an intermediate-level slope in Aspen, Colo.
Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini said today that Bono, an avid and experienced skier, died about 2 p.m., five hours before the body was found partially obscured by a thick grove of trees about 150 feet off of the Upper Orion trail of the Heavenly Ski Resort on the Nevada-California state line.
Resort officials said that Bono, 62, who had skied here for more than 20 years, was alone at the time of the accident. After riding a gondola to the top of the mountain with other family members, he skied ahead and was not observed leaving the trail, authorities said.
Bono was skiing here with his wife, Mary Whitaker, and their two children, Chesare, 9, and Chianna, 6, who lagged behind after one of the daughters stumbled.
Pierini said the family waited at the bottom of the trail for two hours and contacted authorities when Bono failed to show up. Resort officials said they first contacted the operators of shuttle buses that run between the mountain and local hotels and when there was still no trace of Bono, ski patrols mounted a search.
Pierini said officials estimated that Bono was going between 20 and 30 miles per hour when he hit the tree. He said the autopsy by the Douglas County coroner showed "no indication of any substances or alcohol."
Bono's body was flown to Palm Springs today, where a funeral is planned for Friday.
Experienced skiers here described that part of the Upper Orion trail as "easy-to-intermediate" with hard-packed snow that tends to become icy in the late afternoon shadows.
But they said many skiers veer off the trail into the tree line, either in search of powder snow or to connect with other trails. The wooded area where Bono's body was found had about a foot of powdered snow and "trees all over the place," Pierini told reporters at a news conference.
James Grimes, 45, of Bakersfield, who described himself as an expert skier, said: "Tree-line skiing is very common. I was doing it all day until the accident. If you miss [a turn] your ski can hit a fallen branch or a tree trunk." However, Grimes said he doubted that regular skiers would change their habits as a result of the accident.
A spokesman for Bono, Frank Cullen Jr., said the California congressman was a "very proficient skier. He skied frequently with his family and, yes, he was an athletic guy. He skied and played tennis."
Two years ago, Bono was in a skiing accident at Big Bear Lake, east of Los Angeles, in which he collided with another skier and required 11 stitches to close a deep gash on his chin. At the time, Bono laughed off the incident, saying, "I hit somebody or they hit me, so it was their fault."
President Clinton, who grew up with the comedy and singing team of "Sonny and Cher," honored Bono in a statement issued in Washington as someone who "made us laugh even as he brought his own astute perspective to the work of Congress."
"His joyful entertainment of millions earned him celebrity, but in Washington he earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policymaking processes that often seem ponderous to the American people," Clinton said.
The flag over the U.S. Capitol was flown at half-staff.
"Sonny was becoming a much more important leader than people realize," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said, adding that he and his colleagues "lost a very, very dear friend."
Bono's daughter with Cher, Chastity Bono, a lesbian activist, said she and her father differed politically on such issues as gay rights, but "he was very supportive of my personal life and career and was a loving father. I will miss him greatly."
A spokesman said Cher was stunned at the news of his death and flew back to Los Angeles from London. She left the airport through a back door to avoid reporters.
Born in Detroit as Salvatore Bono, the son of Sicilian immigrants, Bono moved to California with his family when he was 7 and turned to songwriting and singing after finishing high school while earning a living driving a meat delivery truck. He first gained recognition when he worked with Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers. His first hit was in 1964, a song called "Needles and Pins," which he co-wrote with Jack Nitzsche. It became a top 20 single for the British group the Searchers.
The same year he borrowed less than $200 to record "Baby Don't Go" with his girlfriend, Cherilyn LaPiere Sarkisian. The couple then married and after a time began calling themselves Sonny and Cher.
Soon after, they began writing and recording a series of big hits, the most famous being "I Got You Babe" and "The Beat Goes On." From 1971 to 1974 they were stars of their own television show, "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," in which they built a routine of Sonny being a self-effacing, simple straight man to Cher's sophisticated, worldly put-downs.
Although he presented himself on television as a good-natured bumbler who wore bell-bottom trousers, Bono in real life was a shrewd businessman who opened several successful restaurants after his marriage to Cher ended in divorce in 1974.
He turned to politics in 1988 when, at the age of 53, he ran for mayor of the affluent desert resort community of Palm Springs after becoming angry at City Hall bureaucrats for stopping building plans at one of his restaurants. He won, despite the fact that he had only become a registered voter for the first time a year before, and served until 1992.
Bono, an outspoken conservative, claimed to have successfully erased a $2.5 million deficit without raising taxes.
He is remembered in Palm Springs as an activist mayor who pushed hard to win the community the Palm Springs Grand Prix and the International Film Festival. More recently, be worked for the reclamation and commercial development of the nearby Salton Sea.
He began seeking higher office in the early 1990s, finishing a distant third in the 1992 GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. Two years later he won the House seat representing Palm Springs and won reelection in 1996. He recently considered running for the Senate again this year, but decided against it.
Bono brought to Congress a rare skill: He could make lawmakers -- even the most pompous among them -- laugh at themselves.
Even though he continued to play the role of a laid-back Californian, wide-eyed and naive in the ways of Washington, Bono was not just comic relief, colleagues said. His insights about Washington folkways won over many early skeptics, and he worked quietly and seriously on causes he cared about, from crime and immigration to saving the Salton Sea, lawmakers said.
Dismissed initially as a lightweight show-biz curiosity, Bono quickly earned a reputation for what his colleague and friend, Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Calif.), called an "uncommon savvy" about politics and government. Only a few weeks after he was sworn in to the House in 1995, Bono brought down the house at a Washington Press Club Foundation dinner with a hilarious, rambling discourse that set him apart from many of his more sober-sided fellow "revolutionaries" in the congressional "Class of '94."
In Palm Springs, Bono's adopted home town, tourists and town residents alike expressed shock as they gathered by Bono's star on the walk of stars, leaving flowers, handwritten messages and lighted candles. Others stopped to talk with their neighbors about a man who despite his fame and ambitions never lost his touch with the people he represented.
"I'm shocked. It hurt to lose somebody so close to home," said Gary E. Mills, a retired salesman who has lived in Palm Springs for 46 years.
"This is not a guy who wore a tux and rode around in a limo all day," said Palm Springs Mayor William G. Kleindienst, a friend since 1988. "Sonny was most comfortable in tennis shoes and jeans."
Staff writer Helen Dewar in Washington and special correspondent Cassandra Stern in Palm Springs contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company