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California Ski Accident Kills Representative Sonny Bono

By William Claiborne
The Washington Post
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif.

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 as he played football with family members on Dec. 31 along an intermediate-level slope in Aspen, Colo.

Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini said Tuesday 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 at 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."

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.