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86-year-old Lancaster woman is slain just weeks after receiving award from county

Just a few weeks before she was stabbed to death during a burglary in her Lancaster home, 86-year-old Annie Bell was on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles receiving an award for her 17 years of volunteer work at the Antelope Valley Senior Center. 

The event was part of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ Older American Recognition Day on May 21. It’s a beautiful memory for Bell’s oldest daughter, Hallie Conley, and describing it helps keep her anger in check, at least for a little while. 

Giving was part of who Bell was, Conley said, and she gave a lot to her adopted community in Lancaster, where she had lived for more than 20 years.

She spent many years registering voters there, particularly teenagers who reached voting age, Conley said. She became the first African American president of the senior center’s Friends of the Center fundraising arm and organized fundraisers there for many years. Her famous rum cakes were a staple at their bake sales. 

In recent years, Bell ran the senior center’s library as a volunteer, and after her second husband died, she even nursed her first husband through the final months of his life.  

“That’s just the kind of person she was,” Conley said. “That’s why I get so angry about why she was killed. That kid could have just asked her for the money and she would have given it to him. She gave away money all the time. She didn’t have to die.”

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has charged Tony Donnell Brown, 14, with murder, and plans to try him as an adult. Brown, who is black, is accused of breaking into Bell’s house the night of Thursday, June 18, and stabbing her multiple times while she lay in bed. 

Bell had lived in that home since she moved to Lancaster with her late husband William Bell. After he died, she wanted to stay, even after arthritis made it too painful for her to walk and she moved full-time into a wheelchair.

“I live in Lancaster, and I looked out for her," Conley said. "I’d go empty her trash, help her with groceries and get the mail, but she did a lot even though she was in a wheelchair. She went to the senior center daily on the bus, like it was a job.”

Bell was a beloved and well-respected figure at the senior center, said Director Angela Bagmanian. The center has few paid staff, so running a well-stocked library would be impossible without volunteers like Bell. 

The senior center wants to eventually have a memorial for Bell, but volunteers and staff are still reeling from the news of her death, she said.

“It’s been difficult for everybody here,” Bagmanian said. “She was a friendly, happy person who never complained and never talked about anybody. She was very well-educated; you could just tell from the way she talked and wrote, and she always looked really fashionable and cute, with a little lipstick on, her hair fixed and these little hats.”

Conley was delighted by the description, that people could "just tell" her mother was well-educated. 

“She always stressed the importance of education, but I’ll tell you a secret: My mother was self-educated," Conley said. "She never finished high school, and neither did my father, but they were prolific readers. My mother was reading until the day she died. All my siblings and I have college degrees, and it was the greatest thing we could’ve done for our parents.”

Bell grew up in Chicago, learned the clarinet and ran track at McKinley High School. She got her first job hand writing letters at the General Card Company in Chicago because her penmanship was so beautiful, Conley said. Later she went to work for the U.S. Postal Service in Chicago. “It was a  very good job," Conley said, "a way poor people could elevate themselves to the middle class.” 

Bell and her husband, Melvin Conley, divorced amicably in the 1960s, and she moved to Los Angeles in 1965, where she married William Bell and got a job with the Pacific Bell telephone company, leading to her family nickname, Ma Bell. 

The Bells were avid bowlers, sometimes hitting the lanes five days a week, Conley said. Bell retired to care for her husband, who had diabetes, and they moved to Lancaster in the mid-1990s. He died a few years after the move, Conley said, but Bell kept up her busy pace, volunteering and traveling around the world with a girlfriend.

“They’d been everywhere, Europe, Malaysia, Japan, China, Hong Kong. ... I remember she brought back some tiger balm from Hong Kong because her arthritis had been very bad, but it didn’t stop her. She’s been places.”

These memories are bittersweet telling for Conley, a jumble of pride and love and a wrathful grief at what she has lost. 

Her siblings, James Conley of Riverside and Margaret Hicks of Palmdale, say they have forgiven the person who killed their mother, Conley says, and she knows that’s what her mother would want.

But it's a struggle. Conley says she is looking for a support group that can help her through her anger, "because hate can eat you up like cancer."

In the meantime, though, Conley makes it through by remembering the good things, like a recent family party to honor two more graduations, a niece from the University of Phoenix and her granddaughter from the California Military Institute. 

"These were accomplishments, and accomplishments must be recognized," Conley said. "We were celebrating and we were very happy. I'm so glad she was able to attend that."

Jeanette Marantos

Photo: Annie Bell Credit: Lancaster Photography Assn.

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