The daughter of affluent parents, Arthur and Berit
Costas, Kirsten and her brother, Peter, grew up in the small suburban
town of Orinda, California. Costas went to Miramonte High School, and
was a member of the school's varsity swim team and the cheerleading
On June 23, 1984, Costas was lured with a phony
invitation to a dinner for the Bob-o-Links, a sorority-like group at
school. According to Protti's later testimony, she had planned to take
Costas to the party to befriend her, but Costas got angry when she was
told that there was no dinner for the new "Bobbies". The girls
quarreled, and Costas fled to the home of Alex and Mary Jane Arnold,
living nearby, telling them that her friend had gone "weird". When
Costas could not reach her parents by telephone, Alex Arnold drove her
home, noticing that a Pinto–the Protti's family car–was following
them. At the Costas home, Arnold, sitting in his car, saw Protti
attack Costas. He thought that he was seeing a fist-fight but, in
fact, Protti stabbed Costas five times with a kitchen knife and fled.
The Costas' neighbors called an ambulance, but Kirsten was mortally
wounded and died at a nearby hospital.
It took the police almost six months to find
Costas' killer. After Protti passed a lie detector test, her alibi
went unverified. After attempting to confirm Protti's alibi and
rereading her lie detector test, the police knew that the girl had
lied. After speaking with an FBI officer, Protti wrote her mother a
letter in which she made a full confession.
Protti claimed to have found the kitchen knife by
chance, and her elder sister, Gina, testified in court that she used
to have that knife in her car to cut vegetables. The Costas did not
believe Protti's story – they claimed that nobody would use an
18-inch-long (460 mm) knife to slice tomatoes and that Protti,
casually dressed on that evening, never intended to take Kirsten to a
party, but had planned to murder her. Protti was sentenced to a
maximum of nine years, but was released seven years later on parole.
The Costas family left Orinda and moved to Hawaii.
Bernadette Protti was released from prison in 1992 at the age of 23,
whereupon she changed her name and left California. Costas' parents
vehemently opposed Protti's release.
Orinda Woman, Convicted in
1984 Murder, Is Free on Parole
Halstuk - The San Francisco Chronicle
June 26, 1992
Protti, the socially spurned Orinda teenager who was driven by
resentment and envy to kill a popular high school classmate eight
years ago, has been freed on parole and is believed to have left
23, was sentenced in 1985 to nine years under the jurisdiction of the
California Youth Authority for fatally stabbing 15- year-old
cheerleader Kirsten Costas with a kitchen knife in June 1984. She
served less than eight years of her sentence.
parole examiner described Protti as dangerous and possessing ''a
hidden trigger that anyone can pull,'' the state Youthful Offender
Parole Board released her on June 10 in a 2-to-1 decision at CYA's
Ventura School near Camarillo in Ventura County.
Protti were students at Miramonte High School in Orinda when the
murder occurred. Police had no suspect for nearly six months until
Protti -- who was one of the mourners at the girl's funeral -- turned
previous parole hearings, the victim's parents, Arthur and Berit
Costas, vehemently opposed Protti's release.
who now live in Hawaii, told parole examiners that Protti might be
deceiving prison authorities into thinking she is rehabilitated, just
as she deceived her family and friends for six months after the
killing. Instead of attending this latest hearing, they sent a
videotape in which they urged the parole board not to release their
phone at his home in Honolulu, Arthur Costas said last night that he
was disheartened by Protti's release.
victim's standpoint, the punishment doesn't even begin to equate to
the magnitude of the crime,'' said Costas. He said he resented a
justice system that placed Protti in a facility where she could have a
boyfriend and complete her high school education -- opportunities that
were denied his daughter.
replace your child so you think about that all the time,'' said
Costas, who said that he worries that Protti remains dangerous to the
public. ''The emotions and the public safety -- we lose on both
release was recommended by parole board member Jamie Bailey and
hearing officer Sergio Gomez, who wrote in their majority opinion that
she ''no longer present(s) an immediate threat to society.''
But in his
dissent, released to The Chronicle by the parole board, board member
Victor Wisehart wrote that Costas' killer ''remains a danger to the
public and is in need of further treatment to address her inability to
control her anger and impulses.''
referred to a recent incident during which Protti demonstrated ''anger
and a lack of impulse control'' in a confrontation with her boyfriend
at the Youth Authority school.
''I hate to
think how she would have handled the incident had she been on parole
and able to arm herself and stalk again another victim,'' Wisehart
''She has a
hidden trigger that anyone can pull just by not giving (her) what she
thinks she should get in a relationship.''
spokesman said Protti has left the state but would not say where.
trial in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez, testimony
revealed that Protti craved social acceptance and resented Kirsten's
popularity and success.
included a tearful confession to police in which Protti said she felt
inferior to the socially active Costas.
said that she was embarrassed that her family did not have as much
money as other Orindans and said that Costas had made fun of her
''crummy'' skis on a ski trip once.
convicted of second- degree murder after a much publicized three-day
trial that Superior Court Judge Edward Merrill said ''smacked of
rejected prosecutor John Oda's arguments for first-degree murder. Oda
said that Protti -- suffering from the rejection of her peers -- had
acted with ''premeditation and wanton disregard for human life.''
female juveniles convicted of serious crimes, she was sent to the
Youth Authority's Ventura School.
the CYA, Protti has earned her high school diploma with a 4.0 average
and has taken enough courses through a local community college to
qualify for an associate in arts degree.
staff writer Teresa L. Moore contributed to this report.
Murder was 'Light'
Classmates are Angry
Haeseler - The San Francisco Chronicle
March 15, 1985
Miramonte High School in Orinda, whose social acceptance Bernadette
Protti craved, said yesterday she should be kept in prison for a long
was convicted of second-degree murder Wednesday for stabbing to death
last June her popular classmate, Kirsten Costas, 15, a varsity swimmer
County Superior Court Judge Edward L. Merrill, who heard the case
without a jury, refused to convict her of first-degree murder. He said
premeditation had not been proved.
''I was mad
when I heard that - everyone was,'' said a girl who had known neither
Bernadette nor Kirsten. ''Obviously it was premeditated. Five stab
wounds? Come on.''
''To say that
(murder) wasn't planned, I don't know what they're talking about,''
said Doug Jordan, 15, a freshman.
Even if Protti
remains in custody at the Youth Authority's Ventura School until she
reaches the age of 25 ''it would be a little light for murdering
somebody,'' Jordan said.
demanded another student.
attitude seemed to confirm Protti's worst fears when she confessed to
authorities last December. ''There are about 500 people who want to
shoot me right now,'' she told investigators.
senior who said he ''grew up with Kirsten'' objected to a defense
strategy that tried to make her appear less ingenuous by asserting she
had smoked marijuana and snorted cocaine.
think that's making Bernadette any more innocent by making Kirsten
look bad,'' he said. ''It doesn't do the community any good either.''
All of the
students interviewed yesterday said Protti would have a hard time
returning to Orinda after prison.
think she'll come back here,'' said the 17-year-old senior. ''I
wouldn't if I was her family. I'd move a long ways away.''
adolescents and adults appeared to be frustrated by the complexities
of the juvenile justice system. Some adults who were interviewed in
downtown Orinda expressed the view that Protti would be imprisoned for
the next nine years. Others mistakenly believed a first-degree verdict
would have imposed a harsher sentence.
Kirsten's father, said the sentence is ''the point everyone has
missed. She's not going to prison, necessarily, until she's 25. She
could get out, say, in three years. To me, that's not right.''
his appreciation of the district attorney's office for pursuing the
trial and allowing the facts to come out.
good for Bernadette,'' Costas said, ''but it showed her the intent of
attorney, assistant public defender Charles James, said the trial
needlessly prolonged the humiliation of the defendant and her family.
He offered five weeks ago to have Protti plead guilty to second-degree
murder - a compromise the district attorney's office would not accept.
statement that he hoped the trial had served a purpose more useful
than ''entertainment'' provoked a strong reaction from parents in
other parts of the Bay Area who saw the case as a tragic spectacle.
''It was a
double tragedy,'' said a Marin County housewife. ''I think these
well-groomed women who raise their children this way are guilty too
because they bring them up from infancy with designer clothes. They
breed it - the emphasis on popularity. It made me cry, and I felt
ashamed of being a woman.'
Teenager Convicted Of Second-Degree Murder
Haeseler - The San Francisco Chronicle
March 14, 1985
spurned Orinda teenager was convicted of second-degree murder
yesterday after a three-day trial that the judge said smacked of
Protti, 16, wept as she was escorted in handcuffs to Contra Costa
County Juvenile Hall after Superior Court Judge Edward Merrill found
her guilty of stabbing Kirsten Costas to death last June.
rejected the arguments of prosecutor John Oda that Protti - suffering
from the rejection of her peers and the acute embarrassment of being
labeled ''weird'' in fashionable Orinda - had acted with premeditation
disregard for human life.''
Both the judge
and the attorney representing Protti, Assistant Public Defender
Charles James, questioned whether the trial had served any useful
was being tried as a juvenile, Merrill heard the case without a jury.
Under California law, Protti would have received the same sentence
whether she was convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder. She
will be placed in the custody of the California Youth Authority, which
can release her at any time, but must free her when she turns 25.
disclosed on Tuesday that the Public Defender's Office had attempted
five weeks ago to have Protti plead guilty to second-degree murder.
The offer was rejected by District Attorney Gary Yancey.
Oda said that
Kirsten's parents, Art and Berit Costas, supported his decision to try
the case and seek a conviction for first-degree murder.
The last day
of the brief but emotional trial revolved around the merits of a
public juvenile proceeding that so obviously prolonged the agony of
the defendant and her family.
arrest last December after confessing, Protti has been comforted
throughout her court appearances by her parents and her four sisters.
The tears were torrential at the trial.
There was keen
interest in the case by residents of Orinda - mostly well-groomed
mothers and daughters -who rushed the small courtroom for seats in the
As many as 40
were removed each day by the bailiff when they lined the walls,
kneeled on the floor or sat on others' laps.
frequent arguments over who was more deserving of a seat. Most often,
the parents won.
atmosphere surrounding this case has bothered me somewhat,'' Judge
Merrill said. ''We have kind of an Alice in Wonderland situation.''
wondering what we have accomplished here these last three days,''
Merrill said. ''I'm just hoping this (trial) isn't here for some
attorney James told the judge that ''Bernadette had said she feared
nothing more than public humiliation, and that happened. . . . There
was really no purpose to have this trial. I think the quality of
judge announced his verdict, James said: ''Perhaps it helped purge the
melancholy surrounding this case. I'm not sure what went on for
Bernadette is a healthy or good thing.''
Oda, describing the case as ''pathetic,'' said it ''had to be brought
out in the open. The Costases believed it was first-degree murder.
They wanted it and you can't blame them.''
Art Costas had
pushed hard for action when no suspect surfaced by the time Orinda's
teenagers returned to Miramonte High School last fall. He warned that
his daughter's killer might be among them - and he was right.
''I guess my
feeling is that the law has been served,'' he said yesterday, looking
tired and slightly dejected. ''I'm not in agreement with the
punishment. I'm not thrilled or pleased. (The trial) was good from the
standpoint of hearing all the facts and evidence. We've lost our
daughter. I don't think the punishment will ever match the crime in
the end was what provoked Protti to stab Costas to death after luring
her to a bogus sorority initiation dinner. Testimony established that
Protti felt rejected. Costas, a cheerleader and varsity swimmer,
became a symbol for her of the success and popularity she could not
Protti was determined to kill Costas if Kirsten did not agree ''to be
her friend and get her into the in-crowd.''
Protti's confession to authorities ''self-serving'' and said that she
was without remorse until she realized her arrest was imminent.
countered that teenagers in Orinda may react more sensitively to
slights because their parents' expectations for them are so high.
''There are no
low expectations at Miramonte,'' he said. ''No one's studying to be a
Girl, 16, Convicted in Classmate's Slaying :
Teen-ager Feared Victim 'Was Going to Tell People I Was Weird'
Los Angeles Times
March 14, 1985
MARTINEZ, Calif. — A 16-year-old girl was convicted
Wednesday of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of a classmate
she feared was about to tell schoolmates that she was "weird."
Bernadette Protti had been charged with
first-degree murder in the June 23 slaying of 15-year-old Kirsten
However, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge
Edward L. Merrill, who heard the juvenile case without a jury, said
prosecutors failed to prove first-degree murder beyond a reasonable
doubt and ordered Protti to appear on April 1 for sentencing.
After surrendering in December, Protti told police
she resented Costas and attacked her because "I was afraid she was
going to tell people I was weird."
There also was a suggestion that Protti was jealous
of her more popular and successful classmate.
"I lost for cheerleader and I didn't get the club I
wanted and I didn't get (on the) yearbook (staff)," Protti told
officers in a taped confession played at the trial. "The things that
got me mad was it hurt and I couldn't change . . . like looks or money
or popularity or things."
Protti lured Costas to her death with a phony
invitation to an initiation dinner for the Bob-O-Links, a Junior
League-style volunteer group at Miramonte High School. Both girls had
been invited to join the group.
After the verdict, Art Costas, Kirsten's father,
told reporters: "My feeling is that the law has been served . . . .
We've lost our daughter. I don't believe the punishment will ever
match the crime."
Sure, Bernadette’s family wasn’t
as well-off as a lot of the kids in school, and while 15-year-old
Kirsten was considered quite popular and a member of the “elite
clique,” Bernadette had friends and was generally accepted by the
“Bernadette was accepted and
popular in her own way,” a classmate once said. “But she had this
obsession with being liked. I could never understand why she thought
Bernadette’s inferiority complex was slowly and surely taking over her
psyche. She began to displace her feelings by blaming Kirsten, who was
described by friends as “pretty” and “vibrant,” for her own sense of
inadequacy. Eventually, this instability would cause her to lash out
at the person she felt responsible for her failures. In Bernadette’s
twisted mind, there was only one way to improve her sense of
self-worth and that was by removing the physical manifestation of her
pain — Kirsten Costas.
It isn’t possible to fix a time
when Bernadette’s complex took over and dictated her homicidal
impulses. There were a series of events which led up to Kirsten’s
murder, and just which was the final straw is unknown and irrelevant.
Both Kirsten and Bernadette
belonged to a high-school service organization known as the
Bob-o-Links or the “Bobbies” which resembled a sorority. As their
sophomore school year ended, the girls both tried out for the varsity
cheerleading squad. Kirsten made it; Bernadette did not.
“I didn’t make it and I can’t
believe it,” she told a friend.
Bernadette suffered another
setback when she was rejected for membership in the Atlantis Club,
another exclusive organization and was not selected to work on the
Kirsten became the expression of
Bernadette’s “failure” and the insecure 15-year-old fixated on a
passing remark Kirsten made to her on a ski trip earlier in the year.
“She never liked me. The thing
that got me mad was that it hurt,” Bernadette told police after she
was arrested for killing Kirsten. “She just said stuff that made me
The girls were skiing and
Bernadette, the daughter of a retired public servant, was using “this
really crummy pair of skis and some boots. I was having fun anyway,
and she made some comment about them.”
The remark by the girl whose
wealthy father was able to provide his only daughter with the best
equipment stung Bernadette and provides some insight into how her mind
“It just seemed like everybody
else was thinking that, but she was the only one who would ever come
out and say that.”
On June 22, 1984, while Kirsten
was at a cheerleading camp, a young woman called her home and spoke
with Kirsten’s mother. The girl told Berit Costas that Kirsten was
invited to a secret Bob-o-Links initiation dinner the next night. When
Kirsten returned home the next day, she was told of the dinner and
made plans to attend.
On the night of June 23, the
other members of the Costas family prepared to head to the baseball
game where Kirsten’s brother was playing. Berit Costas told her
daughter to enjoy herself at the dinner and to remember to turn on the
The Costases would never see
Kirsten alive again.
Around the same time, Raymond
Protti drove his daughter to a house near their home where Bernadette
said she had a babysitting job. She asked him to leave the car, an
orange Ford Pinto, in front of the house because she would feel safer.
Raymond Protti agreed and walked the 150 yards back to his home.
A few minutes later, Bernadette
drove off in the Pinto and headed for Kirsten’s home. She picked up
Kirsten and told her that the Bob-o-Links dinner was simply a rouse
for Kirsten’s parents. In fact, they had been invited to an
According to Bernadette’s
confession to police, Kirsten agreed to go to the party, but wanted to
stop off at a nearby hangout to smoke some pot. Kirsten’s parents,
when they heard Bernadette’s taped confession, strongly disputed the
allegation that their daughter was even a casual drug user.
Bernadette, however, said she
didn’t want to smoke.
“We just talked, you know,
argued, not argued really, but she didn’t think it was any big deal,
and I just didn’t want to,” Bernadette told police. “She thought I was
just being weird.”
According to Bernadette, Kirsten
stormed out of the car and headed to a nearby home where she told the
homeowners, family friends, that she had been with a friend at the
church who had “gone weird.” Kirsten’s actions tend to confirm her
parents’ contention that their daughter was not a drug user. After
all, if the girls were heading to a party, why wouldn’t Kirsten simply
wait until she got there to light up if Bernadette was unwilling?
Regardless, Kirsten accepted a
ride home after she could not contact her parents. On the stand during
Bernadette’s trial, the friend testified that Kirsten was visibly
upset but not frightened.
On the way home, the man noticed
that a light-colored Pinto appeared to be following them. Kirsten
assured him that it was no big deal. Arriving at the Costas’s home,
Kirsten told the man that her family was out, and that instead she was
going next door. He watched her cross the lawn. While doing this, he
caught a glimpse of a female figure pass by his car in pursuit of
While Kirsten was on the porch
of the neighbor’s house, Bernadette attacked her with a large knife
she found in the Pinto. She stabbed Kirsten five times, two foot-long
gashes in her back and two to Kirsten’s front, including a 15-inch
slashing wound that penetrated her left arm, chest and left lung. The
remaining wound was a defensive wound on Kirsten’s right arm.
The wounds to Kirsten’s back
punctured her right lung, passed through her diaphragm, and lacerated
Screaming for help (one witness
described it as “a blood-curdling yell”), Kirsten staggered to her
feet and ran across the road while Bernadette fled in the Pinto.
“‘Help me, help me, I’ve been
stabbed,’” a witness reported that Kirsten said. “She was in shock. I
tried to hold her hand and pray a little on the side.”
The Costas family returned home
shortly after the attack only to find their normally quiet street
abuzz with police and an ambulance. They saw Kirsten being loaded into
the ambulance and they followed it to a nearby hospital.
The popular cheerleader,
however, was mortally wounded and died at 11:02 p.m.
Not far away and an hour before
Kirsten died, Bernadette arrived home and took a nice walk with her
mother. Nothing seemed amiss.
Bernadette was one of many
students who attended Kirsten’s funeral and over the course of the
summer took classes to prepare for her confirmation in her church.
“I was really good at blocking
it out of my mind, and I still am,” she told police. “That’s why I can
live through every day, because it doesn’t seem real.”
To police it was very real and
they began a massive investigation of the tragedy. They had just two
leads: “the female figure” and the light-colored Pinto. They conducted
more than 300 interviews — including four with Bernadette — tracked
down around 1,000 leads and examined 750 Ford Pintos (include the
To police she was a likely
suspect, but to her friends she was seemingly incapable of such a
violent, blitz-type attack.
“I knew she had the Pinto, but
she was the last person you’d think of,” a friend said. “She seemed as
upset about the murder as everybody else.”
After making little progress,
the local police contacted the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit for
assistance to create a psychological work up of the killer. Known
colloquially as “profiling,” the process is technically “criminal
There are two types of profiling
according to noted criminologist Brent Turvey, who labels them
inductive and deductive profiling.
An Inductive Criminal Profile is
one that is generalized to an individual criminal from initial
behavioral and demographic characteristics shared by other criminals
who have been studied in the past. It is the product of incomplete,
statistical analysis and generalization (very often without comparison
to norms), hence the descriptor Inductive.
The Deductive Criminal Profiling
model…is: “The process of interpreting forensic evidence, including
such inputs as crime scene photographs, autopsy reports, autopsy
photographs, and a thorough study of individual offender victimology,
to accurately reconstruct specific offender crime scene behavior
patterns, and from those specific, individual patterns of behavior,
deduce offender characteristics, demographics, emotions, and
motivations.” (Turvey, 1998)
Using the profile, investigators
narrowed their suspect list to one person: Bernadette Protti (”It
sounds just like me,” she told the FBI agent).
Bernadette was brought in for
more questioning and agreed to a polygraph exam. She failed parts of
it, while other parts were inconclusive. Police still lacked
sufficient evidence and Bernadette returned home.
Her conscience began to weigh
heavily on her and she put her thoughts down in her journal:
“I have caused a lot of hurt and
pain to a lot of people. I don’t want to hurt people anymore. I want
to go to heaven when I die. I regret what I did. I can’t bring Kirsten
back or change time. If I kill myself, I will hurt people even more
She considered whether to commit
suicide but her religious upbringing prevented this.
“I would go to hell if I killed
On December 10, 1984, before
school, Bernadette penned a note to her mother and father that clearly
shows the anguish she was feeling. Bernadette left the note where her
mother would find it after she left.
Dear Mom and Dad:
I have been trying to tell you this all day but I love you so much
it’s too hard so I’m taking the easy way out. … The FBI man … thinks I
did it. And he is right. … I’ve been able to live with it, but I can’t
ignore it, it’s too much for me and I can’t be that deceiving. Please
still love me. I can’t live unless you love me. I’ve ruined my life
and yours and I don’t know what to do and I’m ashamed and scared.
P.S. Please don’t say how could you or why because I don ‘t understand
this and I don’t know why.
An anguished Elaine Protti
picked up her daughter at school and called Raymond.
“I wanted a last chance with my
daughter,” she testified. “I wanted not so much to talk to her but to
be with her.”
At the sheriff’s office,
Bernadette made a full confession.
Because she was 15 years old at
the time of the offense, California law required that Bernadette be
tried as a juvenile. She never disputed the crime, but only argued
that the mens rea justified a second-degree murder charge.
In 1986, she was convicted and
sentenced to the maximum term: nine years in the custody of the
California Youth Authority.
“My heart is empty. I ache. I’m
half a person,” Berit Costas testified at Bernadette’s sentencing
hearing. “She probably will be given her freedom in a few years. I ask
the people of California, is this justice?”
Bernadette was paroled when she
was 23 and when she was released from supervision at 25, moved out of
state with her family. The Costas family also left California.
The cheerleader murder
by Carol Pogash
A popular and pretty cheerleader, Kirsten
Costas, was dead, and sheriff’s deputies were searching for the girl
who stabbed her.
The day after the murder in June 1984, rumors had
already spread at the tennis courts, down oak-shaded lanes and at
poolside. Some claimed it was am act of Satanism or a
PCP-induced killing. No one wanted to believe that the killer came
from Orinda, the lush Northern California suburb where Kirsten lived
The affluent residents of Orinda cite good schools
and a crime-free environment as the main reasons they moved to the
town. Orinda, with a population of about 17,500, lies just
thirty-three minutes from downtown San Francisco by Bay Area Rapid
Transit. Commuting time shrinks to twenty-five minutes in a BMW, the
most popular car at Miramonte High School, where students’ scores are
consistently among the highest on California’s state achievement
tests. With a median household income of $60,000, the area’s families
are not upwardly mobile — living in Orinda certifies that they have
About seventeen years ago, Arthur and Berit Costas
moved from Oakiand to Orinda seeking a beautiful, safe community with
good schools. Attractive and hard-working, they fit easily into their
The Costases raised two children: Kirsten and her
younger brother, Peter. Art became an executive with the 3M
Corporation and Berit stayed home, looking after the kids and the
house. The family became active members of the Meadow Swim and Tennis
Club, just a stone’s throw from their home.
Although the Costases are quiet, their
fifteen-year-old daughter was not. “Kirsten was the energy of the
house,” says her mother. “She was always listening to
music, making phone calls, dancing. She was full of life. We are
simple people. She was raring to go, ready to start to live her life
when it was snuffed out.”
Everything about her had flair. “She was cute, not
beautiful,” says Sue Morrow, a family friend, “an all-American girl.
More like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model than a Playboy type.”
While she lacked the blond good looks of many of
her friends, she had beautiful olive skin, and when she pulled her
curly hair brown with golden highlights — back from her forehead, her
mother thought Kirsten looked like a Vogue model.
Kirsten, who had just finished her sophomore year
at Miramonte, had started to change social circles back in junior
high, recalls her good friend Diane MacDonald. By the time she reached
Miramonte, Kirsten was in the clique that counted — “the loud crowd,”
some kids called it. Wherever the group went, they were noticed.
“We used to say Kirsten had everything,” says one
classmate. “She was skinny. She sometimes wore tie-dyed socks, what
people are wearing now.” Another recalls, “I remember watching her
after she made cheerleader. Everyone wanted to be like her.”
In the spring of 1984, Kirsten had been asked to
join the Bob-o-links, or Bobbies, an elite sorority-like organization
of thirty to thirty-five of the best looking, most popular girls in
school. In addition to joining the Bobbies, Kirsten was a member of
the varsity swim team.
But most important to Kirsten was becoming a
cheerleader. She practiced constantly at home in the family room and
sometimes at Diane MacDonald’s house, in front of the windows at
night, to see her reflection.
Cheerleading, her friend Jessica Grant explains,
“is taken really seriously.” Before trying out, applicants write
essays explaining what they could add to the school. Parents sign an
agreement to spend $500 to pay for green and white uniforms and
cheerleading camp. Girls are graded by twenty judges, and are told
their fate at an Academy Awards-type ceremony where outgoing
cheerleaders pluck names from envelopes, giving the winners kisses
and flowers. Kirsten was one of the winners. She was, says one of the
judges, “a perfect cheerleader.”
Kirsten was attending cheerleading camp, living in
a dorm at St Mary’s College in nearby Moraga, when Berit Costas
received a seemingly uneventful call on Thursday, June 21, 1984. The
caller identified herself as a Bobbie and told Berit she knew Kirsten
was away until the weekend, but asked if she would be able to attend
an initiation dinner for new Bobbies that Saturday night. When Berit
said yes, the caller replied that someone would pick Kirsten up by car
and that no one else should know of the plans.
That Saturday evening, Kirsten’s parents and
brother left to attend a potluck dinner for Peter’s Little League
team. When a car honked outside the house on Orchard Road around
eight-thirty, Kirsten left the TV on, walked out to a mustard-colored
Pinto and got in.
A little over an hour later, an agitated Kirsten
rang the bell at a stranger’s door. Alexander and Mary Jane Arnold,
who live in Moraga, had been playing cribbage with neighbors. When
they opened the door, they saw Kirsten and, behind her, another girl,
who looked about fifteen, “lurking out the path.”
Kirsten, who appeared tense but not terrified,
said, “My friend got weird on me.” She asked to call home. When no one
there answered the phone, Alexander Arnold offered to drive her back
to a neighbor’s house in Orinda. As they drove, Kirsten seemed
unconcerned when Arnold saw the mustard-colored Pinto tailing them.
When the car pulled up to Kirsten’s neighbor’s house, Kirsten assured
Arnold she would be all right. Then she got out.
In the meantime, the girl driving the Pinto had
quickly parked and slid out of her own car. As Kirsten walked away
from Arnold’s car, the other girl swooped out from behind a tall hedge
and ran forward with her arm raised. Arnold saw a flash from a metal
blade about one-and-a-half feet long. Kirsten fell and sprang up
again. Though mortally wounded, she ran to Arthur Hillman’s house
across the street for help.
Her killer, whom Arnold and other witnesses later
described as a round-faced blonde wearing a yellow shirt and faded red
sweatpants, sped away in the Pinto. Arnold followed her for about a
quarter of a mile before grving up the chase.
Kirsten’s bloodcurdling screams resounded through
the house, where Hillman, his wife and their two sons were spending a
quiet evening. Arthur Hillman saw Kirsten staggering toward him,
screaming, “Help me. Help me. I’ve been stabbed.” She collapsed in his
arms. He tore open her blouse and tried to stop the bleeding from five
stab wounds, but blood was spurting, gushing out. “I asked, ‘What
happened? Who did it?’”
The girl he had known from infancy did not answer.
She gasped that she was having trouble breathing. Hillman tilted
Kirsten’s neck back and tried to give her mouth-to-mouth
resuscitation. He had done all he could when the paramedics, called by
one of his sons, arrived. Kirsten was pronounced dead in an hour.
Ambulances and sheriff’s squad cars clogged Orchard
Road. Floodlights illuminated the houses on the normally quiet corner
as Kirsten’s parents and brother drove over the last ridge in the
street on their way home from dinner. Art Costas jumped out of the car
in the middle of the street, while Berit stayed inside, terrified.
It was after 2 am before Berit could be questioned
by sheriff’s deputies. Captain Stanley Garvin, head ofinvestigations
for the Contra Costa County sheriff’s department, remembers his men
saying the case would be wrapped up by dawn.
But the investigators were wrong; no arrests were
made. As Kirsten’s somber classmates and parents attended her
funeral five days later, the rumor spread from one pew to another that
the killer had come to mourn. Worried parents ordered their teenage
daughters to travel in pairs or trios.
Soon, the community began collecting a reward fund
totaling more than $50,000. Bobbies and other friends of Kirsten
posted signs with a description of the crime and killer in almost
every Orinda storefront. Still no arrest was made. In Hawaii, where
the seniors had been enjoying a class outing, the name of a suspect
had begun to circulate. The same name was mentioned by concerned
parents gathered at the airport to welcome the graduates home. Slowly
a consensus was forming. The suspect was one of Kirsten’s classmates,
Heather Crane (not her real name).
Once, Heather had been a preppie. She went out with
a soccer player and had been a member of the little social circles in
the quad at lunch. She had fit in, but now she acted in a way that set
her apart from others in school. When she was invited to join the
Bobbies, she tuned them down. She slipped out of the preppie mode,
dyed the top of her dark hair blond and dressed in an expensive, punk
style. She said later that other kids “kind of resented it.” By
unspoken agreement, she and the school’s popular kids quit saying
hello to one another in the halls.
The whole town of Orinda seemed to want me to feel
bad because I had dyed my hair and I was not part of the social
scene,” Heather later wrote in a class essay. “This is what I was
guilty of in reality… I was guilty of being myself but I will not
Even people who weren’t close to either girl said
that Heather had hated Kirsten for her elitism and once in biology
class said, “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to kill you.” Heather
says the incident never happened.
Three days after Kirsten was killed, sheriffs
investigators told Heather her classmates were accusing her of murder.
Heather had an alibi — she had been with a boyfriend at his house, and
his mother had been there part of the evening. But Heather’s mother
refused to let her daughter submit to a lie detector test.
Rumors about Heather grew steadily. The Cranes
began receiving calls in the middle of every night. “Everyone thought
they knew who did it,” recalls Garvin. Everyone but the sheriffs
department. They had a long list of suspects.
One of those on the list was Bernadette Protti.
Like most of the girls from Orinda, she fit the description of the
suspect. She was also a new member of the Bobbies, and her father,
Raymond, owned a Pinto. Like Kirsten, Bernadette had spent part of the
spring practicing her cheers. But she was not chosen for the Miramonte
squad. She was one of the losers, and in her eyes, this proved that
she was an unpopular failure.
“She had this obsession about being accepted, even
though she was accepted,” says Cathy Simon (not her real name), a
close friend. “I’ve seen her when she would do drugs just to try to be
someone’s friend. She was constantly changing. She was popular — in
her own way. Kirsten was in what they call the elite group. Bernadette
was popular, but not with that group. She idolized Kirsten."
Bernadette knew other failures. Her best friend had
been invited to join Ailanthus, the other sorority-like group in
school, but Bernadette had not. For her, joining the Bobbies was
second-best. And when she failed to make the yearbook staff, “her
whole world fell apart,” Jessica Grant recalls. She pleaded with the
dean to reconsider her, and she broke down in tears to her friends.
“I have an inferiority complex,” she once told
Cathy. “I’m ugly. No guys like me. I’m so deformed. Look at my body,
my hair. My clothes are so blah.”
The youngest of six children in a religious
Catholic family, she complained that her parents were “so old,” and
that her father, a retired engineer for the city of San Francisco,
never listened to her. Bernadette also felt embarrassed by her house,
where paint peeled from outside walls, and furniture was older than in
other Orinda homes. Bernadette told friends she longed for a modern,
expensive-looking house with “Laura Ashley walls and Vogue furniture”
— the kind of place she saw her friends living in.
Investigators interviewed Bernadette and listened
to her alibi — she said she had been baby-sitting for the Weems family
down the road. They didn’t bother to check out her story then because
Bernadette agreed to take a lie-detector test. When she passed, she
was cleared as a suspect.
As time went on without an arrest, accusations
increased against unconventional Heather Crane. It was said that
Heather’s boyfriend had access to a gold-colored Pinto (he didn’t) and
that the Cranes were moving to England to avoid prosecution. Many of
the kids believed the story that Heather was part of a satanic cult.
The teenager had become a pariah in her own town, shunned by everyone.
In September, Heather transferred to another school.
Accusations and speculations continued throughout
the summer, but still no arrests were made. Concerned by the pace of
the sheriffs investigation and desperate to find out who had murdered
their daughter, the Costases hired a private detective with a small
portion of the reward money raised by the town. The private eye,
Elliott Friedman, suspected that it had been a drug-induced killing or
that the killer had harbored a lesbian desire for Kirsten. In Orinda,
a girl with homosexual tendencies “could have a big brand on her
forehead,” he said. The motive, he suspected, was fear of humiliation.
Meanwhile, Friedman rechecked the alibis of the
most likely suspects, including Bernadette. She had claimed she was
baby-sitting that night for the Weems family, but Johanna Weems said
she had not asked Bernadette to babysit in a year. When Friedman told
detectives that Bernadette had been lying, he was informed she had
passed the polygraph test. “It’s wrong,” he retorted. Garvin won’t
talk about the incident, but Friedman says deputies had the polygraph
reread, this time by the FBI. When it came back, it was clear
Bernadette Protti had been lying.
On December 11, Bernadette was called in for an
interview with Ron Hilley, a young FBI agent assisting in the case.
She stuck to her story initially, but when Hilley described the
psychological profile of the suspect in the case which showed, among
other things, that the killer would have little remorse for her
crime-Bernadette said, “It sounds like me.” She asked Hilley if he had
ever considered that a sixteen-year-old girl might be more afraid of
publicity than of going to prison. Bernadette then said she wanted to
go home and think, and Hilley agreed. Without a confession,
authorities did not have enough evidence to arrest her.
That night, Bernadette told her mother they needed
to talk, but Elaine Protti said she was tired. The following morning,
a cold, blustery day, Bernadette gave her mothei a letter and asked
her not to open it for half an hour. Elaine, who was studying the
Bible, set her kitchen timer and resumed reading. Bernadette went to
When the time was up, Elaine Protti read her
daughter’s confession. “I can’t bring her back, but I’m sorry. I’ve
been able to live with it for a while but I can’t ignore it… I’m even
worse than words can describe and I hate myself .” In a P.S., she
wrote, “Please don’t say how could you or why because I don’t
understand this and I don’t know why. I need so much help and love. I
don’t know what to do. I’m sorry.”
Elaine called the school, and she and her husband
brought their daughter to the sheriffs office in nearby Martinez.
Bernadette gave a ninety-minute confession, taped by sheriffs
The news flew through the town. Everyone knew the
killer had been apprehended, but no one knew who it was. On December
11, nearly every girl attending Miramonte, even those with the flu,
showed up. No one wanted an absence to be confused with an arrest. The
only person missing from the morning Latin class was Bernadette. The
day after the arrest, the sheriff called a well-attended press
conference. His team had put in 4,000 man-hours, followed 1,000 leads,
interviewed 800 people, and checked out 750 Pintos, the sheriff told
the press, as he and other investigators stood for photographers and
Three months later, residents of Orinda packed a
local courtroom for her trial. At the start of the proceeding,
Bernadette sat facing forward, her mouth slack, her eyes unfocused.
But when Berit Costas walked away from the witness stand, slowing her
gait as she passed by Bernadette, the defendant turned away and never
looked straight ahead again.
When the taped confession was played, the only
noise in the hushed courtroom was Bernadette’s sweet, girlish voice.
“What are you going to tell the press?” was the first question she
asked during the confession, followed by another: “Do I go to juvenile
hall or do I go back to Miramonte?” Her fears of Miramonte were
greater. She knew what the students there would do to her. “I can’t
live if it is known. I would rather die.”
Asked what Kirsten had done to make her angry,
Bernadette said: “I have a lot of inferiority feelings — and I really
have bad feelings about myself. I lost for cheerleader. I didn’t get
into the club I wanted to. I didn’t get on yearbook. So, I don’t know,
I just felt bad.”
She said that Kirsten, “Just sort of put me down… I
remembered one time on the ski trip we were on together. I mean, we
don’t have a lot of money and we can’t afford a lot of nice ski stuff
and I just had this really crummy pair of skis and some boots, but,
you know, I was having fun anyway. Kirsten made some comment about
them, and it just seemed like everyone else was thinking that, but she
was the only one who would come out and say it.”
Bernadette admitted she had made the phone call
setting up a meeting with Kirsten. She had just wanted to befriend her
classmate and take her to a party, she said. When Kirsten approached
the Pinto she looked inside and said blandly, “Oh, it’s you.”
Bernadette said Kirsten wanted to smoke pot first,
a claim that drew cries of disbelief from Kirsten’s parents and
friends. “She made it sound like this was a drug-related murder, and
it wasn’t,” says Berit Costas. While not saying that her daughter had
never tried marijuana, Berit insisted that Kirsten did not have her
Still, Bernadette said in her confession that she
and Kirsten drove to the church parking lot to smoke the pot, but when
Bernadette refused, an argument foliowed. Kirsten ran from the car and
Bernadette pursued her. She claimed she followed in the Pinto only to
make sure Kirsten got home safely. But as she drove, she became
frightened about how Kirsten might describe the evening to the other
girls at school.
By the time Kirsten left Alexander Arnold’s car at
her neighbor’s house, Bernadette’s fear had turned to anger. She said
she used a knife she found in the Pinto to stab Kirsten to death.
(Bernadette’s sister, Virginia, a bank examiner who took the witness
stand, said she left foot-and-a-half-long knives in the car to slice
tomatoes at lunchtime.)
After killing Kirsten, Bernadette said she returned
home, hid the knife and took a walk with her mother and the family
dog. The following day she washed the knife and returned it to the
kitchen. Later, she would throw her T-shirt and sweatpants in the
garbage dump of the Sleepy Hollow Swim Club. Several spectators at the
trial were moved by the ninety-minute confession. A few cried. One
reporter wrote that by the end of the tape, even Berit Costas’s head
was bowed. The reporter had misunderstood. Kirsten’s mother was trying
not to get sick.
The murder of her daughter, Berit says, “was
premeditated from the moment of the phone call. [Bernadette] had
plenty of time to change her mind.” The Costases charged that
Bernadette’s confession was riddled with lies — that no one would use
an eighteen-inch knife to cut a tomato and that Bernadette, casually
dressed, never planned on taking Kirsten to a party.
On the afternoon of the third day of the trial,
Judge Edward Merill found Bernadette Protti guilty of second-degree
murder. On April 1, the first hot day of spring, while kids throughout
Orinda were signing up for Meadow Pool’s summer swim team, Bernadette
Protti was sentenced. She was committed to the the California Youth
Authority. She can serve no less than one year and no more than nine —
until she reaches the age of twenty-five. According to her attorney,
Charles James, juveniles convicted of murder in California serve an
average of four to six years.
There have been several changes in Orinda since
Bernadette’s arrest. For one, some of Heather Crane’s former
classmates have started speaking to Heather again. “I think a lot of
people feel bad,” says one junior, referring to the rumors implicating
Heather. “What can you do? You can’t make up for six months of hell.”
For the students, the killing and its aftermath
have left bitter feelings. Many say they can’t trust anyone anymore,
not after what Bernadette did.
And, they realized, the problem didn’t lie only
“People can get really nasty at this school,” says
one junior, standing with a group of classmates on the lawn
surrounding Miramonte. “Everyone says this school is so boring, so
they start doing things for entertainment. They start being cruel.
Everyone wants to be the best. It’s so competitive.”
“It’s a circle,” says another. She calls to
classmates to ask who made pompom girl and cheerleader. “Kelly, Karin
and Brooke,” her friends shout.
“That’s so hot,” the girl says, and heads home.