Kirsten Marina Costas (July 23, 1968 – June 23, 1984) was an American high school student who was murdered by her classmate, Bernadette Protti, in June 1984.
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 squad.
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.
In popular culture
In 1994, the story was made into a television movie entitled A Friend to Die For (also known as Death of a Cheerleader), with Tori Spelling as Stacy Lockwood, a character based on Kirsten Costas and Kellie Martin as Angela Delvecchio, a character based on Bernadette Protti.
Orinda Woman, Convicted in 1984 Murder, Is Free on Parole
By Martin Halstuk - The San Francisco Chronicle
June 26, 1992
Bernadette 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 California.
Protti, now 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.
Although one 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.
Costas and 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 herself in.
At two previous parole hearings, the victim's parents, Arthur and Berit Costas, vehemently opposed Protti's release.
The couple, 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 daughter's killer.
Interviewed by phone at his home in Honolulu, Arthur Costas said last night that he was disheartened by Protti's release.
''From a 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.
''You can't 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 counts.''
Protti's early 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.''
Wisehart 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 said.
''She has a hidden trigger that anyone can pull just by not giving (her) what she thinks she should get in a relationship.''
A CYA spokesman said Protti has left the state but would not say where.
During the trial in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez, testimony revealed that Protti craved social acceptance and resented Kirsten's popularity and success.
The evidence included a tearful confession to police in which Protti said she felt inferior to the socially active Costas.
Protti also 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.
Protti was convicted of second- degree murder after a much publicized three-day trial that Superior Court Judge Edward Merrill said ''smacked of entertainment.''
The judge 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.''
Like all female juveniles convicted of serious crimes, she was sent to the Youth Authority's Ventura School.
According to 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.
Chronicle staff writer Teresa L. Moore contributed to this report.
Sentence in Murder was 'Light'
Dead Girl's Classmates are Angry
By Rob Haeseler - The San Francisco Chronicle
March 15, 1985
Students at Miramonte High School in Orinda, whose social acceptance Bernadette Protti craved, said yesterday she should be kept in prison for a long time.
Protti, 16, was convicted of second-degree murder Wednesday for stabbing to death last June her popular classmate, Kirsten Costas, 15, a varsity swimmer and cheerleader.
Contra Costa 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.
''Life!'' demanded another student.
The students' 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.
A 17-year-old 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.
''I don't 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.
''I don't 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.''
Both 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.
Art Costas, 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.''
Costas voiced his appreciation of the district attorney's office for pursuing the trial and allowing the facts to come out.
''It wasn't good for Bernadette,'' Costas said, ''but it showed her the intent of the law.''
Protti's 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.
The judge's 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.'
Orinda Teenager Convicted Of Second-Degree Murder
By Rob Haeseler - The San Francisco Chronicle
March 14, 1985
A socially spurned Orinda teenager was convicted of second-degree murder yesterday after a three-day trial that the judge said smacked of ''entertainment.''
Bernadette 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.
The judge 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 and ''wanton 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 purpose.
Because Protti 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.
It was 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.
Since her 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 spectator's section.
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.
There were frequent arguments over who was more deserving of a seat. Most often, the parents won.
''The atmosphere surrounding this case has bothered me somewhat,'' Judge Merrill said. ''We have kind of an Alice in Wonderland situation.''
''I'm really wondering what we have accomplished here these last three days,'' Merrill said. ''I'm just hoping this (trial) isn't here for some entertainment value.''
Defense 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 justice suffers.''
After the 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.''
Prosecutor 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 this case.''
Unanswered to 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 achieve.
Oda said Protti was determined to kill Costas if Kirsten did not agree ''to be her friend and get her into the in-crowd.''
He called Protti's confession to authorities ''self-serving'' and said that she was without remorse until she realized her arrest was imminent.
James 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 hod carrier.''
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 Costas.
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."
Trial Hears Girl's Confession of East Bay Slaying
By Rob Haeseler - The San Francisco Chronicle
March 13, 1985
Bernadette Protti only wanted to ''hurt'' Kirsten Costas when she stabbed her to death last June, a tape recording of her confession disclosed yesterday.
Protti reacted so violently because she was afraid her popular classmate in Orinda would tell their friends she was ''weird.''
Her taped confession was played to a crowded courtroom in Martinez, where she is on trial for murdering the Miramonte High School cheerleader.
''I thought that she was going to tell everybody at school that I was really weird,'' Protti said. ''I can't explain it. I don't understand it. It was, like, if I had been thinking straight it would never have happened. . . . Afterwards I was just so horrified and sick.''
Once on a ski trip, she claimed, Costas had made a comment about her skis that hurt her because her family couldn't afford ''nice'' skis.
''She had never liked me but I thought she was OK,'' Protti said of her 15-year-old classmate. ''The thing that got me mad was it hurt and I couldn't change. . . . Like, looks or money or popularity or things.''
The 16-year-old suspect surrendered last December to FBI agent Ronald Hilley, ending a baffling six-month investigation.
Hilley prefaced the girl's confession by testifying that Protti had begun to feel rejected as a sophomore.
Costas, a varsity swimmer and cheerleader, ''had been somewhat symbolic of the rejection,'' he said.
The two teenagers were members of the same service organization but they were not friends.
Through the disjointed, 1 1/4-hour tape, Protti recounted how she had used a ruse to get her father's car. She picked up Costas on the excuse that they were going to an initiation dinner for members of the service club.
Protti said Costas had learned from friends that there wasn't going to be a dinner. Instead, Protti invited her to a party.
The two drove to the parking lot of a church in Moraga.
''We went to the church because she wanted to smoke (some marijuana) or whatever, and I didn't,'' the suspect said. ''And then we argued. . . . Well, not really argued. She put me down.''
At that point, Costas ran from the car to the home of strangers, Alex and Mary Jane Arnold. When she failed to reach her parents by phone, Alex Arnold drove her home. Protti followed in her car at a short distance.
Costas' parents were away attending a potluck dinner for their son. Before Kirsten could seek refuge in a neighbor's home, she was stabbed five times.
Throughout the rambling confession, Protti repeated often that she could not explain her conduct. ''I guess I was angry,'' she said. ''I really don't know. She was telling me to go away. I just got angry and I did it.''
She said she drove home immediately, ''flushed the marijuana down the toilet and washed off the knife.'' She thought that if Kirsten had only been wounded the police soon would arrive.
It was not until the next morning that she heard her classmate was dead.
Extensive testimony focused yesterday on the murder weapon, which is believed to be a wooden-handled kitchen knife with a blade at least 12 inches long.
Protti said she had ''noticed'' a knife in the car during her drive with Costas.
''It's possible I left it there,'' testified Mary Ann Protti, one of the suspect's older sisters, who said she was in the habit of preparing her vegetarian meals in the car.
The trial resumes at 10 a.m. today in the Contra Costa County court house.
On the surface, the differences between Bernadette Protti and Kirsten Costas were superficial. They both lived in a well-to-do area of Northern California outside Berkeley, were good students and athletes at Miramonte High School and active in their communities.
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 school population.
“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 she wasn’t.”
Underneath, however, 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 school’s yearbook.
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 feel bad.”
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 was working.
“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 porch light.
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 unsupervised party.
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 Kirsten.
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 her liver.
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 Protti’s car).
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 investigative analysis.”
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 (my family).”
She considered whether to commit suicide but her religious upbringing prevented this.
“I would go to hell if I killed myself.”
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 already arrived.
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 new neighborhood.
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 change.”
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 school.
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 deputies.
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 reporters.
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 own supply.
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 with Bernadette.
“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.
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