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The real death of a cheerleader story (1985)
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 giving 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 of investigations 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 turned them down. She slipped out of the preppie mode, dyed the top of her dark hair blonde, 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.
Video: The 1980s: The Deadliest Decade – S01E03 – The Cheerleader Murder
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 sheriff’s 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 babysitting 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 sheriff’s 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 babysitting 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.