The real death of a cheerleader story (1985)
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 mother 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 sheriff’s 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 followed.
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 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.
Photos with blue: From the Ladies Home Journal original article; Photo 2: Kirsten Costas in Washington DC in October 1981 (from the editor’s personal collection). All other photos are from the Miramonte High School yearbook, 1985.