Murder Still Haunts Moraga Resident


Kate Ginley, Staff Writer

As the 30th anniversary of the murder of Miramonte student Kirsten Costas passes this year, Sharon Palmer, the mother of a friend to Costas as well as the girl convicted of the murder, considered the tragedy’s relevance to today’s Lamorinda community.

Costas, a Miramonte cheerleader, was murdered by fellow student Bernadette Protti in June of 1984. According to The Los Angeles Times, Protti was sentenced to a juvenile prison for 7 years.

30 years ago, 15-year-old Costas was lured by a fake invitation for the Bob-O-Links service group dinner. The popular cheerleader was on her way to the fictitious dinner with Protti.  Protti had volunteered to drive her. According to Palmer, “Bernadette was acting strange and Kirsten was frightened and wanted out of the car.”

Palmer recalls that Costas and Protti were in Moraga when Costas got out of the car. “Kirsten went up to a door and asked for a ride home. Her exact words were: ‘My friend is acting weird and I’m really scared. Could you drive me home?'” Palmer said.

Palmer said the Moraga citizen who Costas asked for a ride obliged and drove Costas home, but he told authorities later that there was a strange car following them. After reaching the house, the man asked if she needed him to stay, but Costas declined, claiming her neighbor was home, so it was fine.

Costas was unaware of the real danger.

Palmer said, “Rene [the neighbor] and Kirsten were really close.” However, the neighbor failed to respond when Costas signaled for help. “Rene heard banging on the door but she was home alone and thought Kirsten was at a Bobby’s meeting. She was too afraid to answer the door and only came out when she heard the ambulance,” Palmer said.

Costas was banging her fists on the door as Protti jumped out of the bushes and stabbed her with a butcher knife in a downward angle several times, puncturing her lungs.

Costas screamed and somehow made her way to a different neighbor’s house where she died in that neighbor’s arms.

Protti fled the scene before anyone had seen her.

For six months Protti went without being apprehended.  During that time, the community experienced growing anxiety. Palmer said, “I was afraid to let [my daughter] go anywhere. How could anyone when this adorable, girl that everyone loved, got stabbed?” Palmer explained that kids went out in groups, slept with lights on or even slept in their parents’ room as a result of the unsolved crime.

In August of that year, Palmer took her daughter and friends, Protti included, to Sleepy Hollow Swim Club where they had talked about how terrible a person had to be to do such a thing to their friend. “Bernadette was quiet the whole time,” Palmer recalled.

Before Protti’s involvement was discovered by authorities, Palmer’s daughter claimed she thought Protti did it. Protti sat behind her in English and Palmer’s daughter noticed Protti was acting “weird.” Her car matched the description of what the Moraga man had told the police as well. “I just have this feeling,” Palmer’s daughter told Palmer.

“Don’t say that!” Palmer remembered telling her daughter. Palmer did not think that the 16 year old yearbook editor could have done such a thing. “Bernadette was never considered a suspect,” Palmer said.

Yet, when the FBI took over the case, they found that Protti, who was thought to have passed her initial lie detector test, was actually lying. “The FBI kept interviewing her and got suspicious and she realized they were closing in on her,” Palmer said. “Bernadette confessed to a priest who told her to tell her parents. So, she confessed to her parents who called the police.”

Palmer attended the trail. She remembers Protti crying during questioning in the courtroom, with her head on the table, repeating “I couldn’t let her tell! I couldn’t let her tell! I couldn’t!”

“I think it was the shame and judgement. She didn’t care about the consequences morally. She was more ashamed of what she did than killing Kirsten,” Palmer said. “[Protti] felt if Kirsten had told what she had done that it would be the end of her life.”

Palmer also recalled the presentation of the physical evidence. “The knife was huge. It was so awful. Bernadette’s mother screamed and put her head down when she saw the knife in trial,” said Palmer.

Protti was tried as a juvenile. She was released from her incarceration at age 25. “Seven years was not enough,” Palmer said. “I don’t feel like she’s been adequately punished.”

Protti was charged with second-degree murder. “I don’t think she set out to intentionally kill her,” Palmer said. “Her sister had the knife in the car for work and [Protti] knew where it was.”

In 1985, author Rob Haeseler wrote The San Francisco Chronicle article, “Trial Hears Girl’s Confession of East Bay Slaying.” It reported that Protti only wanted to “hurt” Costas. In another article by Haeseler, he wrote, “unanswered to the end was what provoked Protti to stab Costas to death after luring her to a bogus sorority initiation dinner.”

“I thought that she was going to tell everybody at school that I was really weird,” Protti claimed during trial.

The movie “The Death of a Cheerleader,” based on the events of Costas’ murder, presented Protti as jealous of Costas. Palmer disagrees.  She thinks that Protti feared Costas was going to reveal a secret.

“It was not jealously! She made a pass at her. What else could it be?” She said, “I think [Protti] was gay. It was a big deal back then and wasn’t accepted like it is now. People thought it was drugs, but I got that feeling from the trial.”

“[Costas] had no way of knowing that Bernadette was thinking a great deal about her,” stated another article in 1985 by People magazine. “And the one person whose acceptance meant so much [to Protti], the one she so desperately wanted to talk to, has tragically been silenced forever.”

“Bernadette was smart but had no idea that Kirsten wouldn’t be interested. Kirsten was like a puppy. She hugged people, wasn’t exclusive and liked everyone,” Palmer said. “[Protti] probably tried to kiss her and it freaked her out. Kirsten was immature and would have told people what had happened,” Palmer explained.

“30 years ago, it was a big deal to be a lesbian,” said Palmer.

Though time has passed, the murder is still a disturbing memory for a generation of Moraga residents. “People want to forget it. That’s why there is no memorial this year,” said Palmer.

30 years later, the pressure fit in is still a relevant social concern.  The 2014 film “Mean Girl Murderer Case,” depicts two girls who kill a friend when they fear she knows about their lesbian relationship.

Though the Bay Area is seen as a progressive community, and social organizations and educational institutions continue to preach tolerance, Palmer believes that Lamorinda is still lagging behind.

“I do not think anything has changed but perhaps more [competition] and stress,” Palmer said.