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From Loving Mom To Child-Killer

In this photo, a baby girl reaches for flowers. In another, she builds with blocks. In yet another, she plays with the dog.

Peter Van Der Linde smiled at the old snapshots of his only child, Kirsten, now grown and sitting a few feet away. They are memories he might have recreated with Kirsten's own baby daughter.

Instead, the 69-year-old Van Der Linde was on the witness stand this March day, and Kirsten was on trial for violently killing her baby, just before grandfather and granddaughter were to meet for the first time.

Another baby photo presented at the trial was taken by police; it showed 7-month-old Melissa after she had been swung by her mother headfirst into a sidewalk, again and again.

After a weeklong trial, Kirsten Van Der Linde would be found not responsible, because of mental illness, for killing her child.

Peter Van Der Linde knew what mental illness looked like. Long before it claimed his granddaughter's life, it had consumed much of his own.

His 44-year marriage to Kirsten's mother, Anita, a diagnosed schizophrenic, has been filled with hospitalizations, medications and electroshock treatments all meant to drive away the delusions and phantom voices, the panic and paranoia. Anita's mother, also diagnosed with mental illness, committed suicide.

When Kirsten was born in 1968, Peter Van Der Linde prayed his little girl would be spared the condition he knew could be hereditary.

"My wife's life was so hard. She went through so much pain. I didn't want my children to experience pain," said Van Der Linde, a retired schoolteacher who shows not a hint of self-pity.

Through Kirsten's childhood, she was a "delightful, creative child who was a very loving, affectionate daughter," her father said.

She was a good student, who with her friends started a student newspaper while in Ithaca High School. The petite brunette made the dean's list during her first year at the University at Buffalo. Fluent in French and German and with hopes of following her father into teaching, she studied in Germany her senior year.

It was during a visit there that Van Der Linde got the first hint of trouble, finding his daughter distant and unable to concentrate. "She'd stand, stare off in a field," he recalled.

Soon Kirsten was hospitalized, labeled schizophrenic at age 21.

"It was a diagnosis I was unwilling to accept because I knew it was a life sentence. I remember arguing with the doctors," her father recalled.

But Kirsten said: "Dad, something's wrong with me and my brain. I'm not the same anymore."

Within a year, she twice attempted suicide. "She was despairing of being mentally ill," her father said. "She had lived through so much with her mother."

For more than a decade, the episodes continued. Once, Kirsten inexplicably walked from Buffalo most of the way to Batavia, more than 30 miles away, and called her father at 10 p.m. from a convenience store.

Van Der Linde raced more than 100 miles from his Ithaca home only to find the store closed. Driving up and down the streets, he spotted his daughter, dressed too lightly for the cold weather.

Medication helped her cope, but she struggled. Hired as a substitute teacher, she had trouble with concentration. Later, she lost a restaurant job because she couldn't make change.

Delusions and hallucinations persisted: voices telling her to save the world, the devil saying he was controlling her, her lawyer said.

Van Der Linde would visit his daughter during her hospitalizations, though leaving his near invalid wife was always a struggle. He rested most easily, he said, when Kirsten spent time in a group home, with a staff who made sure she was taking her medication. That ended around 1998 when she moved in with the man who would become her baby's father.

Kirsten met Anthony Berst in the mental health unit of Buffalo General Hospital. He was also a paranoid schizophrenic. Her father was worried, but the two seemed to care deeply for each other. And Kirsten was "joyful" about her pregnancy, Peter Van Der Linde said.

"I can't describe how overwhelmed with joy I am that my little girl will be here soon," she wrote on Sept. 13, 2003, one month before Melissa's birth.

When the baby arrived, Van Der Linde delighted in his granddaughter's coos over the phone and his daughter's stories about the new things she was doing.

"She would hold Melissa to the phone and we would chatter," he said.

"I can't tell you how much I love her," Kirsten told her father.

Neighbor Millicent Turrentine recalled how Kirsten would gaze at her blue-eyed baby with the single blonde curl. "She's just so beautiful, isn't she?"' Kirsten would say.

Kirsten and Berst were going to bring Melissa to Ithaca for their first visit the last weekend of May 2004. Peter Van Der Linde called the day before to confirm the plans.

"That's how I found out what happened," he said.

He learned his daughter had spent the pre-dawn hours of May 28 wandering the streets in her nightgown, Melissa wrapped in a pink blanket in her arms.

He learned that Berst hadn't been home for days, rattled by the baby's crying, and that Kirsten had stopped taking her medication.

He learned a police officer, flagged down by a concerned passer-by about 6 a.m., had driven mother and child home and determined that, while Kirsten seemed disoriented, she responded to questions appropriately. An officer on a follow-up visit less than an hour later would conclude the same thing.

And he learned that, just minutes after the officer left, Kirsten dangled a naked Melissa by an ankle and drove her forehead into the cement outside her apartment house, chanting, "I want justice," over and over again.

Officer Sheila Kirsch, who had earlier driven Kirsten and the baby home, sped back to the scene.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, this is a different person,'" Kirsch said.

John Conboy, among the horrified commuters who stopped to intervene, grabbed hold of the baby's arms and took Melissa from her mother. Kirsten looked "absolutely crazed," Conboy said.

Peter Van Der Linde, who had been uncharacteristically out of touch with Kirsten for a week, points helplessly to hindsight. Had he only known that his daughter was living alone, or that she had been trying to give her baby away to neighbors, that her judgment was all but gone without her medication.

"I would have done anything possible," he said.

Defense attorney John Nuchereno called Kirsten "the poster child for the insanity defense." He proposes "Melissa's Law," that would compel family or friends to check on the mentally ill daily.

Such a law would be unlikely to pass, said Mary Kirkland of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill. There are civil rights issues, she said, and mentally ill patients are often resistant to family and friends being involved in their lives.

Within the thousands of pages of medical records Nuchereno presented at Kirsten's second-degree murder trial are her dreams of being a mother. "She even named the baby three years in advance," Nuchereno said.

After finding Kirsten not responsible for Melissa's death, Erie County Judge Shirley Troutman ordered her to a secure psychiatric institution for an evaluation. Nuchereno said she will likely spend years in a mental facility, classified as a danger to herself.

In her ruling, the judge noted that while in jail, Kirsten tried to eat a mattress, drank water from a toilet, appeared to rock and feed an invisible baby and asked to make a phone call to check on Melissa.

"For years, Kirsten knew because of her mental illness that finding a normal life would be near impossible," Nuchereno said. "But she knew that by having a child, she would have one individual who would unconditionally love her for life.

"She's aware that she's taken that life and is devastated," he said.

Anthony Berst is no longer in contact with Kirsten. John Berst summed up his brother's feeling about her: "She needs help and I guess she's going to get it."

In letters from jail, Kirsten expresses to her father her sense of loss.

"At one point she said she didn't think she could stand it. And one of the other inmates hugged her," he said.

Van Der Linde makes a point to remember his family's good days, including the everyday joys frozen in old photographs.

"A lot of the time it was an uphill struggle," he said. "When the sun was shining, we were a good family."

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