The movie Death of a Cheerleader and the Bernadette Protti case have had a cult following that spans more than two decades. I’ve documented my own look into the case and how the cult following, the phenomenon, and the obsession began. Most definitely, the cult following started after Death of a Cheerleader aired on NBC under the title A Friend To Die For in 1994. But since almost no one was using the internet back then, it’s hard to know what everyone was thinking. A community of fans surrounding her new name was established in 2008 with the debut of the BernadetteProttiFound.blogspot blog by Traciy Curry-Reyes/the writer of this article.
It was two years after Death of a Cheerleader aired that I began searching for the basis of the movie. In the screenshot below, Death of a Cheerleader was third on the movies based on true stories list. In those days, I’d go to the Downtown Birmingham Public Library to research because there was no information online. I told the librarian that I wanted to research a true story movie called Death of a Cheerleader. She directed me to where I could find a newspaper database and court records about Bernadette Protti.
And when the librarian found out, after a few trips to the library, that I was hauling my notes around. She suggested that I start a free website to store all my information. That’s when my site was born. Every time I’d find an article or a photo, I’d post it online under the title of the movie. Each movie got its own page because I didn’t know what I was doing.
To my surprise, other people could see what I had posted. Everytime Death of a Cheerleader aired, fans visited my site to see the real people.
In a nutshell, if you missed the newspaper and magazine articles when they were on the shelves, you’d have to go to the library because it was the only place that housed old newspaper archives. There was no Google Search for Kirsten Costas, Bernadette Protti, or movies based on true stories before my site. (The original readers remember!) In fact, the only large crime site that I remember back in the 1990s was Karisable, Court TV, and a few others.
On my journey to find information about the real Stacy and Angela, I scoured through the archives and found an article about the Death of A Cheerleader movie that was written years prior. It was shocking to see how different the real people looked from the actors. For years, there was no new information about Bernadette Protti. But then, in 2008, the Death of a Cheerleader/A Friend to Die For movie aired on Lifetime, leading me to dig into whatever happened to Bernadette Protti. I re-read the old newspaper article and remembered that she was paroled and had changed her name.
I decided to find her. At first, I couldn’t find anything. None of the databases had anything about a Bernadette Protti. I said to myself, “I’m finding her this week.” And then, I thought, “Where would she be?”
I searched the states where some family members were located and examined court records until I found the name change. I couldn’t believe it. I had found Bernadette Protti’s new name. “Death of a Cheerleader fans are gonna love this,” I told myself.
At the BernadetteProttiFound.blogspot site, I shared that after many years I’d finally found out what happened to the real Bernadette Protti. You see, before that post, few people knew that Bernadette Protti had changed her name, except for her relatives, husband, classmates, friends at the Ventura school—or those who remember reading the article in the newspaper.
Curiosity about the case swelled after I divulged that Bernadette had purposely gone into hiding and changed her name, so she’d never be found. For a long while, she disappeared from public view. As Lifetime aired the movie and more people visited the 2008 blog, they became obsessed. And worse. Some were downright nasty!
Follow the trajectory of questions and answers that I’ve received over the years about Bernadette Protti and her rival, Kirsten Costas, through an email story of screenshots and a transcript for better reading. Email addresses and names have been blocked out. The more abusive emails included too many offensive words to post here.
Death of a Cheerleader’s Cult Following:
“After being released from prison in 1992, at the age of 23, she left Ventura County. I figured out that what she [Bernadette] did was try to throw off the public by telling them that she had moved away, changed her name, and was pursuing an Arts degree. Well, she did leave the state—not as soon as she was released, though. And as it turns out, she ended up pursuing a Science degree. I am not exactly sure when she finally left California, but she did not change her name until 1994, and then she married which made her last name change again, so she was able to almost completely disappear from public view. She continued through college and received a master’s degree. She is a nurse and a medical writer. She is very well-known and writes for a highly publicized scientific journal. She is married to (hmm… I am not sure what to call him) He has worked as a professor and works in the science field. She has a family, but I do not know how many children she has. She has moved around a lot since she left Ventura county. (Ventura County is where the California Youth Authority’s Ventura school is) A recent photo of her looks almost identical to the new photo that I have posted. She just looks a lot older. Just a side note: I wrote a few years ago about seeing an actual photo of Bernadette on a website where she was employed at one time. In fact, she was on the board of directors. I won’t go into it again too deeply, but I decided not to publish the new photo mainly because she seems to have gone out of her way to hide her identity. It does not appear that she has ever had any more run-ins with the law since that time. And the release of her new identity would truly devastate her new life. I did not want to be responsible for that. I am really not sure if her husband and children know, but I am certain no one who has worked with her knows. She does not like attention drawn to the case at all. In fact, the photos which were once on the net have ALL been taken down (except one small photo hard- to-see photo) since the blog post-Bernadette Protti Found! was written. I did make a copy of the photo. I copy all of the photos that appear on the site just in case they are deleted at some point.”
Now, let’s go through a few more emails about Bernadette Protti, Death of a Cheerleader and her new photo. Pay close attention to the dates.
From a reader
Oh, thank you so much for sending me the link.I was curious about something.I was researching this very case online,and there doesn’t seem to be much else about “Bernadette Protti” or “Kirsten Costas” other than on your site.I was always wondering what ever happened to Bernadette after she got out of prison. Have you heard or read any information about her anywhere?
From a Reader
Hi Traciy:Thank you so much for your insight on the whereabouts of Ms. Protti. Although I must admit, I was quite disappointed when I couldn’t see the recent photograph. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been very obsessed with this case for years and have been googling and googling and trying to do as much extensive research as I possibly can to find information. Not for public or notable, but for personal knowledge after watching the movie.From everything I read to my very gut instincts, I always knew she wasn’t quite the character she was ‘depicted’ to be in “Death of A Cheerleader”/ “Friend to Die For”. In fact, I read somewhere that while in custody she always acted like the world owed her something and would get into these quasi-violent tantrums. I’m glad to hear she is doing well, but something about that girl/woman is just very off and creepy. I hope to God she’s not longer a threat to society and I do wish her well in all her endeavors.Again–I wanted to thank you for the website and all the insight you have provided. Do you plan on having more information written? I will continue to frequent the site for any further updates.
Hi, Im writing to you because I read your blogs and found it quite interesting. I just seen the movie “Death of a Cheerleader” the other night on Lifetime and was very interested so I came online to find info and thats what led me to your site. After reading your blog about Bernadette being found I did some looking around. Im not sure if Im right or not but I came across a picture of this woman who (like you said) looks just like the old picture of Bernadette. It says her name is———. It fits all the things you said about her. I was just curious and wanted to ask you if you would be able to confirm if I was right or wrong.Thank you for your time,
From a reader
Why is it that the public isn’t allowed to know Bernadette Protti’s whereabouts? Or what her present name is? I did some searching on my own…and found out that it’s a possibility she changed her first name only (to Paula). If she married and changed it again I don’t know. But for all we know…you could be her! I thought in the tech age of the internet..and in the spirit of being able to locate almost anyone…why is she protected? If I were 15 and murdered someone would I be protected too? I can’t even protect my private cell phone number from being found! Why should she (and not other criminals) be protected?
Traciy Curry-Reyes’ response
Who said that the public is not allowed to know? The decision not to release her new name was mine, not anyone else’s. If someone else found out who she is they would have every right to publish it if they wanted. Oh and her name is not Paula, and I am not Bernadette. Sorry.
Anonymous has left a new comment on your post “Clarity”:
I don’t see the point in you even blogging about having the photo and knowing stuff if you’re not going to tell people. All your blog post just scream ME ME ME. I don’t want… I think… I this… It’s like you are screaming for attention. There is NO reason or excuse to have said anything, if you were going to carry this big burden on your shoulder about releasing the photo. I think you are an idiot. All people like to do is whine and b–tch about how the judicial systems provides criminals with 3 meals and so forth, on the publics dime. But now all of a sudden you want to protect this lady. SHE KILLED SOMEONE FOR F–CKS SAKE!!! She get’s no compassion in my book EVER. At 15 she was more than aware of what she was doing, PERIOD. She should’ve been charged with first degree murder, because she lured Krista in to murder her. Then to know that she was in a co-ed “school” where she had a boyfriend and such. What the hell! Sounds more to me like a school that rich parents ship their kids off too. The thought of knowing she was having outburst in the school when she didn’t have her way. She has NO remorse for what she has done. Yet you have the ghaul to want to protect her.
I don’t believe for a second that you have ANY information on her. I think you are just as mentally f–cked up as she is and this is your outlet to get the attention that you so desperately seek.
The person was wrong. Here is an email that I sent to myself in August of 2008 with Bernadette Protti’s real names.: the one she used before she married and the married name. For those who know her real name, you can compare the initials and the state to see that the names are the same.
From a reader
I typed in Bernadette’s name in google and this is one of the pics that
showed up, is this her now?
Traciy Curry-Reyes’ response
No, it is not her. The picture of her looks almost identical to the one that
I have posted on the site with her smiling. You won’t find that one
on the net anymore. She doesn’t go by Bernadette Protti anymore.
Hi Tracy,I want to shoot you an email in private regarding Bernadette Protti’s true identity for sound reasons pertaining to hiring integrity. I am currently interviewing prospective RN’s in Ventura County for a local position and while doing my research regarding their backgrounds came across some conflicting information. After coming across some interesting discussion regarding my potential personal matter in regards to the conflict, I did some further research (as my position as a hiring manager requires me to). While I am far from interested in revealing her true identity, I would feel I have failed my role should I hire an individual with a past that may be questionable if ever it is revealed (which I hope never happens should I make that mistake!). I do not know the true Bernadette’s story (the movies and media sre hardly ever accurate) and would never want to bring up the possibility of her existence being in Ventura County should it interfere with my line of work and the industry I am involved in. If I could legally do it, I would list the RN’s I am interviewing so you can help me single out whether one of them may be the true Bernadette, but bc my obligation with privacy prevents me from doing so, I was hoping to gain some light as to her true identity (perhaps a name or current photo?). I understand if you feel that the “new” Bernadette deserves a fair chance as anyone else, and I hope she does get that chance, but I hope you can understand that I cannot hire someone who could potentially be a threat to the reputation of my hospital and the critially ill patients we treat should her identity ever come out. I simply cannot take that chance. I hope that you can kindly disclose all, if any, information regarding her new identity and trust that because of my role in society (privacy being a fundamental part), I will keep the information in pure secrecy and only utilize the knowlege to make a sound decision – and hire a more suitable, less controversial, candidate for the position. The last thing I need is for any employees in my industry to have something new to gossip about that may deter them from performing their pivotal roles in the healthcare industry. I hope that Bernadette is given another chance in life with her identity, but I simply cannot take the chance of hiring her should her identity be revealed in any future renderings with the law, as a result of her or the Costas family. I plan on simply thanking her for her interest in the position and letting her know that it has been filled with another candidate. I have no intention of revealing her true identity nor disclosing my knowledge of it to her or anyone, as my interest in knowing it is for no reason other than to properly perform my job obligations and to prevent any risk of potential conflict that may come to be should her true identity ever be revealed. Thank you, in advance, for your consideration regarding this personal matter, and I hope you can help me in getting the information I need to make an important decision. Much appreciated.
My wife and I been doing some research ourselves and found your blog mentioning that you discovered her current identity – we are fairly certain that Bernadette changed her name to Paula Protti, but did she then change it to Paula Lawson?We have no interest in making this information public or contacting the former Bernadette in any way, we’re just fascinated with the case and that she can be a successful person with this conviction on her record.
From another reader
Is this the woman you found? She looks very similar and her daughter is a dead ringer for Bernadette. I was unable to find anything about this woman before 1995. No relatives besides her children and husband ( and his family of course).Also did you read in the paper about James? No movie about him yet but I thought you might be intrigued.
The last I heard she was a nurse practioner. Perhaps she has continued her studies. Im not sure but she does a lot of medical research and writing. If you have her name, I can confirm.
Hi TraciyI came across a name —– and several people said this is Bernadette, is that true?