By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For her senior prom, the most exciting night of her life, Kelly Bullwinkle, just 17 at the time, decided on a knee-length red dress to complement her shoulder-length red hair. Bullwinkle’s date was an older woman — her best friend Kinzie Noordman, then 19. Even in socially conservative Redlands, girls can go with girls to the prom, and when they started kissing each other on the dance floor, that too was all in fun. Still, going to the prom and making out with each other represented a declaration of purpose and independence for Bullwinkle and Noordman, who had both recently been through intense periods of change and struggle for identity. Their appearance together at the prom could have easily been the start of something positive; instead it was the beginning of the end.
Their mutual friend Damien Guerrero was happily taking in the scene with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Elody Romero. They all, it seemed, had a lot to look forward to. Bullwinkle would be graduating from Redlands East Valley High School in two weeks, while Guerrero and Noordman would be starting their second year of college in September.
Then things began to go wrong on that May evening last year. An argument broke out when Bullwinkle and Noordman, who had bragged about being on heroin and coke that evening, wanted Guerrero to do coke with them. Friends say he turned them down because Romero didn’t want him to do it. The girls had words. At one point, Romero called Bullwinkle a “poseur.” Though emotions ran high, it was not the sort of fight that other prom-goers noticed from more than a few feet away as the DJ rocked the Yorba Linda Community Center. It certainly wasn’t enough to inspire suspicion when Bullwinkle suddenly disappeared nearly four months later.
But that argument, according to friends and police reports, was one of a series of spiraling events that climaxed with Guerrero and Noordman luring Bullwinkle to a remote citrus grove and then shooting her twice in the head. Noordman and Guerrero say it was all an accident, but they’ve been charged with murder, possibly punishable by death. Both Noordman and Guerrero have pleaded not guilty, and a trial awaits. Meanwhile, friends and family members trying to make sense of Bullwinkle’s death talk of a love triangle, scorned affections and drug use, but most of all, they speak of their disbelief that a bright young girl should die at such a whim.
Bullwinkle’s death shocked the tiny city of 63,591. Murder was something that happened in L.A., not in Redlands, a middle-class enclave 70 miles east of downtown L.A. that proudly proclaims itself the Navel Orange Capital of the World. In 2002, there were no murders here. Bullwinkle’s was the only murder in 2003. It’s so rare for kids to die in Redlands that when one goes missing, murder is about the last thing people suspect, and it was about the last thing people thought Noordman and Guerrero would do to their friend.
In fact, when Bullwinkle disappeared on September 13 after a shift at her part-time job at Baker’s Burgers, the last place she was seen alive, Noordman told friends and police that Bullwinkle had just vanished. Her disappearance was initially treated as a missing-persons case. Bullwinkle’s mother pleaded on TV for whoever took her daughter to “Please send her home. Don’t hurt her. She’s a great kid.” Meanwhile, Noordman reportedly assisted in a massive manhunt near a mall in Ontario where she and Guerrero had dumped Bullwinkle’s car. Police would find out that act was just one of many deceptions the Crafton Hills College student would use to lead the investigation away from her and Guerrero, whom Noordman considered to be her “soul mate.” Police would also learn that the petite 5-foot-1-inch Bullwinkle and the lanky 5-foot-10-inch Guerrero were more than just the friends they purported to be and were involved in a love triangle that would end bitterly just weeks before Bullwinkle disappeared.
Kelly Bullwinkle was a modern-day Annie Hall. She liked to shop at secondhand stores with her girlfriends and make her own clothes. She once made a skirt out of a flour sack. She loved her small town, but like most teens she was starting to outgrow it and planned to move away and study psychology and creative writing at Sonoma State in Northern California.Kinzie Noordman and “Soul Mate” Damien Guerrero in Police Custody(Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov)
She had a natural talent for writing. When she was a junior, she received an honorable-mention award for an essay on the danger of drugs. She shared a love of writing with her best friend Kinzie Noordman, who won an essay contest that allowed her to meet Olympic gold-medal winner Carl Lewis. Noordman’s essay, which promoted organ donation, focused on her friend Cassie Ranus, an 11-year-old Redlands girl who died in April 1995 in an all-terrain vehicle accident.
When not writing, working or going to school, Bullwinkle was either riding her show horse Banner or hanging out with Noordman and Guerrero at Del Taco or at Jazz and Java, a popular coffee shop in downtown Redlands. On Thursday nights, the three were regulars at Market Night, a weekly street fair that turns downtown Redlands into something akin to L.A.’s Olvera Street. They made plans, as most teens do these days, through instant messaging. Bullwinkle’s AOL screen names were Sagepony and Londonhors. Guerrero’s included Necro Maniac and Undertwotracks4.