Did Bullying Kill Lynda Burrill?

I knew something was deeply amiss with Lynda the day we met in 6th grade at Buckeye Elementary School.

1982 Ponderosa High School Yearbook Photo

1982 Ponderosa High School Yearbook Photo

At recess, I’d taken out my hair combs and put them on the fountain in the school yard as I drank. When I looked up, they were gone. I told the teacher on duty what had happened, hoping someone would return them to her if they found them.

A girl in pigtails sidled up to me, her dark, ginger brown eyes as wide and bright as her lightly freckled smile. She held out her open hand, which cupped the two hair combs. “I found these. They’re yours, huh?” she said.

I took them from her, but before I could say thanks, she quickly added, “A friend would never have stolen them. A friend would find them and return them.”

A friend? Or someone so desperate to make a friend she’d steal something and pretend to “find” it? The whole exchange made me feel uneasy. Later, I asked someone who she was. “Her name’s Lynda Burrill,” another girl told me, and nothing more.

I stayed far away from Lynda after that.

Not that I would have come in contact with her much, anyway. We had no classes together in 6th grade. We then went on to different junior high and high schools. I went at Oakridge High School in El Dorado Hills, where I was relentlessly bullied my freshman year. But I had a few good friends, a couple of loving teachers, and my music, which saved me. I was raised a classical musician. I’d already played in both orchestras and bands. Music was my life. So when Oakridge lost its band teacher my sophomore year, the school district allowed me to attend neighboring Ponderosa High School, which had award-winning marching and symphonic bands. I loved the school. I had my first boyfriend, a hilarious band teacher, and zillions of geeky new friends without a bully in sight. It was a dream come true.

Lynda was also at Ponderosa. 

Because our last names fell into the A’s and B’s, Lynda and I shared homeroom together. While I had lost weight, she’d gained some, I noticed, and seemed to be an outcast. I’ll never forget how the boys tormented her, in and out of class. Girls, too. About her grooming. Her clothes. Her weight. Although nothing seemed that egregious to me, anything was apparently fair game. She looked exasperated most of the time and tried to dish it back as fast as they served it. Just before Christmas break, someone in homeroom handed her a wrapped gift. Astonished, she accepted the gift and opened it.

It was a bar of soap.

Her head fell on the desk into her arms.

My heart ached for her. I would have consoled her, as I had fellow outcasts at Oakridge, but I remembered those hair combs. I didn’t care what other people would have thought if I’d befriended her. What scared me was that her desperation for love was so profound that it drove her to do — or at least say — things that were seriously inappropriate. What else would she do to “prove” her friendship?

When Oak Ridge High School restored its band program the next year, I had to return. I then suffered some of the worst bullying of my school years, mostly at the hands of jocks. (One of my bullies grew up to be a professional baseball player and is now married to a former Playmate. Nice for him, eh?) After a particularly scary incident on the last day of school, I used the bullying as a legal chip with school officials to return to Ponderosa High School for my senior year.

I was thrilled to be back at my beloved “Pondo.” Marching band, jazz band, symphonic band. Pondo not only had a spectacular music program (and still does), but for me it was also gloriously bully free.

On August 24, 1984, just days before school started, I picked up my family’s copy of The Mountain Democrat to read the devastating headline.

Police Ask for Help in Murder Cases

…Denise Galston, 14, and (Lynda May) Burrill, 18, are dead. Their skeletal remains found in the Sly Park area were identified through dental charts and the announcement of their identities made earlier this week.

The parade of grisly headlines that followed revealed Lynda was the victim of a triple homicide. She’d disappeared on June 29, 1984 from a popular hangout called The Bell Tower on Main Street in Placerville, CA, where she was last seen talking with a 27-year-old man named Michael Anthony Cox — a man who, when he was 18, had allowed his 3-year-old half-sister to drown within arm’s reach.

(Motherfucker)

According to testimony, he’d once commented to another woman about Lynda that “girls like her needed to be eliminated.”

On November 29, 1985, Cox was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 first degree murders of three teenage girls — Denise Galston (14), her sister Debbie Galston (14), and Lynda Burrill (18) — with the special circumstance of multiple murder. He allegedly stripped and bound each girl before raping and stabbing them, leaving them to bleed out on the cold, dark forest floor. To this day, he sits on Death Row.

As I read the news articles, I realized for the first time that Lynda had already been held back a year in school before the hair comb incident. More fuel for the bullies.

When I think about Lynda, I remember a slightly heavyset teenager, pale, freckled, wearing a white dress dotted with flowers, hurrying across the campus to get to her next class. I don’t recall any smells, or that she looked significantly different from anyone else. Even her haircut seemed fairly de rigueur for the time.

So, I’m not sure why she was singled out. Regardless of her perceived faults, if everyone had been kinder to Lynda — schoolmates and family alike — might she have chosen better friends? Would she have still connected with a bizarre, cold-blooded predator like Michael Anthony Cox? She got in the car of a man who kept a buck knife in the visor to “prove” her friendship to him. We know how he rewarded her.

That desperation for love. The cruel denial of it.

I don’t know ultimately what confluence of events led Lynda to die on that forest floor soaked with her blood. Perhaps it was like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone played a role in delivering her demise. Family. El Dorado County officials. Ponderosa teachers. Her fellow students.

Me.

But I do know we failed. And we have to do better.

Innocent lives depend on it.

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10 thoughts on “Did Bullying Kill Lynda Burrill?

  1. I lived next door to the Galston triplets, Debbie, Denise and Diane. They were quiet little girls, who came from a poor family. I liked them very much. At the time, I didn’t realise that they had big family problems. For some reason, two of the three girls were removed from their home into foster care. That is where they were systematically “picked” off by this serial killer, who was “dating” another girl at the home. They were murdered a couple months apart from each other, and I can not imagine the terror of the second triplet, who knowing that she was being stalked and hunted, had no one to turn to. I read the whole court transcript a few years ago, and it chilled me to the core. This serial killer most likely picked Lynda because she was vulnerable and had poor support networks (Like my friends). He was and is a disgusting piece of work, and I hope he gets what he deserves.
    PS. I am curious what Lynda’s home life was like?
    PSS. I am sorry you were bullied. The whole culture of school was pretty rough in those days. Some of my teachers were terrifying bullies. I still have a girl, Jody Wallander, that I wish I had stood up more for. I haven’t seen her since 8th grade, but she too had rough treatment. Thank you for your writing.

    • Laura, thank you so much for your comment! Cox even went as far as to marry the other girl at the foster home, although I’m not sure how it was legal. I never knew the triplets, but my heart goes out to them. The court documents are really scary. That Joanna and the ex-wife started withdrawing their testimonies in favor of “Satanic rituals,” was just ridiculous. Thankfully the courts saw through that and deemed their retractions null and void.

      I have no idea what Lynda’s home life was like, but she was living on her own (with roommates) by 18. I would imagine she had her share of problems at home, too, given her behavior so young. Poor doll.

  2. Dear Maria,
    This is an incredibly moving story. I work with a teen program and plan to share this story with them. We talk about bullying a lot but sometimes the conversation stays too general. It is a specific incident like this one that reminds how how preventable tragedy can be. Thank you.
    Best,
    Kim Fay

    • Thanks so much for reading, Kim. I think it’s such a powerful example of how bullying can have longer-term, dire effects. I’m so pleased you’ll be sharing this with your program. Thank you!

  3. Maria,
    Thank you for sharing your deeply personal connection to a victim. It resonates on many levels: how we interact with others, how we vie for approval, how we judge, and how we trust when we shouldn’t. A brave post.

  4. Hi Maria! I DO remember Lynda!! We used to hang out at the library at Camerado Middle School…Everybody picked on us!! They thought that we were boyfriend & girlfriend…never mind that I was gay…did you know that Lynda was the first person that knew about me??? This was in 1980….She would tell me …” I know about you” She was NOT dumb…just quiet & observant …and she never told anyone….I still think about her to this day…She did wear the same clothes over and over….I really cared about her…We used to laugh a lot during lunch period…I always felt a sense of her wanting to “Belong” She never talked about herself….She seemed lost…She DID steal a love letter I wrote to Jennifer Wakefield & showed it to everyone in the library!! Well I got it back from the librarian and never trusted her again…Still she never deserved that horrible demise….I still think of her…..

    • Hi Philippe! Believe it or not, I was just thinking about you the other day. I hope you’re doing great. That’s such an interesting anecdote about her. She really did have this strong need for belonging but she’d undermine it. And I do believe she was quite perceptive. That’s why I wonder about her relationship with her eventual killer. Did she know the guy would kill her? Was hanging out with him a suicidal act, in a sense? So sad. Yeah, several of us still think of her.

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