December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Two paintball players found her in a lonely orange grove, spilling out of a shallow grave and covered by a tattered couch. At a memorial service for 18-year-old Kelly Bullwinkle 10 days later, two of her close friends, Kinzie Noordman and Damien Guerrero, wept along with 400 other people shaken by the radiant teen’s grisly and unsolved death. “Kinzie was crying and Damien was like, ‘It’s okay.’ Then he started crying a couple of times,” says their friend Becky Skipton, 18. “That’s why nobody suspected anything.”

It then hit like a thunderbolt when, three weeks later, police arrested Noordman, 20, and Guerrero, 19, and charged them with killing Bullwinkle. The quiet, middle-class town of Redlands, an hour east of Los Angeles, was rocked by the crime, as baffling as it was disturbing. Noordman and Guerrero, college students with part-time jobs, did have a dark side—they were fascinated with goth culture and violent movies, and apparently often teased and bullied Bullwinkle. But the nagging question is how their taste for black clothing and gruesome images, typical of many teens, suddenly took such a deadly turn. “Goth is one thing and evil is another,” says Rachel Schneider, a high school classmate of the three. “Damien and Kinzie were into death and cruelty and ugly things.”

The facts of the murder are not in dispute. On Sept. 13 Noordman took Bullwinkle hiking and was later joined by Guerrero. They led her to a grave they had dug earlier, and Guerrero shot her; Noordman then took the gun and shot the writhing girl in the head. Both kicked dirt over her body, then later ate at Denny’s and went to the movies.

Guerrero and Noordman claim the trip was a prank intended to scare Bullwinkle. Noordman says she didn’t even know Guerrero had brought a gun, which he says went off accidentally. According to police reports, Noordman claims she shot Bullwinkle “because we did not want her to suffer.” The whole thing “was a bad joke,” insists Noordman’s lawyer Richard Leonard. “And it turned into an accidental shooting.” But Redlands Det. Chris Catren says, “We’re not investigating this as an accident. It was a personal dispute between the three of them.” Whatever the motive, the loss of Bullwinkle, a talented equestrian, has left her loved ones in pieces. “I used to tease her that she was going to have 100 babies so I could spoil them all,” says her mother, Diana, 44. “She made a difference in her 18 years. Imagine what she could have done in 70?”

The only child of parents who divorced when she was 3, Bullwinkle moved with her mother, a chief petty officer in the Coast Guard, to several postings before settling in Redlands six years ago. In high school she met Guerrero and Noordman, best friends who “always wore black and said things to shock people,” says Schneider. Former classmate Leigh Smith recalls that Noordman “once asked if I’d ever thought what it would be like to murder someone. And I’m like, ‘No,’ and she’s like, ‘Oh, I think about it all the time.’ ”

Bullwinkle copied their style but was only “pseudogoth,” says her mother. She also dated Guerrero for a few months this year, even though he had another girlfriend. “Damien was mean and manipulative to her,” says Schneider. “He and Kinzie were making fun of her, mocking and gossiping. She came to me crying about it.” Guerrero’s friend Skipton says, “She was in love with Damien, and he’d be like, ‘Leave me alone.’ And she wouldn’t.” Her infatuation with Guerrero, and the squabbling it led to, apparently wore Bullwinkle down. “It’s time for me to move on from…those horrible people that I was somehow friends with,” she wrote in her online journal days before she died, “and go find my real friends.”

Instead she found herself in a remote spot in San Timoteo Canyon. After Bullwinkle’s body turned up, and Noordman’s cousin told police he’d seen a gun in Guerrero’s car, cops matched casings from the scene to a handgun bought by Guerrero’s brother. Charged with murder, the two are in a detention center awaiting a Dec. 16 hearing. “I don’t think they took her out to kill her,” says Skipton. But “if it was a joke,” wonders Smith, “why did they need bullets?”

It will likely be a long time before Bullwinkle’s mother can make sense of it all. “I miss her settling in with her big furry slippers and mismatched pajamas to watch TV,” she says of the daughter who wanted to be a psychologist and writer. Near the spot where Bullwinkle’s body was found, a memorial rock is inscribed with words from a favorite Tori Amos song: “I’ve cried 1,000 oceans…and I would cry 1,000 more if that’s what it takes to sail you home.” The words were chosen by Kelly’s friend Kinzie.

Alex Tresniowski. Strawberry Saroyan in Redlands

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