"One minute you're a bright light in society, the next you're in a dark place," Berkelhammer's attorney tells PEOPLE
Melissa Berkelhammer was once the toast of New York City society. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she went on to write for Avenue magazine and the Huffington Post, covering everything from fashion to film.
Now, the 38-year-old socialite stands accused of stealing $4,000 worth of bags and clothing from Bergdorf Goodman and squatting in actress Julianne Michelle’s Fifth Avenue apartment. What happened to the woman who had such a promising future ahead of her?
“One minute you’re a bright light in society, the next you’re in a dark place,” Berkelhammer’s attorney Mark Heller tells PEOPLE.
Heller knows a thing or two about celebrities fallen from grace: He also represents Lindsay Lohan. In fact, he says he took Berkelhammer as a client because she reminded him of Lohan’s Mean Girls character. “Melissa fell on hard times,” he says. “I immediately made a connection between the two.”
A Shocking Accident
Berkelhammer’s troubles started last year, when she was hit by a car while crossing York Avenue in late May 2014.
“Her shoe had flown over 200 feet. She was bloody and just in and out of consciousness,” a source told the New York Post‘s Page Six at the time of the accident.
Berkelhammer broke both of her legs in the accident and was left bedridden for months. It was just the beginning of her woes.
Fall from Grace
Heller says that after the accident, Berkelhammer “was cast aside.” As a blogger and reporter, Berkelhammer had the power and influence to make people famous. But after the accident, she fell on hard times and suddenly no one wanted anything to do with her.
“She became a social pariah in society where she was once held in high regard,” he says. “The same girls that were very much attentive to her suddenly turned their backs to her.”
It was tough for Berkelhammer, who became dependent on her septuagenarian mother for company. The two were shopping together last week when she was arrested outside Bergdorf’s.
“It’s a misunderstanding,” says Heller. “She was not intending to steal anything.”
Berkelhammer had visited the luxury store on May 27 to get her hair done. Afterwards, she met up with her mother Jo Ellen Berkelhammer for some shopping. They became separated and, in a panic, Berkelhammer stepped out of the store while searching for her mother – stuffing the items she had in her hands into her purse as she went. “At that point, she got grabbed,” Heller says, adding that she was in a “state of disorientation.”
“She had a hair treatment there that she paid $600 for,” he continues. “Why would she rob them?”
But police arrested Berkelhammer and booked her on charges of grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property.
She sobbed through her arraignment on May 28, utterly distraught. “I’ll never get another job,” she cried, according to Page Six.
Heller points at the medication she’s been on for the injuries sustained in last year’s car accident as a possible cause for her behavior. “She’s under a lot of stress and a lot of strain. She’s lost her jobs writing and blogging,” he says. “The medication leaves her feeling loopy and disoriented.”
He insists that everything will be clear once the court takes a look at her medical records. “They have to assess what the intent was,” he says. “She never meant to take anything.”
Heller adds: “Her record is blemishless. That’s why they released her.” He’s partly right. It’s true she’s never been charged with anything else, but Berkelhammer has a history of bizarre run-ins with the law.
A Cry for Help?
In 2010, police were called to check on her after she posted what appeared to be a suicidal cry for help on Facebook, writing: “I can’t live in a world that is totally against, and I have all of you to thank. Goodbye. Thanks for treating me like s— my whole life. Hope you can live with yourself.”
She turned out to be fine. “I guess it’s a lot easier to ‘send someone over’ than actually be a friend,” she later wrote, Page Six reports.
Then, in 2011, she allegedly threw a fit over the thickness of her soup, prompting the inn where she was staying to dial 911.
And just last year, Berkelhammer and her mom sued a valet for allegedly stealing $80,000 in jewelry from their hotel room.
That lawsuit, as well as one against the driver who hit her last year, are still ongoing.
And this week, yet another of Berkelhammer’s legal battles emerged, this time on a different front: housing court.
Squatting on Fifth Avenue
Berkelhammer met actress Julianne Michelle, 27, at a few red-carpet events prior to her life-threatening accident, Michelle’s mother Joycelyn Engle tells PEOPLE. They became friendly, and when Berkelhammer asked Michelle if she could stay with her for three weeks while her apartment was renovated, Michelle said yes, Engle says.
But then the accident happened and Berkelhammer’s three-week residency turned into months. “Her doctor appealed to us to let her stay,” Engle says. And they did, allowing the socialite to live there with her mother Jo Ellen until she’d recovered entirely from the horrific injuries.
That’s when things truly went south. Engle says she tried to help Berkelhammer and Jo Ellen find an apartment of their own. “I found them a lovely apartment on the West Side,” she says. “All of a sudden they said they’d only live on the Upper East Side.”
Engle found them a nice place near their neighborhood of choice, only to have them shoot her down again. “They said, ‘No, that’s not the Upper East Side,’ ” she says.
“We had no choice,” Engle continues. She began eviction proceedings in February. “They absolutely would not leave,” she explains. “My daughter was like a prisoner. She locked herself in her room. It’s been a true horror story.”
There’s some dispute about whether the Berkelhammers paid rent while they shared the apartment with Michelle. Jo Ellen insists that they did, writing in court papers obtained by PEOPLE that they were charged $2,100 a month in cash, plus a security deposit. Engle disagrees. “We never charged them one penny,” she says. “They never paid a dime.” A note signed by Jo Ellen and provided to PEOPLE by Engle seemingly confirms this.
The two parties came to an understanding in March that the Berkelhammers would move out by May 15 and that they would not be charged rent for the two months it took them to vacate the Fifth Avenue apartment.
Except they didn’t leave on May 15. “They made them promise to leave,” says Engle. “But they’re still here.”
She took the Berkelhammers back to court, writing in court documents that they are “dangerous people” who are “threatening to burn down [the] apartment.” Engle adds that Michelle had the gas turned off in the apartment because she was so fearful. “Julianne has not been able to use her kitchen in over eight months,” she says.
This time, the judge told the Berkelhammers they had to be out by May 29. They missed that deadline as well.
Finally, a warrant of eviction was issued on Tuesday authorizing a marshal to get the Berkelhammers out, court records show. “We don’t see any movement yet,” says Engle. “But it will happen. I pray to God it happens. I’ve been worried sick about my daughter and myself and my husband.
“This is too stressful,” she says. “It’s not our responsibility.”
As of Friday, the Berkelhammers had yet to vacate Michelle’s apartment.
Despite her issues with the family, Engle hopes that Berkelhammer will turn her life around. “I don’t think she’s an evil person,” she says. “We don’t believe she is a thief. She’s never stolen anything from us.”
Engle adds: “She just seems obsessed with her social standing.”
But Heller says that with the right help, Berkelhammer will one day return to her coveted position in society. She just needs someone in her corner. “With the court’s guidance, Melissa will be back on a path to be a respected and valued contributor in society,” he said in a recent statement.
He adds to PEOPLE: “I’m pretty confident we can turn her life around.”
• Reporting by ROSE MINUTAGLIO