Why did a devoted San Ramon mom decide to end her own life and take her little girl with her?
In a home video made the year before Maegan Mundi died, she sits on the living room couch of her San Ramon home. She’s slender and attractive, with long brown hair and a voice that rings with warmth. Casually dressed in jeans and an oversize T-shirt, she’s holding hands with her fiancé, Jan Bottorff. The two are joking about how their home movie needs "character development" when Mundi’s daughter, a golden-haired little girl clad in just a diaper, climbs onto Mundi’s lap and coaxes her to play "fall away."
Mundi does a pantomime of falling off the couch, raising her arms overhead and collapsing forward. The little girl, whose name is Galadriel, giggles delightedly and asks Mumsy to "fall away" again. Mundi does it again and again, all the while sporting a sideways grin.
The video captures a sweet moment, a playful, affectionate interaction, with Mundi in one of the many roles she took on in life: that of loving mother. Bottorff wants to believe that Mundi wasn’t just playing a part, that she was truly happy when they made this video in September 2002. But he also knows that if her happiness was real, it didn’t last.
Just more than a year later, Bottorff, a software developer, arrived home from a conference in Seattle on a Sunday evening. Looking for Mundi’s car, he tried to go through a side door into the garage but had to turn back because the garage was choked with heat and fumes.
Fearing Mundi was in the garage, he called 911. One police car raced to his house, then others, and Bottorff called to the officers that there might also be a little girl inside.
He soon learned that Mundi, 38, was dead. Hours passed as he and a friend who had picked him up at the airport waited in her car. Finally, an officer brought more bad news. Yes, they had found Galadriel: Three years and eight months old, and she, too, was dead.
Contra Costa County Sheriff’s investigators ruled the case a murder-suicide. Before taking her own life, they said, Mundi murdered Galadriel—and thereby joined a category of killers whose crimes provoke particular outrage and disbelief. Probably the most infamous of these is Andrea Yates, the mentally tormented Texas housewife who drowned her five children in June 2001.
But these cases also occur locally. In June 2005, Mary Alicia Driscoll, a single Walnut Creek mother, drove to a remote country road in Sonoma County and fatally shot her five-year-old daughter and herself. Three months later, a homeless Oakland mother who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia admitted to police that she threw her three little boys into San Francisco Bay.
These killings shock us, not just because we don’t usually associate women with violent crime but because they challenge society’s model of nurturing, self-sacrificing motherhood. We’re tempted to quickly classify the mothers as inherently crazy or cruelly self-centered, but there are often complex factors underlying these crimes, including marital breakdown, financial stress, and under-treated mental illness, including postpartum depression. Experts say it is important to look at these factors in order to try to understand the evolution of these crimes and gain a chance to prevent future tragedies.
Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who testified on behalf of Andrea Yates, says that in many such cases, the mothers are suicidally depressed and view their children as "extensions" of themselves, worrying that the children can’t survive without them. Resnick, one of a number of mental health experts interviewed by Diablo about this case, says this is one possible explanation for Mundi’s decision to murder her daughter. "Once she decided to die," he says, "she thought her daughter was better off with her." Then there are rare instances, Resnick says, of mothers who, Medea-like, kill their children out of revenge. They want to get even with boyfriends or husbands who they believe have wronged them. In Mundi’s case, the only motive police publicly ascribed to the deaths was a custody dispute between Mundi and her ex-husband, Galadriel’s father.
Although Bottorff knew all about Mundi’s complaints against her ex-husband, he believes there was more to the loss of Mundi and Galadriel than just a custody dispute. Mundi’s relatives and friends are similarly convinced. Like all survivors of a terrible trauma, they have gone back and forth over their memories, reliving the time they spent with an intelligent and competent woman who seemed to have quite a lot going for her.
In reviewing Mundi’s life’s journey from a small town in upstate New York to Asia, North Africa, San Francisco, and the suburban East Bay, they have tried to pinpoint how and when things started to go wrong for her. They also recall certain aspects of Mundi’s personality—her search for a sense of identity and a tendency toward impulsive and dramatic change—and wonder how much those presaged her final, murderous choice.
As they were to learn, Mundi left many clues about what was going on in her mind—right up to her final days, hours, and moments.
undi was born on Memorial Day in 1965 and reared in Cobleskill, New York, a picture-postcard town nestled in rolling hills about 45 miles west of Albany. She never knew her biological mother and father and was raised by adoptive parents: Jared Van Wagenen IV, a young minister of the Reformed Church in America, and his wife, Carol, a homemaker who doted on both Mundi and her older brother, Jed, who was also adopted but from a different family.
Mundi’s adoptive father is a mild, approachable man of 69 who is now semi-retired from his ministry. He says that even as a small child, Mundi, whom the family named Mary Margaret and called Meg, was a quiet, serious girl who preferred books and writing to playing with toys. "The kid was a whiz," adds her brother.
But Mundi, whose IQ would later be rated at genius level, was not an easygoing girl. She constantly asked "why," says her brother. "She had to examine everything under a microscope." Her focused, analytical nature made Mundi a person who everyone says would have made a great lawyer, but who, at age seven or eight, was opinionated, liked to "be the smartest person in the room," and was quick to point out faults in other people.
When Mundi was rude and judgmental, Jared says, his wife was sometimes reluctant to correct her. He explains: "[Carol] is a gracious lady, but whenever Meg was having trouble relating to another person, her common response was, ‘Meg, you’re so bright, people are jealous of you. They don’t know how to handle you.’ "
In 1977, when Mundi was 11, Jared and Carol Van Wagenen divorced. He married Marilyn, an open, expressive art teacher who is still his wife.
Mundi and her brother lived with their father and his new wife, but relations between the preteen Mundi and her new stepmother quickly grew strained. Around the same time, Mundi accused her father of being a narrow-minded evangelist. By the time she had entered the local high school, Mundi was privately rebelling, rejecting her good-girl, minister’s daughter persona. Although she continued to earn top grades, work on the school yearbook, and sing in the choir, she privately experimented with marijuana and other drugs, and reveled in the attention that came from young men she met sneaking into bars in town.
High school classmate Peggy Holmes Spear says Mundi was chameleon-like, changing much more dramatically than their peers did over the course of four years. "I think she was a mystery, not only to the student population but also to herself."
Even to Mary Ellen Mallia, one of Mundi’s best friends, she was a bit of a puzzle. One reason, Mallia says, is that she "compartmentalized" people in her life. "When we were 15, I remember Meg telling me about guys she was sneaking out with. I never met them. Normally, you’d meet them. They’d be part of the circle."
She and others say they sensed Mundi was desperately searching for a sense of identity and of belonging. They say Mundi told them over the years that she struggled with who she was, not having known her "real" parents, whose identities were kept confidential. At the same time, her brother says that he, unlike Mundi, felt truly loved and never agonized over why his biological parents gave him up.
Mundi’s problems seemed to come to a head on Palm Sunday when she was 16. That morning, her stepmother went to wake her up but found her bed empty. The Van Wagenens tracked Mundi down in Schenectady, where she had spent the night at a college boy’s apartment. After Mundi returned home, she went into "one of her manic, crazy, chaos moments," says Marilyn. "She broke things, broke mirrors."
Such fits had become increasingly frequent and violent, so Jared insisted that Mundi seek counseling. He also suggested they go together, because he was convinced her trouble stemmed from their deteriorating relationship. Mundi refused and announced that she was going to live with her mother, Carol.
It wouldn’t be the last time Jared suggested that his daughter seek professional help, or the last time she either refused or wriggled out of it by arguing that she didn’t need it. "Trying to get her help was like chasing mercury," he says.
f Mundi was unhappy in Cobleskill, her chance for a more urbane lifestyle came with her acceptance to Brandeis University, outside Boston. But a few days into freshman orientation, she called her family to say that her hometown boyfriend, who was going to college in Schenectady, was despondent because his brother had committed
suicide. She said he needed her to come home.
But her stepmother doubts that was Mundi’s only reason for leaving Brandeis. She and others say Mundi had a pattern of undermining herself when she was on the verge of getting something she wanted, adding that she may have been intimidated because she wasn’t a big fish at Brandeis. Mundi ended up closer to home at the College of Saint Rose, a small liberal arts school in Albany, graduating summa cum laude in 1987. Her degree was in accounting, and her persona at the time was aspiring female business exec circa 1980s: big hair and shoulder pads, says Mallia.
While at Saint Rose, Mundi began an intense love affair with one of her professors, who happened to be married. While in this relationship, she started an MBA program at a college across the Hudson River from Albany in Troy, New York.
Mundi ended the affair after realizing her lover wasn’t going to leave his wife, and at 23 and a few credits shy of finishing her MBA, she dropped out. She told her cousin, Gretchen Cosgrove, that she had been "getting too caught up in materialism" and wanted to travel the world. "She’d get so excited when she found something new, this new thing that would be her springboard, and she believed that everything would fall into place," says Cosgrove, who is a year younger than Mundi and sometimes felt awed by her cousin’s intelligence.
In fact, Mundi became a bohemian globe-trotter. She traveled to such destinations as northern Thailand and Hong Kong with a reckless enthusiasm, according to her brother, who received an excited phone call from her in Morocco, saying she had walked barefoot across a floor covered with scorpions. She became entranced with that country’s traditional Islamic culture, which inspired a new plan for total transformation. Over the next few years, she traveled back and forth to Morocco several times and decided to marry a local man, a friend, because she hoped a husband would make it easier for her, a Western woman, to immerse herself in the local society.
The marriage, of course, shocked everyone who knew her, none of whom could imagine Mundi as a Muslim bride. And to no one’s surprise, the marriage didn’t last. By the mid-1990s, she was back in the United States and decided to head to San Francisco.
Mundi’s friend Bill Kapp, with whom she stayed when she first arrived in San Francisco, says he enjoyed deep conversations with Mundi and fell in love with her. But he asked her to find her own place because she was smoking pot heavily and he had quit. He says he questioned her about her constant need to get high: "The big reason she gave me is that the world was going so slow, and her brain was going so fast that she needed to slow it down."
In an essay Mundi wrote, she referred to pot, and to an inner struggle, saying, "I was medicating away all my symptoms, and life was passing me by without me getting to the root of my unhappiness."
She decided to stop smoking marijuana and to overhaul her diet. Friends say the new Mundi took to her health regimen with her characteristic single-mindedness, eliminating processed foods, most meat, and other foods that she believed caused depression.
s investigators discovered after Mundi’s death, she left important clues about her state of mind as she entered the next phase of her life, which culminated in Galadriel’s birth. Those clues were found in extensive writings Mundi left on her laptop, including an autobiographical novel about a bright and talented woman named Helen. Like Mundi, Helen carries out a deliberate and explicit search for an identity that will bring her happiness. And at some point, Helen comes to believe that the key to happiness is to live the "American woman’s dream," complete with an exciting career, a good husband, a house in the suburbs, and, most important, a child.
That’s certainly the dream Mundi decided to pursue, starting in about 1995, first by nailing down the exciting career. The dot-com craze was heating up, and Mundi, who was turning 30, began studying multimedia design at San Francisco State University. By this point, she had changed her given name from Mary Margaret to Maegan—almost as though she was giving a signal that she was entering a new phase.
It’s unclear when Mundi started writing her novel, but the course of her life at this point and the novel’s plot follow basically the same path. Both Mundi and Helen found SF State’s multimedia program to be useful in more ways than one. Both author and fictional alter ego caught the eye of a graphic design instructor who wasn’t conventionally good looking but was charming, ambitious, tall, and broad-shouldered. In the novel, he asks Helen out to dinner, and she is direct with him about her desire to marry and have children. Within a few weeks, he introduces Helen to his family in Southern California and proposes that they elope. "My heart fluttered. Here was a man who was really a man, ready to commit and begin building a life together," Helen says.
Mundi and her graphic design instructor married at San Francisco’s City Hall on December 30, 1996. Over the next few years, they set to work achieving the other goals in her life plan: the house in the suburbs and the child. In 1999, they found a house in Castro Valley—a modest three-bedroom 1949 fixer-upper with hardwood floors and room in the yard for a hot tub.
By this time, Mundi was pregnant. In the novel, Helen describes how she had already experienced everything that held any interest for her, except the "fascinating thing that is parenting. … I had figured out how to be happy," she says: "Choose one’s own happiness, and go after it."
Characteristically, Mundi prepared for her new role by devouring all the information she could on pregnancy and childbirth, and by fashioning herself into what her friend Mallia calls "Earth Mom." She decided to give birth at home because she believed it would offer the most natural environment as her child entered the world.
All along, as Mundi disclosed to some family members, she wanted to have a girl. In the novel, when Helen learns that she’s carrying a girl, she says, "I felt myself within sight of the finish line. I had achieved my momentous life goals set only a few years earlier." She talks about forging her own destiny, the triumph of her will: "I had made my choices and gone after what I wanted, right down to the gender of my child."
aladriel Amanda Mundi arrived at 11:14 a.m. on March 16, 2000. She was a healthy 7.25 pounds, 22 inches long, and was given a unique first name inspired by the beautiful elf in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Mundi gave up web designing to become a full-time mom. She and her husband agreed to practice "attachment parenting," which emphasizes constant contact between parents and child. The mom breast-feeds, and the baby sleeps in the parents’ bed to ease nighttime feedings and mother-child bonding.
But as much as Galadriel seemed to be the fulfillment of Mundi’s greatest desire, the baby’s arrival signaled the unraveling of another key achievement: Mundi’s marriage. Once again, Mundi was choking within sight of victory. Friends say the trouble between Mundi and her husband went back to the likelihood that Mundi didn’t really love him. "There was an intellectual bond but not real passion," says Cosgrove. Others were more blunt, saying Mundi used her husband as a vehicle to obtain a house and child.
For her part, Mundi told friends the two married without really knowing each other. She also complained that she had caught him looking at pornography on the Internet, which she considered a form of infidelity.
In several brief conversations with Diablo before he declined a formal interview, Mundi’s ex-husband, who asked that his name not be used, said he loved Mundi and would have done anything for her. "Maegan and Galadriel were my world. I never would have done anything to hurt them." He says one problem in their marriage was that Mundi wanted "everything to be perfect." As for the porn issue, he explains he was under a lot of pressure, working five jobs because she wanted him to make money. He adds that during the pregnancy, his wife refused to have sex. Once she confronted him about the porn, he says, "I admitted I screwed up."
Asked if he thought Mundi suffered from postpartum depression, either immediately after the birth or closer to the time of her death, he said it "started before the baby was born."
Mundi’s family and friends believe her allegations that her husband was "addicted" to porn were at least exaggerated, or worse, paranoid. For one thing, Mundi was never specific about any behavior that constituted "addiction." They all suspect that Mundi’s continuing concerns about it was an example of how she could fixate on a detail of a situation and destroy everything. Others add that she was using the porn issue to justify dumping her husband and limiting his contact with Galadriel.
Still, Mundi stayed with her husband while Galadriel was a baby, and the two even traveled together to Cobleskill when Galadriel was nine months old.
Jared and Marilyn Van Wagenen have disturbing memories of that visit. After they picked up Mundi and her husband at the Albany airport, Mundi limited their interaction with Galadriel, not letting them hold her.
The visit turned ugly with an incident touched off by Mundi’s porn fixation. Jared wanted to buy a cabinet for a new TV, and Marilyn suggested he buy one from a high-end, East Coast furniture company called Hooker. Jared went to do a computer search with Mundi sitting next to him with Galadriel on her lap. The search for "Hooker furniture" brought up prostitution websites. Mundi screamed, stood up with Galadriel, and called her father a "pervert," reducing him to tears.
y November 2001, Mundi and her husband were still living together but officially separated. Through an online dating service, Mundi began a feverish e-mail exchange with Bottorff, a successful tech professional in his late thirties. After Mundi sent a letter in a 24-page Word attachment, Bottorff wrote, "I think it’s time we meet."
Their first date was at Max’s Diner in San Ramon in mid-January, 2001. Mundi brought Galadriel, who was nearly two, but her presence didn’t dampen Bottorff’s enthusiasm. In fact, Bottorff, who comes off as a bit of a tech nerd although he is confident and engaging, says he was immediately smitten with Mundi’s "brainy-girl-next-door" persona. "It was love at first sight," he says.
A few more dates followed within the span of about a week, during which Mundi told Bottorff that she was amicably separated from her husband and eager to move out. She soon filed for divorce and accepted Bottorff’s offer to begin moving herself and Galadriel into his five-bedroom house in San Ramon.
The speed of the relationship amazed people who knew both her and Bottorff. Mundi’s family was horrified that she would move her daughter into a man’s home after knowing him only a few weeks. Meanwhile, Bottorff’s friends wondered whether Mundi was just a desperate single mom looking for free room and board. It’s possible that Bottorff acted so quickly because he was ready to start a family. "I think he’s a very optimistic person," says his friend Beth Corey. "He keeps thinking something very wonderful is going to happen to him."
Bottorff says Mundi told him that theirs was "a spiritual union for eternity," a reference from The Celestine Prophecy, a New Age best-seller that purports to reveal evidence of humankind’s spiritual re-awakening.
In any event, the two quickly settled into a pleasant, domestic routine. While Galadriel was at preschool, they retreated to their separate computers at home to work—Mundi to do freelance web design or work on her novel, Bottorff to write computer code. She also cooked delicious, healthful meals, including Moroccan stews made from organic ingredients she purchased at nearby Whole Foods. The two often picked up Galadriel at preschool and then took her to a playground, usually Memorial Park off Bollinger Canyon Road, which they came to call Birthday Park, because they first went there on Galadriel’s birthday. Their evenings were spent playing with Galadriel and watching kids movies. Except during preschool, the only times Galadriel wasn’t with Mundi or Bottorff were Monday and Thursday evenings and all day Saturday, when she was with her father.
Still, Bottorff says he and Mundi found time together as a couple. They enjoyed a passionate sex life, largely instigated by Mundi, whose appetite and energy were intense. They could make love until 4 in the morning. Three hours later, she’d be out of bed and ready to start her day. Such a high sex drive and an ability to function on little sleep can be signs of bipolar illness, Bottorff learned after Mundi’s death, but he didn’t think of that at the time. He simply told Mundi they had to cool things because her demands for sex were interfering with his ability to earn a living.
Things went along smoothly until June 2002, when Mundi shocked Bottorff by going to her estranged husband’s house in Castro Valley while he was at work. She smashed dishes, overturned furniture, and tried to flush a jewelry case containing his wedding ring down the toilet. She also nabbed his $2,500 Apple computer and brought it to San Ramon. Mundi told Bottorff what she had done and said she had paid a $5,000 retainer to a criminal defense attorney in case she was arrested. In the end, Bottorff says, Mundi worked out some kind of arrangement with her ex-husband so that he wouldn’t press charges.
Then, a few weeks later, Mundi announced she was pregnant with Bottorff’s child, but both she and Bottorff were torn by the news. He very much wanted to father his own biological child and had even proposed marriage, but was disturbed by Mundi’s recent behavior. The two hashed it out for several weeks, then scheduled and canceled an abortion before finally going through with one.
In the end, Bottorff says, both crises forced them to examine their feelings for each other, and Bottorff decided he definitely wanted to marry Mundi. Their life together seemed to get back on track. In October, they vacationed in Hawaii with Galadriel. In November, Bottorff met Mundi in Cobleskill for Thanksgiving and her great-aunt’s 90th birthday, although this trip also had disturbing moments. When Mundi picked Bottorff up at the Albany airport, she didn’t greet him warmly. He was a day late; bad weather had forced him to spend the night at a Chicago airport hotel. Mundi grilled him about whether he had viewed a porn channel on TV.
Bottorff knew about Mundi’s porn worries. Like others, he thought she was taking her concerns too far. "A man looking at porn? Isn’t that, like, the majority of American males?" he asks. He also didn’t like her position that he should never have sexual fantasies involving other women, because, to her, that was betrayal. In his view, she was exerting a form of mind control, and he told her so.
Once Bottorff arrived at Cobleskill, Mundi instructed him not to talk to her father; she was on the outs with him. Her stricture, of course, made things awkward for Bottorff, while her stepmother wondered whether Mundi was trying to keep Bottorff from learning things about her family that didn’t match with her version of events.
n Mundi’s autobiographical novel, the story takes a dark turn when her heroine begins to uncover a current of madness and murder lurking beneath her placid suburban existence. Helen begins to wonder if her husband is a killer. Meanwhile, Mundi started to believe that the father of her daughter was dangerous, saying she thought that because he looked at pornography he would molest Galadriel.
As 2003 wore on, Mundi became increasingly volatile as she decided that she had failed to live up to her American dream and wrote in her novel that she had "not bested destiny after all." Cosgrove, Mallia, and Kapp all say she had long phone conversations with them, complaining about her estranged husband and the tragedy of being stuck in a parenting relationship with a man she couldn’t stand. Cosgrove was becoming especially weary, mainly because Mundi always argued her way out of any advice Cosgrove offered, often with an arrogant, dismissive tone. "I loved her like a sister, but she drove me nuts," says Cosgrove.
Bottorff says he threatened to break things off with Mundi more than once because she was becoming increasingly moody and sometimes cruelly lashed out at him. During this time, Mundi was seeing a therapist, who, Bottorff says, diagnosed her as having a mix of anxiety and depression. Mundi alludes to being prescribed antianxiety medication in her writings, but Bottorff says he wasn’t aware of any prescriptions and doubts that Mundi would have taken any, given her wariness of conventional Western medicine. Her therapist declined to comment for this story, citing patient confidentiality.
In the spring of 2003, Mundi suddenly appeared in the doorway of Bottorff’s home office and announced: "I’m going to kill myself and let [her ex-husband] have Galadriel." Bottorff was shocked by Mundi’s statement and says the two spent the rest of the day talking. Mundi ended the conversation by assuring him that the suicidal thoughts had passed and promising to discuss the episode with her therapist.
Unbeknownst to Bottorff, this wasn’t the first time Mundi had talked about taking her own life. According to Cosgrove, Mundi said she’d had suicidal thoughts when she was a teenager but explained that they had passed. In her writings, Mundi describes Helen putting a loaded shotgun to her mouth after learning her college-professor lover had slept with his wife. Finally, Mundi wrote in a journal entry, viewed by Bottorff after her death, that she had aborted his baby because she believed she was a bad mother to Galadriel and was feeling suicidal.
A few months after threatening suicide, Mundi, who had been considering going to law school, was offered a full scholarship to attend Ave Maria School of Law, a small Catholic school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Bottorff started to wonder how much she wanted to stay in the relationship. Meanwhile, Bottorff says, Mundi’s ex-husband told her he would do what he could to stop her from leaving the state.
A few days after Mundi’s ex-husband threatened to keep her from moving, she lashed out at Bottorff, then disappeared for a few days with Galadriel. The two checked into a cabin near Yosemite National Park. From there she called her friend Bill Kapp. She repeated to him a belief that she was "damned to hell" because she had aborted Bottorff’s baby. She also told him she had been having suicidal thoughts, but assured him she was in therapy and taking medication.
When Mundi returned to San Ramon, she patched things up with Bottorff and again mentioned having suicidal thoughts. But she also reassured him once more that she was fine. One evening, they watched a DVD about Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded for refusing to go along with Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. The full scholarship that Ave Maria offered Mundi bore More’s name. Bottorff believes the story of More’s martyrdom fed Mundi’s image of herself as a crusader against porn and for women in custody disputes wanting to move out of state.
In late September, a week before their divorce became final, her estranged husband laid down the gauntlet by filing papers demanding joint legal and physical custody. Up until that point, Mundi had sole physical custody. Mundi was "hysterical," says Bottorff, and flew into action. She consulted two different lawyers about "move-away" strategies. One was Kim Robinson, an Oakland attorney who was representing a former Danville mother in a landmark move-away case that was up before the California Supreme Court. Bottorff says Mundi told him that Robinson said she was free to just leave the state and could sort out the custody from afar. (Robinson declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Those discussions continued through October, while Mundi wrote in her laptop—including in a will she drew up—about her ex-husband’s deficiencies as a father and human being. She was angry that current laws could prevent her from pursuing career opportunities out of state and failed to protect her daughter from such a "thoroughly untrustworthy individual."
Mundi received halfhearted sympathy from family and friends, including Bottorff. He was uncomfortable with Mundi’s belief that mothers have more natural rights to their children than fathers.
But throughout October and November, Mundi still reached out to people, including her father and stepmother. She contemplated returning to upstate New York to study law and asked them if she and Galadriel could come live with them for a while. Her father says she sounded depressed about approaching 40 and compared herself negatively to friends who were happy with their families and established in their careers. A deep sadness in Mundi’s voice prompted Marilyn Van Wagenen, who as a former teacher had encountered distressed teenagers, to ask if she was suicidal. "No," Mundi said. "I would never do that to Galadriel."
Whatever private turmoil Mundi was experiencing at the time, she didn’t seem to let it interfere with how she interacted with Galadriel, according to those who observed her regularly. "She seemed like a wonderful mom, very caring and wanting to do what was best for her daughter," says Ruth Valdes, the director of the Child Day School in San Ramon, which Galadriel began attending in the summer of 2003.
But in her writings, Mundi expressed negative thoughts about Galadriel. "She looks like me when she’s peaceful, but when her face is twisted up into full-blown complaint, she’s the spitting image of the man I’ve come to despise."
n the morning of Monday, November 10, 2003, Bottorff hugged Galadriel good-bye before Mundi took her to preschool. He was off to his conference in Seattle. The weekend had been pleasant, just like old times, and he was feeling pretty good about things with Mundi, even though she was still trying to leave the state. He had started to think about moving to be with her wherever she decided to go. She drove him to Oakland International Airport, where she gave him a "really passionate send-off."
On Wednesday, Mundi signed a contract with Kim Robinson to represent her move-away case. A hearing was set for several weeks later in the Superior Court in Hayward. But she needed Robinson’s help with a more immediate issue. Sometime the week before, Mundi’s ex-husband had asked if Galadriel could stay overnight with him in Castro Valley on Saturday, November 15. He had never asked for an overnight visit before. Mundi told him no, and he said it was OK but that he wanted to discuss overnight visits at the next court hearing.
As it turns out, Robinson gave Mundi another reason to worry, Bottorff says. She suggested that Mundi’s ex-husband might keep Galadriel overnight anyway, Bottorff says, in violation of the custody agreement—even though the father always abided by the agreement. Still, Mundi was sufficiently concerned to contemplate leaving California before Galadriel’s dreaded Saturday visit.
At about 9 on Thursday night, Bottorff reached Mundi by phone. "I’m not doing very well," she said. She told him that her lawyer advised her not to leave the state. For about an hour, they discussed her options. He repeated an offer to pay for her to attend law school in the Bay Area—an offer her ex-husband says he made as well. By the end of the conversation, Mundi sounded disappointed but resigned about working things out in court. At no point did she mention any thoughts about hurting herself or Galadriel. Before saying good night, she told Bottorff that Galadriel was really looking forward to his coming home.
Bottorff tried to reach Mundi on Friday night, but there was no answer. He tried again around 10 a.m. Saturday, certain Mundi would be home because that’s when Galadriel’s father was due to pick her up for her visit. When Mundi didn’t answer, he became worried that she had left the state. He called several more times and tried to get an early flight out of Seattle the next morning but couldn’t.
What Bottorff didn’t know was that about a month earlier, Mundi had begun working on a chapter in her novel called "The End." In it, her protagonist Helen outlines her reasons and methods for killing herself and her daughter. Although the prose is lucid and the arguments follow a clear line of reasoning, Helen’s life seems to blur more than ever with Mundi’s own reality—for example, with the name of Mundi’s ex-husband being interchanged with that of the ex-husband of the fictional Helen.
"Life is too hard. I am fed up," Helen says, while blaming the legal system for denying women rights to pursue "whole lives" and pledging to fight laws forcing her to turn over her daughter for overnight visits. "It is considered a noble thing to martyr oneself for one’s country. … I martyr myself for my gender and to protect my daughter."
Mental health experts say this proclamation is the sort of grandiose justification often seen in severely disturbed and suicidal people. More than one of the experts interviewed for this article said that Mundi’s subsequent comments might indicate she suffered a psychotic break with reality.
In contemplating her final moments, Helen worries about "the force" that intervened moments before a prior suicide attempt. This force is made up of chemicals in the brain that drive the instinct for self-preservation. She calls it "the angel."
"I’ll need to get my thoughts in order," she says, "to beat back the angel before it starts flapping its wings."
She knows she has to kill her daughter first. And if the angel swoops in to protect the little girl, she’ll defy it by remembering this key point: "No matter how wonderful [my daughter] is now, sharing genes and life with [her father], it’s only a matter of time before she will become the source of the greatest sadness in my life. Know that by that time it will be so much more impossible to contain her in any way, much less exercise my free will, that I will have naught to do but suffer until the end of my natural life."
Once she kills her daughter, Helen is confident she’ll be able to end her own life. "With a mortal crime on my hands, the angel won’t have a chance."
Her plan set, Helen made a list to carry it out. The list included "plastic bag for suffocating," rope for tying, pillow, knife, note—and finally—"angel repellent."
aladriel did not go to preschool on Friday, and Bottorff later learned that Mundi had brought home all her belongings from school on Thursday. Coroner’s reports don’t estimate when Mundi killed Galadriel, then herself, only that she was alive for at least a day longer than her daughter.
An autopsy report indicates that Mundi fed her daughter pills, most likely to make her sleepy. Then she strangled her, the coroner’s report says. Police found the 32-pound girl in an upstairs bathroom, behind a locked door on which hung a sign that read "do not disturb." Galadriel was lying on her back on the floor, covered by a blanket. A plastic cord was wrapped around her neck.
Police also found knives and a tub filled with bloody water in the bathroom. Mundi had cut her left wrist and apparently lay down in the water to bleed to death. But that attempt didn’t work, and Mundi was still alive Saturday morning between 9 and 10, although in what state it’s hard to say. She didn’t answer the door when Galadriel’s father came to pick up his little girl for their visit. Nor did she respond to his later e-mail asking where she was.
She was alive as late as 7:30 p.m. and alert enough to do one final online search: "what is that other pipe on the back of my car." Twenty-seven hours later, when police entered the garage on Sunday night, they found two vacuum cleaner hoses attached to the rear exhaust pipes of Mundi’s Honda Accord and running into its windows. The hoses were taped into place. Mundi was in the car in full rigor mortis.
Bottorff later found out that Mundi left several notes, in which she apologized for not giving him a chance to properly say good-bye and explained that she didn’t want him "stuck in the mess I’ve made of my life." She also thanked him for "some of the best love I’ve ever known."
Later that November, the Van Wagenen family held a memorial service for Mundi and Galadriel at Jared’s former church. Bottorff flew back for the service. After learning that Galadriel’s father had scattered his daughter’s ashes at a favorite spot at the Oakland Zoo, Bottorff took some of Mundi’s ashes, which had been divided between him and Mundi’s family, and scattered them in the same area. On what would have been Galadriel’s fourth birthday in March 2004, he released a balloon at "Birthday Park" in her memory.
hose who knew Mundi are trying to make sense of what happened. They’ve wrestled with guilt, asking themselves if they should have done more—listened to Mundi more, pushed her more to get help, even called authorities to intervene. They say Mundi’s suicide wasn’t a total surprise. But her killing Galadriel was unthinkable because she seemed like such a devoted mother. Cosgrove says she wonders, though, whether Mundi’s devotion to Galadriel was less out of love than to satisfy Mundi’s own need for an identity—in this case, that of Supermom.
Resnick, the Case Western psychiatry professor, says Mundi’s search for identity, perhaps stemming from her being adopted, could have contributed to her conviction that she should take Galadriel with her. The alternative was to leave her with perhaps the same sense of not belonging that Mundi experienced in life—and a father Mundi despised. Both Resnick and Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, refer to a phenomenon in such cases where the suicidal mother sees her child’s identity "enmeshed" with her own.
Walnut Creek psychiatrist Michael Schwab says the custody battle could have been the event that sent an already troubled woman into this fatal spiral. "It sounds like she was an incredibly confused person who was disturbed for a long period of time," he says, referring to the outline of her life story.
The people who knew Mundi well, like many in their situation, saw warning signs but just didn’t expect that their loved one would really take things so far. As Shirley McGuff, social services coordinator for John Muir Behavioral Health, points out, Mundi’s outward competence as a tech professional and mother would have made it easy for her to convince them she was OK.
Even though Jared and Marilyn Van Wagenen now believe that Mundi did suffer from mental illness—with her mood swings, grandiose and paranoid thinking, fixation on details to the exclusion of the bigger picture, and fractured sense of self—they say they don’t know whether treatment would have made her less self-centered and cruel, especially near the end of her life. The anger is audible in Jared’s otherwise mild voice as he talks about his granddaughter’s murder and Mundi’s unwillingness to see the good in life. The bottom line, he says, is, "Meg didn’t know how to love."
As for Bottorff, after all the tragedy that Mundi brought to his life, he maintains that the vast majority of his time with her was happy and peaceful. Regardless of what else she was, Mundi seemed for the most part to be a normal, responsible, and intelligent companion and mother, Bottorff says. He can’t reconcile all that happened with the Mundi who sat on his couch and joked in a silly home movie, playing energetically to make her little girl laugh.
"It’s still hard," he says, "for me to believe what she did."
by the numbers
child murder and suicide
Annual number of homicides in the United States
Annual number of filicides (a parent killing a son or daughter)
Percentage of filicides in which the child is under 13
Percentage of homicides committed by women
Percentage of filicides committed by women
Number of suicides in the United States in 2003
Percentage of suicide victims who have depression or other diagnosable mental or substance-abuse disorders prior to their deaths
Sources: Child murder statistics from 2005 U.S. Department of Justice Report, Family Violence Statistics. Suicide statistics from the American Association of Suicidology and the National Institute of Mental Health.
what to do
A friend tells you she is feeling down and thinking about suicide. What should you do?
Take it seriously. Yes, many people go through tough times and think about suicide without ever attempting it, but don’t assume your friend is in that category.
Talk to her, listen, don’t be judgmental. Ask her if she has a plan for killing herself or has any weapons or other means of committing suicide—guns, stockpiled pills—at her disposal. Find out if she’s been drinking or using drugs, because alcohol and drugs increase risk. Offer hope for alternatives, but don’t give glib reassurances that everything is OK.
Note other warning signs. Drastic changes in behavior or appearance; increased depression, moodiness, aggressiveness, and expressions of despair; decreased performance at school or work; withdrawal from favorite activities; settling affairs.
Help her get help. Stay with her at all times—or make sure someone does—until professional help can be arranged. Urge her to call a 24-hour crisis hotline or a therapist, if she’s already seeing one. Call the hotline yourself to get advice, or drive her to the nearest emergency room. If she or others seem in danger, call 911.
For callers in Contra Costa County: Contra Costa Crisis Center, (800) 830-5380, www.crisis-center.org. Callers in Contra Costa can also call 211, a national, toll-free number that connects to the Contra Costa Crisis Center. 211 started in Contra Costa in February; it is currently operating in "test mode" and can’t be reached by cell phone.
For callers in Alameda County: Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, (800) 309-2131, www.crisissupport.org
Nationwide Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
Sources: American Association of Suicidology, Contra Costa Crisis Center, Crisis Support Services of Alameda County