By Lisa Miller | New York Magazine | August 25, 2015
Payton had been called “Bella” since about the first grade. Morgan had been Bella’s best friend since fourth. Both girls loved cats and playing dress-up. Morgan was obsessed with Harry Potter; at least one time at lunch, she and Bella imagined that Voldemort was pursuing them through the cafeteria. Now in sixth grade, they talked on the telephone every night. Morgan’s favorite teacher was Jill Weidenbaum, for reading and writing, and on May 30, 2014, the Friday of Morgan’s 12th-birthday sleepover, both girls hung around Ms. Weidenbaum’s classroom after school, helping her clean up.
There were three girls at the sleepover at Morgan’s house that night: Morgan and Bella and Morgan’s newer friend Anissa, who lived in the same housing complex as Morgan — Sunset Apartments, on Big Bend Road — and rode the school bus with her every day. Anissa and Bella knew each other, but Morgan was what they had in common: Each would have said that Morgan was her closest friend. At school, Anissa was an outsider, and Morgan a fantasist who made up stories in her head. Bella was the most social of the three; she had a reputation as a pleaser. But as a group, these were not the most popular girls at Horning Middle School. One Horning mother called them “misfits” — not “girly girls,” maybe a little immature. They were not much interested in boys, or bands, or in trying out for the prizewinning Waukesha Xtreme Dance Team.
Waukesha is a suburb of Milwaukee, a politically conservative and fairly bleak place, despite its spot on a few “best places to live” lists. Sunset Apartments, on the wrong side of Sunset Drive, consists of 72 units in neat but drab two-story subsidized housing where backyards are fenced and small curtained windows and closed doors look over a parking lot. The rather desolate downtown is marked by endlessly passing freight trains and a biker bar or two, but unless kids play sports, and lots of them do, there are not many obvious gathering places where they can meet.
But there is Skateland — an indoor roller rink, especially popular on Friday nights, where a DJ plays Top-40 hits and a constellation of disco balls lights the floor; the green-and-purple picnic tables are sticky with spilled Coke. That Friday, Morgan, Bella, and Anissa headed there around dinnertime — chauffeured by Morgan’s father, Matt — and stayed until about 9:30, when Morgan said she wanted to leave. Back at Morgan’s, the girls goofed around on their laptops until they eventually settled down together in Morgan’s loft bed, Anissa and Morgan side by side and Bella horizontal along the head. Later, Anissa remembered that Bella accidentally kicked her in the face and that, in retaliation, she kicked back.
The next morning, someone had the bright idea of crushing granola bars into Silly Putty and flinging the mess at the ceiling, which they did, then worried over how to get it down. Then they played dress-up, each girl acting out her own avatar: Morgan as Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation; Bella as a princess in pink; and Anissa as a “prosti-troll,” a character of her own creation and “sort of inappropriate,” Morgan commented later. There were doughnuts and strawberries for breakfast, then Morgan asked her mom if they could go outside and play.
As the girls set out for David’s Park, Bella walked ahead and Morgan and Anissa lagged behind. It was then that Morgan pulled up the left side of her white-and-black plaid jacket to show Anissa what she’d taken from her kitchen — a thin knife, the kind you’d use for cutting vegetables or steak, Anissa said, with a black handle and a gray stripe. Anissa and Morgan gave each other sidelong glances. “I thought, Dear God, this is really happening,” Anissa later told police, all the months of fantasizing coming down to this day.
David’s Park is a green, grassy field about the size of a city block, with public restrooms for men and women at its northeastern edge; it was inside this dingy outpost that Anissa and Morgan first attacked Bella. There was a tussle in which Morgan tried to restrain Bella, and another moment when Anissa halfheartedly pushed Bella’s head against the brick wall. But Morgan fell apart just then, pacing and singing, and Anissa, the big-sister type, sent Bella outside to play while she comforted Morgan, petting her, she said later, like a cat. It was Anissa’s idea to go play hide-and-seek in the woods that form the far boundary of the park. Once Morgan was calm, the three girls headed there.
It’s hard to understand Bella’s decision to stick with her friends, why, after having been assaulted by them in the bathroom, she thought hide-and-seek might be a fun thing to do (though she might have interpreted the bathroom attack as just a mean episode of imaginary play — and it’s possible that, at the time, Anissa and Morgan saw it that way, too). Together they proceeded to the end of Big Bend Road, where the asphalt turns to gravel and dead-ends by the woods. These are suburban-type woods, not the state-park variety, scrubby and weedy and thick with brush. The Les Paul Parkway and a Walmart are just on the other side, less than a mile away.
Hide-and-seek was a haphazard affair. Morgan counted first, and Anissa and Bella hid. Anissa tried to tackle Bella, but couldn’t hold her down. It was then that Morgan gave Anissa the knife, but Anissa handed it back, saying she was too squeamish. While they talked, Bella was crouched down in the dirt, playing with flowers.
“I’m not going to until you tell me to,” Morgan said.
Anissa says she started to walk away, and when she had gone about five feet, she stopped. “Kitty now,” she said. “Go ballistic, go crazy.”
Anissa heard Morgan say, “Don’t be afraid, I’m only a little kitty cat.” Then Morgan pushed Bella over and stabbed her 19 times, in her arms and legs but also puncturing her stomach, her liver, and her pancreas and barely missing a major artery near her heart. “Stabby stab stab stab” is how Morgan recalled it. “It didn’t feel like anything,” she said during her interview with police, making a vague, loose stabbing gesture with her left hand. “It was, like, air.” Bella screamed and screamed: “I hate you! I trusted you!” She tried to get up and walk. She wobbled, though, and that’s when Anissa took her by the arm and steered her deeper into the woods and told her to lie down. Morgan tried to dress Bella’s wounds with a leaf, and then they fled, washing up in the sinks in the Walmart bathroom and filling their water bottles there. Then they wandered around Waukesha for a couple of hours, crying and singing and wilting in the heat, until they were picked up by police as they sat in the grass near an entrance to the interstate.
“Where’s Bella’s body now?” Anissa asked later that afternoon, two and a half hours into her interview with police. Bella was alive, the female detective gently told the girl. According to the complaint filed by the Waukesha County prosecutor’s office, Bella had crawled into the road. She was discovered by a passing cyclist and taken to the hospital, and had enough time, before the anesthesia took effect, to tell police what had happened. Anissa had been crying for most of the interview, but now relief, and something like serenity, washed over her face. “Will I be able to go back to school?” she asked. Since the third grade, she hadn’t missed a day.
Read the rest of the in-depth piece, originally published in New York Magazine, here.