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Deadly American Beauty
A True Story of Passion, Adultery, and Murder
By John Glatt
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 John Glatt
All rights reserved.
The Golden Girl
Kristin Rossum was the academic equivalent of an army brat, changing location numerous times during her childhood, as her ambitious father carved out a distinguished career as a nationally renowned expert in constitutional law and juvenile delinquency. Ralph Rossum was a self-made man, and strove for perfection, always placing high demands on his daughter and her two brothers. Highly intelligent and stunningly beautiful, Kristin would always try to please him, but always fall short.
Born on December 17, 1946, Ralph Rossum grew up on a small dairy farm in rural Alexandria in central Minnesota, the elder of two brothers. His hard-working father was a farmer who eked out a living from the land. There was little money in the household, so Ralph won a series of scholarships and got the best education possible.
He was the first in his family to ever go to college, securing a place at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. And in 1968, after paying his way through college with a variety of summer jobs, he graduated summa cum laude.
He then transferred to the University of Chicago, doing post-graduate work as an instructor of Behavioral Sciences for the Department of Police Academy Services, getting his M.A. in 1971.
A year later, Ralph fell in love with an attractive blonde journalism student at Indiana University. Her name was Constance, and she was two years younger, intelligent and highly ambitious. Soon, they were married.
A year later, after getting his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Ralph moved his new wife to Grinnell, Iowa, where he got his first teaching job at Grinnell College as an instructor in the Department of Political Science. But before long, they moved to Memphis, Tennessee, so he could take up an assistant professorship at Memphis State University.
Soon after arriving in Memphis, Constance became pregnant, and on October 25, 1976, Kristin Margrethe Rossum was born. She was a beautiful baby and her parents were thrilled when they soon realized that she was exceptionally intelligent.
Ralph Rossum was now on the academic fast-track and making a national name for himself. In 1977, he was promoted to associate professor of the university's Department of Political Science and was granted tenure a year later. Constance was also busy, studying journalism and communications, and her sister Marguerite Zandstra would baby-sit on weekends. Kristin's Aunt Marge would later fondly recall how the cherubic little girl had had a passion for music and dancing from the beginning.
In early 1979, Constance gave birth to a baby boy named Brent, and Kristin's earliest memory is of her brother being born in the Memphis suburb of Germantown. From the beginning, Kristin bonded with Brent and they would always remain close.
A year later, the Rossums moved to the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette, when Professor Rossum was appointed associate professor of Loyola University's Department of Political Science. Within a year he'd made associate dean of the graduate school, publishing well-received books and monographs on the American Constitution and the criminal justice system. Among his published works at that time were Police, Criminal Justice, and the Community, and The Politics of the Criminal Justice System.
In Chicago, four-year-old Kristin's reading and writing skills were well advanced for her age. When she started school, she stood out from all the other little girls with her radiant beauty, natural curiosity and enthusiasm to learn.
One day her Aunt Marge came to school to collect Kristin for a trip to the circus.
"I noticed when I went into her classroom," recalled her aunt, "Kristin was in the front row with her hand real high, waving. She seemed to have a very good rapport with everyone."
That Christmas, Constance took her little daughter by train to downtown Chicago to see The Nutcracker Suite at Marshall Field's department store. Kristin was riveted by the glamorous ballerinas, deciding there and then to become one. Years later, she would dance a leading role in The Nutcracker, developing an obsession with the classic Tchaikovsky ballet.
"I was absolutely enchanted by the experience," she would later remember.
When Kristin was six, Constance launched her beautiful daughter into a modeling career. Success came quickly when the angelic blonde child was selected from hundreds of other children to star in a national advertising campaign for McDonald's.
Then, in 1983, the Reagan administration hand-picked Ralph Rossum for the U.S. Department of Justice, appointing him deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. His highly influential new position was equal on paper to that of deputy assistant attorney general. An acknowledged expert in the field, he was put in charge of compiling statistics on juvenile crime in America.
Once again the Rossum family was on the move, this time to Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. Constance, who now had degrees in Journalism, Political Science and Communications, found a job as a marketing manager for Marriott Host International. The Rossums were now part of the Washington, DC, elite, and seemed destined for success.
Within easy driving distance of the capital, and close to the Smithsonian Institution and other national monuments, Bethesda was a picture-perfect town. Everything from the trash receptacles to the street lights, the flower pots to the well-groomed trees lining the sidewalks, was dictated by the Montgomery County Planners. Soon after they arrived, a new extension of the Metro subway Red Line was opened, linking Bethesda to downtown Washington, DC. Bethesda was just the place to bring up young children.
Eight-year-old Kristin entered Seven Locks Elementary School in Bethesda, soon discovering a love of the sciences.
"I remember feeling like a big girl at the elementary school, and feeling so grown up," Kristin said years later. "Just becoming really interested in studying."
The Seven Locks School was affiliated with the American Ballet Company and Kristin began ballet lessons, displaying a raw natural talent. Her mother now saw her daughter's future career in professional ballet, persuading her to give up modeling and concentrate on dance.
"I loved it," Kristin would remember. "It was great fun."
She soon was selected for a small walk-on role as one of Rosalind's pages in the Joffrey Ballet's performance of Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center. Kristin was stagestruck.
"The experience of being backstage surrounded by such grace and beauty is something that has truly touched my spirit," she would later write. "Hearing the powerful score of Prokofiev, being brought to life each night by the orchestra. There is so much passion in his notes."
Professor Ralph Rossum was also busy building up an academic network. His influential friends in government soon included future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who became his mentor. The ultra-conservative Scalia frequently visited the Rossum home, and the two men became close, later teaching courses together and coauthoring several articles.
An ardent Republican, Rossum instilled his values in his daughter, later creating in her a strange dichotomy of hedonism and conservatism. Kristin looked up to her father and was proud of his achievements, often boasting to school friends that Justice Scalia was a good friend of her family.
But just as Kristin was settling into her pampered new life in Bethesda, everything changed. This time the West Coast beckoned when Professor Rossum was recruited to the prestigious Rose Institute for State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles.
In January 1984, he moved to California to take up his new post, leaving his wife and two children behind in Washington.
For the next eighteen months, Professor Rossum divided his time between Claremont and Washington. He was put in charge of a million-dollar training project for juvenile justice reform, a two-year program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. The project's mission was to draft a juvenile justice code, which included organizing a national conference and various workshops and training sessions all over America.
Finally, in June 1985, Ralph Rossum summoned his wife and children to Claremont, where Kristin's idyllic, protected childhood would soon turn into a nightmare.CHAPTER 2
Inspired by England's Oxford University, Claremont is an intellectual oasis that has little in common with the rest of Southern California. Lying thirty miles west of Los Angeles, its six prestigious colleges are set like precious gems in the heart of the city. By and large Claremont exists in a vacuum, sheltering itself from the outside world to protect its rarefied cloistered existence. But nothing had quite prepared it for Kristin Rossum.
It was once home to the Cahuilla Indians, who roamed its lush plains in the shadow of the San Bernadino Mountains for centuries, prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in 1771. The new settlers stole the tribe's lands, setting up Mission San Gabriel and forcing many of the Native Americans into working for the padres as shepherds. In 1883 two smallpox outbreaks decimated what remained of the unfortunate Cahuilla, virtually wiping them out.
Three years later Claremont was put on the map when the Santa Fe Railroad opened its new track between Chicago and Los Angeles. A year later Pomona College was founded, which would set the stage for the town's future academic life.
Then the citrus industry moved in, establishing water cooperatives to irrigate the groves. The city's architecture still bears the mark of early Spanish colonialists and the citrus industry.
Claremont's six cloistered college campuses, all complete with their own well-cultivated gardens, occupy 300 acres of land and are within walking distance of each other. After Pomona College, specializing in the arts and sciences, came Scripps College, teaching fine arts and humanities. In 1947 Claremont Men's College was founded for public affairs. The fourth one was Harvey Mudd College, teaching science, mathematics and engineering, followed by Pitzer for behavioral sciences. The last of the six to be built was Claremont Graduate School.
The city's social and cultural life revolves around the colleges, which organize an array of concerts, plays and exhibitions. The six colleges, which boast of combining an intimate academic environment with all the cultural advantages of a full-scale campus, are also Claremont's biggest employer, with an enormous influence on its 35,000 citizens.
In 1976, Claremont Men's College went co-ed, changing its name to Claremont McKenna and fast gaining a reputation as an influential conservative stronghold. When Professor Ralph Rossum arrived a few years later, he knew he'd finally found where he wanted to settle down permanently with his family.
Ten-year-old Kristin entered Conduit Elementary School on North Mountain Avenue in Claremont, with just a few weeks remaining of her third grade year. Constance, who had recently been promoted to director of marketing for the Marriott Corporation, had selected the school for its specialized dance classes. Kristin soon became a straight-A student, relentlessly competing with her new classmates for the best grades.
"I was expected to do well in school," she would later say. "I wanted to make my parents proud of me. I wanted to be the best in everything I did. I wanted to be perfect."
And Kristin excelled at everything she did with the exception of writing, which she did not consider her strong suit. She would later remember her mother telling her she couldn't write, after she had worked hard on a school project.
"I felt like a failure," Kristin remembered. "Instead of working to improve at my writing skills, I shifted my attention to math and science. I liked it in part because I was good at it, and in part because my parents weren't."
Kristin enjoyed being better than her parents at something, as she could take full credit. It also didn't hurt that it made her parents proud of her.
One semester at Conduit, Kristin's class attended the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program, where she first became aware of methamphetamine and other drugs. But it would be several years before she would start experimenting with them herself.
A few months after moving to Claremont, Constance Rossum became pregnant again, giving birth in 1986 to a second son they named Pierce. That summer Ralph Rossum, funded by a special grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, conducted a three-week seminar for fifteen federal judges and law professors on the relevance of the American Constitution. The Rossums were now among the elite in Claremont, and they felt as if the sky was the limit.
When Kristin began her freshman year at Claremont Junior High School, her mother enrolled her in ballet classes at a dancing academy in Anaheim. Twice a week, her father would drive her to and from practices, and during the sixty-four-mile journey, they developed a close father–daughter bond.
"I got to know her," Professor Rossum would later remember. "I thought we had a very good relationship."
During the drive home they would listen to classic radio dramas, like "Box 13," starring Alan Ladd as Doc Holliday. Although Professor Rossum would get "irked" when the rehearsals ran overtime, he would always be supportive, constantly telling his daughter how she made him proud.
Kristin now set her sights on a dancing career, practicing for hours every day. Over the next few years, she would appear in local productions of her favorite ballet, The Nut-cracker Suite. Each fall she would attend rehearsals daily, and her father would always ferry her there and back.
By now, Kristin was dancing competitively, and her world revolved around her blossoming dance career. But despite all the hours she spent on her ballet, Kristin maintained an A average at Claremont. Her studies seemed effortless, and her parents had high hopes for her future.
"I think that my conflicts surrounding ballet emerged around twelve or thirteen," she later wrote. "I was hypercritical of myself, my technique, my body [and] my inflexible back."
She felt frustrated by her physical limitations, and became jealous of her fellow ballet students, who she believed were physically better equipped. It distressed her that she did not possess the "God-given genetics" to be "the best ... the prima ballerina."
But she still found time to make new friends at Claremont Junior High School, where her quick wit and bubbly personality made her a popular student. Soon after she arrived, she met another professor's daughter named Melissa Prager, Often the girls would overnight at each other's houses and Melissa got to know the Rossum family well. The two girls became part of a tight group of friends who hung out together after school, attending dances on weekends.
"Kristin was always one of the best students in the class," remembered Prager, "as far as sitting in the front of the classroom and [being] eager to answer any questions."
Kristin also became close friends with an English girl named Corrine Bright, whose father was also a professor at the Claremont Colleges. They were both at the top of their classes and competed ruthlessly with each other, both academically and socially.
"We were best friends and goody-two-shoes," Kristin would later write in her journal. "To completely love another person ... completely and without reservation is perhaps the greatest gift life has to offer."
Despite her parents' strong Republican leanings, Kristin joined the school's Amnesty International Club, writing letters to political prisoners of conscience all over the world. She was in a club picture printed in the 1991 Claremont School Year Book, as a fresh-faced blonde sitting on a bench outside the school.
Friends from that time remember Kristin as a quiet, intelligent girl who kept to herself.
"She was incredibly thin, which was something I was always jealous of," recalled Jenn Powazek, who took ballet classes with Kristin. "She was pretty quiet ... not gossipy or talkative like the rest of us, and an incredible ballerina."
During her first year at Claremont High, Kristin was selected by the Orange County Ballet Company to play the Sugar Plum Fairy in its production of The Nutcracker. She was ecstatic.
Initially Kristin was to understudy a professional dancer, but the company decided to allow the 14-year-old amateur to dance the main role. Her Cavalier was a professional dancer from the Houston Ballet.
"I felt like it was a dream come true," she said. "The role meant hours and hours of rehearsal and an enormous time commitment."
That Christmas, Kristin's proud family was in the audience to watch her perform, her father filming it for posterity. It was a triumph, and perhaps the greatest moment of Kristin's life.
But a few months later an injury would destroy her ballet career forever and send her into a tailspin.
Excerpted from Deadly American Beauty by John Glatt. Copyright © 2004 John Glatt. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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