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[whitespace] Christina 'Minna' Sandmeyer

Trail of Tears: When Stanford University student Christina 'Minna' Sandmeyer failed to return from a penninsula bike ride, July 13, hundreds of volunteers spread out to search the roads and bike trails of the Santa Cruz Mountains, to no avail.

Loved & Lost

Friends of Minna Sandmeyer piece together the fragments of a girl they thought they knew--a star in all things, who suffered from untreated depression

By Genevieve Roja

CHRISTINA "MINNA" Sandmeyer was found high in a tree in Foothills Park in Palo Alto, in a place most of her friends think she knew pretty well. An avid cyclist, she once told a friend that part of the exhilaration of riding downhill on a bike was the feeling that she could fly. Perhaps in this very spot, where her weightless Cannondale touring bike with gray and white camouflage tape on the handlebars lay hidden beneath her feet in the brush and poison ivy, she had come before to scout locations in which she would end her life. Maybe she had lain in the waist-high amber-colored fields, alone and overcome with emotion, a part of her life that few friends ever saw. Maybe she was thinking about the upcoming fall semester at Stanford University, where she was returning after a year's leave. Maybe she felt hopelessness about the devastation of the Earth by pollution and waste. Maybe she was tired of worrying about the Earth. Maybe she just gave up. Maybe.

Ride of Passage

SHE HAD BEEN missing for several weeks, and the only clue leading to her whereabouts was a note she had written to friend Emily Leslie the morning of July 13. "Oceanwords," was all it said of her destination, and it was left for Leslie at Hidden Villa Hostel in Los Altos Hills, Sandmeyer's summer home. She promised that she would return later that evening, or Saturday morning at the latest. She did not indicate in the note where she was headed or what route she was taking from Hidden Villa.

At about 9:30 that Friday morning, Sandmeyer headed down Moody Road on her bike as she had dozens of times before, carrying with her her wallet, her Stanford student identification and at least one credit and ATM card. She also slipped into her backpack her journal; a black bicyclist-style water bottle; funky, knee-length orange-and-white shorts; a berry-colored tank top that tied behind the neck; a royal blue pullover, and a small maroon fleece blanket that wasn't big enough to fully cover her body. Because her bike didn't have any saddlebags for storage, she must placed the pack on the rack attached behind her seat. An initial missing person flyer indicated that she did not bring with her a sleeping bag or Thermarest, a warm hat or clothes.

It wasn't unusual for Minna to go on solo bike rides. She often went on overnight, several-day bike rides, but it wasn't like her not to call and let friends know where she was. Something didn't sit right. If she were headed toward the ocean like she wrote, with the intention of staying overnight, she couldn't be back until Saturday afternoon, even if she left early in the morning. Any oceanbound cyclist knew that, and, presumably, so did Minna. She didn't return that Friday night or the next night. And when she hadn't returned Sunday, her ex-boyfriend Dave Machledt and Leslie called the Santa Clara County sheriff's office and reported her missing.

On Monday, July 16, the Sheriff's Department distributed TRAX flyers, which provide a description of the missing person, as well as their whereabouts prior to their disappearance. According to Sgt. Ted Atlas at the sheriff's office, deputies went off on their own to help in a growing civilian search-and-rescue conducted by Sandmeyer's parents, friends and volunteers, in the hopes of finding the hardy and experienced cyclist.

On Tuesday, the sheriff's office hooked up with the San Jose search-and-rescue team and contacted the California Highway Patrol to fly over the areas from the valley to the coast.

Chi Theta Chi, the co-op where Sandmeyer was going to live and be a resident assistant in the fall, became "base camp." There, volunteers and friends answered phones, handled press and looked at the topographical maps and trails where Minna might have gone and become injured or lost. Led by a group leader, volunteers fanned out in droves to these places. Every day of the search, someone maintained a daily log that chronicled the efforts: Search Site 24: East Alpine Dirt. 0.0-2.0 Time out: 9:20am. Time in: 12:50pm.

On Wednesday, Aug. 1, Sandmeyer's parents, Ulrich and Ellen, hired Emeryville detective agency Mason and Tully for additional help. Someone claimed to have seen a girl who fit the description of Sandmeyer at the Woodside Library. It was reported that she may have written an email from that location, although friend Mandeep Gill discounts that story.

"She did not send an email from the Woodside Library," he says, "We checked."

The theories began. Maybe the 22-year-old had been kidnapped. Maybe she had fallen down a ravine and suffered a paralyzing injury. Maybe she was just being Minna, savoring the outdoors and ready to sing about her adventures when she returned to the company of her friends. Maybe she was lost. Maybe.

Hidden Villa

ON AUGUST 3, a birdwatcher found Sandmeyer's body 50 yards down an embankment, hanging from a tree, about five feet from the ground. A casual passerby in the busy park would never have seen her, since no trail led there. Palo Alto Det. Jim Coffman, who was at the scene, said he and others "had to get through trees and brush" to get there. She was wearing the same clothes she had on when she disappeared. The fleece blanket Sandmeyer had carried with her on her journey had been used to hide her bicycle from view. Close to the bicycle, police also discovered the knapsack where her water bottle, bike gloves and helmet had been put away. She had crafted a noose out of a hemp-type rope, about one-quarter-inch thick and, according to Det. Coffman, climbed high into the tree to ready herself, then slid off a branch.

The Santa Clara County coroner's office immediately ruled her death a suicide, listing cause of death as "asphyxia due to hanging." A full report will be available in several weeks. An inspection, not a full autopsy, was conducted. Coffman has indicated that foul play was not involved, and the investigation has been closed.

With no note, no explanation of how and why this could have happened, friends recall the living Minna, a woman who they are discovering was more than she appeared. Together this family-away-from-family--her friends from college and back home who spent a significant amount of time with her--bring the pieces of Minna's puzzle together by remembering the girl they once knew and the girl they are knowing now.

"She didn't want people to know," says Gill. "The way that she killed herself was really indicative of her personality, the way she hid herself. She didn't go really, really far away. She just went somewhere close and hid herself really well. And you know, it's almost like her. She wasn't ever really distant from her friends, she just had this hidden part."

Minna Sandmeyer

A Quiet Side: Friends say that despite an often-playful exterior, Minna Sandmeyer had a serious side as well. Several of them knew this summer had been particularly hard for her.

Perfect Performer

ABOUT 13 MILES north of downtown Chicago, Evanston, Ill., sits like a tiny coral pendant, hanging from the shores of Lake Michigan. In late summer, the weather is in the mid-70s, idyllic for outdoor festivals and late-night strolls. Like most Midwestern towns, Evanston is at its best in the fall, when leaves abandon green for russet orange and fall onto bicycle paths in crunchy clusters, the perfect backdrop for its many historical buildings and for Northwestern University. There are 75 parks and playgrounds and five beaches--some or all destinations that the most natural of nature girls, Minna Sandmeyer, explored as she grew up.

Although the town, and much of the state, is prairie flat, Sandmeyer and her friends made weekend nature trips to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore southeast of Chicago and to Lake Michigan. Says childhood friend Anna Galland, "Christina was always searching for beauty in her natural environment and people around her."

Sandmeyer found beauty in music, and found it at a young age. At Nichols Middle School in Evanston, Sandmeyer played clarinet at the tri-school band. That's how she met friend Anna Galland, who laughs when recalling their "kind of nerdy" first encounter as clarinet players. They clicked instantly and became best friends who were still close at the time of Sandmeyer's death.

"She's Christina," says the Brown University senior, still talking about her friend in the present tense, even days after her death. "She's one of the most vibrant, intelligent, beautiful, bizarre people I have ever met. She's bizarre in that she doesn't live in a boring, banal way."

When Sandmeyer arrived at Evanston Township High School, a racially diverse public high school with about 2,800 students, she started a recycling club, even though the only member was her teacher. A standout student who took Advanced Placement classes, she sang in the school choir and wrote for the school paper, the Evanstonian. She signed onto a summer forest park ranger program in Idaho before her senior year. Because of her high scores on the PSAT and her personal achievements, Sandmeyer was named a finalist for the distinctive and exclusive National Merit Scholarship Program, which provides scholarship money for college. That made her a prime candidate for several colleges including the two she was weighing, Stanford and Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She hated Wesleyan but Stanford appealed to her not only as an academic powerhouse, but because of its lush surroundings--the acres of parks, trails and open reserves. It was centrally located too; an hour in any direction and she could be in Santa Cruz, in Monterey, in Half Moon Bay. Ocean. Scenic overlooks. Miles and miles of bicycle riding.

In the fall of 1997, she left Evanston for Palo Alto with other girls from Chicago who were entering Stanford as freshmen, and immersed herself in the beauty and wildlife of the area.

"When she got out here, and started going up to the redwoods, she felt so much more at home," says friend Mandeep Gill, 33, a research assistant at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC).

At Stanford, she didn't hesitate getting involved, and in the spring of 1998 became a student docent at Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve. An article about Jasper Ridge in the Stanford Online Report, the campus newspaper for faculty and staff, reveals that she had applied for the position her first quarter at Stanford. It was a bit unusual since the program drew sophomore and junior applicants. In addition to earning course credit and learning from experts, the article remarked that student docents could roam the 1,180 acres at will. "I get to be a docent for four years," said Sandmeyer in the article, explaining the reason for her early participation. "It's been an incredible class. You get to see things and touch things. And it's training you to be a teacher so you really have to know your stuff."

She became involved with the Redwood Action Team at Stanford (RATS), a student advocacy group for California's old growth redwoods.

"I could see she was this amazing life force," Gill says. "She wanted to protect forests and improve the world and do a lot of biking. She was a very vibrant woman."

Though never romantically involved, their friendship grew. She taught him that he didn't have to say a lot to have strong feelings about the environment. She taught him he could burp--he laughs--without apologizing for it. She taught him about friendship, joy, life and love, and had an "amazing capacity" for all of those. At rallies at Headwaters and protests against George W. Bush, they'd dance together and laugh, especially at her cheers. She often came as a "radical cheerleader," which required dressing up as a cheerleader and leading funny chants "as a way of lightening the occasion and still keeping the message," says Galland. It was just like her to bring humor to something that was dry.

Unmarked Path

IN THE SUMMER of last year, Sandmeyer began to wander. First, she was in Berlin, Germany, as part of the Krupp Internship program, an academic program offered by Stanford-in-Berlin. The program places students in three-to-nine-month internships with companies in Germany. For three months, Sandmeyer worked for a company by creating reports on the ecological quality of buildings, among other duties. On her personal webpage at the Krupp website, she wrote under comments and personal rewards, "Work with people whose general goals and passions are similar to mine."

That fall, Minna made a serious decision. She returned to the States and instead of enrolling in school, she went home for a while and then to live at Dancing Rabbit, an Ecovillage focusing on sustainability education in Rutledge, Mo. A friend describes it as "a utopian experiment." Sandmeyer was a construction intern, helping build straw-bale houses. Dancing Rabbit founder and Stanford alumnus Tony Sirna remembers assigning Sandmeyer the straw-bale staircase, even though she had never built one before. She attacked it with enthusiasm anyway.

"She was a hard worker and it was great to talk to her about the Stanford farm she was working on," says Sirna. "She was definitely passionate about ecological living and very curious about what she did. And she wanted to learn."

She was reading books at the time to help her make some career choices , especially green choices.

"She did so because she was trying to get some real world experience, to sort of put into action the kinds of things she was learning," Galland recalls. "She wanted to see how engineering would be in the real world."

Shortly thereafter she began working with the Mid-Peninsula Housing Management Corporation in Redwood City, a nonprofit company that builds and manages affordable housing in Northern California.

Turning Inward

IN THE FOLLOWING months, Sandmeyer wandered even more. From June 18 to June 30, Sandmeyer rejoined her friends and fellow peers of the Stanford Chamber Chorale on a singing tour in Japan. According to Gill, who talked to her after the trip, says that she "didn't have that great a time." They talked for about 20 minutes, and she didn't reveal too much.

"She seemed a little down, but I never saw her cry, I never saw her break down and be like, 'We need to talk,'" Gill says.

Asked what her state of mind was at the time, Galland says Sandmeyer said she was just sad.

"People who were talking to her closely knew she was having a hard summer," Galland says.

It definitely wasn't the academic pressure within the Stanford bubble, says Galland, because Minna wasn't a competitive person by nature.

"She was just focused on passing her classes and getting by," Galland says. "She wasn't a grade grubber. Trying to localize her depression in academics is wrong."

As far as her friends knew, she wasn't lovesick or heartbroken. In fact, she was the one who had broken up with her ex-boyfriend Dave Machledt, even though she was the one who was far more serious about the future of their relationship than he was. However, it was an amicable split and they remained close friends; she had even planned on going with him and other friends on a trip through Mexico. He was also one of the first people to look for her the week she was reported missing.

"She's had a few boyfriends, and they've all been a source of emotional support and comfort for her," Galland says. "A lot of people tend to fall in love with her because she's so vibrant and bizarre. Bizarre is a bad word. I think unique. In her case, she's so unique, that it's very striking." Few people within the friendship circle knew that Sandmeyer suffered from depression. Those who did know, like Galland, say she was a private person who didn't let that side of her show.

"She's been struggling with depression for several years," says Galland. "It's hard to say [how long it's been going on]. She didn't experience depression when she was in high school to the extent she did in college . There wasn't a clear-cut point where [we went] 'Oh, Christina's struggling with depression.' She was too complicated to let it show."

Those she did show that side to seemed to treat the depression with a loving sensitivity.

"Everyone wanted to help her," says Galland. "If she stubbed her toe, everyone rushed to her aid."

But according to Valerie Houghton, a family therapist in private practice in San Jose who has treated many young people for depression, there may have been little Sandmeyer's friends could have done to assist her. In most cases, she says, people who are depressed and suicidal become fixated on their shortcomings. Problems that a non-depressed person would assign as a three on the Richter scale of despondency, feel more like an eight to someone who's depressed. They just feel stuck there, hopeless about the future, and helpless to change it, Houghton says.

"People will obsess about their failure, or how they are inadequate, or how they don't measure up in some way. And that will often be linked to something outside of themselves. They will scan themselves and their environment to explain their hopelessness."

When depressed people say they feel sad, it sounds like insufficient, hollow reasoning to those on the receiving end, especially friends and family who suspect there is a larger problem.

"It's not because they're not being truthful," Houghton says. "They feel bad, and then they come up with something to explain themselves. They're asking themselves, 'What's bothering me?'"

Positive reassurances that a person shouldn't feel sad because she is beautiful, smart and outgoing only fuels their insecurities and inadequacies. They feel as if they have not upheld the high standard to which others hold them. "Depression is an illness that is treatable," Houghton concludes, "People do not know what to look for, because often [the depressed person] feels ashamed of feeling bad. And they will not talk about it. The more depression is treated like a moral failure, the more people will continue to die from it. That's the issue. Nothing else."

When asked if Sandmeyer was seeing someone about her depression, Galland replies, "I don't know if it's my place to say. I guess the answer to say is that she wasn't seeing someone regularly, to really get the kind of support she needed."

"I don't think she [saw anyone] this spring," Gill says. "I got one email from a counselor a couple of years ago, but I'm pretty sure she hasn't seen anyone in a long time. And that's important, you know, people should [see someone]."

Minna Sandmeyer

Early Hopes: In the early days of the search, Minna's former boyfriend Dave Machledt, second from left, stands with his parents left and center. Second from right is Minna's father Ulrich Sandmeyer and far right, her younger brother Brent.

The Infinite Sadness

IT'S EVIDENT that Sandmeyer was trying in some regard to help herself. Even the last book she was reading, The River Why by David James Duncan, was indicative of her desire to overcome the darkness. The story is about a man's search for steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, a grander metaphor for his own search for self-knowledge. Gill, Galland and friend Laura McVittie say they are seeing now that Minna's escapist qualities were a sign of her depression, the biking trips alone to places like Pigeon Point, the inability to verbalize her feelings of anguish and the way she bore the weight of the world on her shoulders.

"Now, looking back, I'm kind of thinking she was thinking of ways to get away from her depression and nothing really worked," Gill says.

Even after one of the worst periods of her depression, Sandmeyer didn't reveal much to the closest of friends.

"She didn't like to go into detail," Galland says. "She would say, 'I've been in a lot of pain,' but wouldn't say, 'This day I'm feeling such and such.' She would allude to being in depression. She wouldn't be the one to pity herself. In this case, it turned out to be tragic."

In the weeks leading up to her suicide, Sandmeyer, in emails to Galland, said she was sad. Galland called and said that she loved her, and that was the last time they talked.

Many of Sandmeyer's friends didn't accept her death, as evidenced by the postings on the findminna.org website (now minnafriends.org) saying that they didn't believe this, says Gill, the former maintainer of the site. Suicide didn't seem the logical choice for someone so seemingly healthy and happy.

"With Minna, it shocked me to the bone," McVittie says. "I'm still in deep shock about it. I didn't see it coming at all. I did not see it coming."

"Now, we start to piece together from the different faces she showed to different people [who she was]," Gill says. "You start to piece together [that] she definitely didn't let one person have a full picture of her that way."

McVittie has channeled her grief into writing poetry and talking with campus minister Jim Burklo, who spoke at Minna's memorial service last Wednesday evening at Stanford Memorial Church.

"It's such a big loss for me," says McVittie, who often biked with Sandmeyer. "It feels like a cornerstone of my life has just vanished, and lot of things I believe in, I just have to question everything. Everything. Because she was such an important person. Such an important person."

Even with all the presentable facts, McVittie's sadness has been accompanied by confusion and disbelief.

"It's going to be a long [healing process]," she says. "It's been painful--the news, the way I got it. It's not what I was expecting. It's been very difficult for me to accept."

Gill says that Sandmeyer knew a friend who was suffering from depresion as well. Sandmeyer knew that the the person was on medication. But Sandmeyer had fears that the medicine would change who she was.

"Minna was against taking medicine," Gill says. "She was a very organic hippie girl in a fundamental way."

In the wake of Sandmeyer's death, Gill has a hope. He hopes that even though Minna couldn't save the Earth while she walked it, that others will follow in her stead. He dreams of environmental education and awareness about depression. Compost more, recycle more, bicycle more, he says. Small things for the greater good.

Sandmeyer's friends are learning now--either by educating themselves or having email exchanges with suicide survivors and friends of suicides--the kind of emotional abyss that is depression. How can they better support the friends that are with them now? What can they share?

"We hope that those who have these kinds of illnesses [like clinical depression] will step forward and not hide it in the closet so much," says Gill, who saw a community emerge in recent weeks. "People do care, you know, when it comes down to it."

"When people give signs that [they] are in pain, it's time to take it seriously," Galland says. "You have to be vigilant with your loved one, and to live in ways that help make them [know], help remind them everyday how much they mean to the people around them."

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From the August 16-22, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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