'Not woman we knew'

Pioneer Press/March 1, 2002
By Marisa Agha and Mara H. Gottfried

The Shoreview obstetrician charged with stabbing her 13-year-old son to death in California was a bright, accomplished and highly motivated woman whose early life in St. Paul contrasts sharply with the image of the woman now facing the prospect of life in prison.

Although some pieces are becoming clearer - from growing up in the quiet Mac-Groveland neighborhood to studying in Africa with Jane Goodall and going on to medical school on the East Coast - indications are that lately Dr. Donna Marie Anderson's life has been unraveling.

After an outburst in court Wednesday, when Anderson, 48, spoke about plots that she fears are funding her defense, her court-appointed attorney said: "I don't know what all that was about or whether it was some delusional thinking or what."

In January, Anderson abruptly quit her job at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where colleagues said she appeared emotionally troubled in recent months.

She was asked to leave an Edina self-help group when an employee raised concern about her mental stability.

Two weeks ago, her son went to California to stay with relatives; police said he planned to live with an aunt there.

Last week, Ramsey County Sheriff's Office deputies were called to Anderson's home after an anonymous tip that she was not taking her medication and that she might be suicidal.

Police say Anderson flew to California on Saturday night and on Sunday morning went to see Stephen, who was visiting his father, Frank Burns, and grandparents in Burlingame, Calif., near San Francisco. Police say Anderson went into the bedroom where Stephen was staying and stabbed him to death.

Those who know Anderson say the crimes she was charged with Tuesday - her son's murder and attempted murder for stabbing Burns, who tried to restrain her - don't reflect who she really is.

"The woman who committed this scene was not the woman we knew," said Anderson's sister-in-law, Deborah Anderson, who declined further comment.


'Very Focused'

Anderson spent her early years in a yellow, stucco one-story home on a tree-lined street near Macalester College, where her father taught math. It was the kind of family-oriented place where neighbors gathered to celebrate special events, said Ruth Warland, who lives across the street and has known the family for about 30 years.

"We were always very, very fond of Donna," Warland said. When Anderson was a teen-ager she baby-sat Warland's children.

"She was warm and caring and interested in the world. We talked with her parents all the time about what she was doing and her accomplishments." Anderson's father is now deceased; her mother lives in St. Paul but could not be reached for comment.

In 1971, Anderson graduated from Highland Park High School with academic distinction. Her senior yearbook has pictures of Anderson sprinkled throughout: member of the National Honor Society, playing clarinet in the band, participating in the science and French clubs and co-editor of the yearbook.

"When you thought about Donna Marie, the word that came to mind was 'brilliant,' " said Linda Feldman, a classmate. "That was the time of social awareness and Vietnam, but she was very conservative. There were so many of us who didn't know what we wanted to do with our lives, but she was very focused."

Anderson went on to Stanford University and graduated with a human biology degree in 1975.

While in college, she spent six months in Tanzania's Gombe National Park, working with anthropologist Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees. While it was common for students in the program to learn Swahili before the trip, a woman who worked with her recalled Anderson was especially eager to speak the language.


'Decision-Making' Problem

Anderson went to medical school at George Washington University, graduating in 1982. From there, she attended three residency programs, including the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where she was dismissed because of problems with decision-making and developing treatment plans for patients, said Dr. Charles deProsse, a retired professor of obstetrics and gynecology there.

"I don't think anybody had any personal issues with her," deProsse said. "She was a perfectly normal-appearing individual."

She also practiced at what was then known as the Porterville Family Health Center in Porterville, Calif., and was in private practice in the San Diego area for a time, but staff in both places declined to comment.

In 1988, Anderson married Frank Burns. A bitter divorce and battle over custody of Stephen began between the two in 1993. In court files, Anderson accuses Burns of heavy drinking and physical violence against her and Stephen. While he admitted he was an alcoholic, he denied being violent.

Burns says in the divorce court file that Anderson's "entire personality structure and personal security are dependent upon her identity as a mother. She can see nothing about Stephen that conflicts with her desires for herself. She will say or do anything to maintain this control. I now see that I must deal with it head-on if I am to avoid having her separate Stephen and I."

Burns accused Anderson of being a workaholic and said that she had lost jobs and laid the blame on the "Black Mafia" and the "Mormon Mafia."


A 'Red Flag'

Anderson moved to Shoreview in 1999. She recently had enrolled in a series of self-awareness sessions through Landmark Education Corp., a self-improvement program based in San Francisco.

Anderson participated in multiple sessions, but Landmark asked her not to participate anymore after employee Josh Watters overheard a conversation among participants in Landmark's Edina office."They had just said that she had expressed that the medical community in Minneapolis is being run by the Mafia and that she had to get out of the state."

After Watters raised the concern during a staff meeting, Michael Cipolla, who manages the Edina center, told Anderson she could no longer take part in Landmark programs.

She said 'fine,' " Cipolla said. "She had the response that 'there are some things that I need to take care of in my life.' "

Mark Kamin, Landmark spokesman, said the group's sessions are intended to help participants overcome past obstacles and improve their lives.

New Jersey-based cult expert Rick Ross, who says Landmark is not a cult, has criticized Landmark for what he describes as "controversial" methods, including allegations that sessions became "verbally or emotionally abusive."

The cathartic nature of programs like Landmark's can be difficult for people already struggling, Ross said. "Some people will enjoy the ride, but others who are less strong may unravel."

Landmark participants must pass a screening process devised by a board of psychiatrists, including a series of questions aimed at assessing mental stability, Kamin said. "We have a requirement that people must be emotionally stable at that time to participate in our programs."

Anderson last took a Landmark course in December. Watters' observation was a "red flag" that Landmark was not the help Anderson needed, Cipolla said.

"The courses aren't designed to address those kinds of issues that are better handled by health care professionals," Cipolla said.


A Hectic Life

Shoreview neighbor Kathy Javenkoski described Anderson as a "very nice" person who had invited her in for tea occasionally. Though she said she had not spoken to Anderson since October, which was not unusual during the winter months, Stephen called a couple of weeks ago to thank her for telling them that the wind was blowing away their recycling bin.

Javenkoski was a bit "surprised" that his mother didn't make the call.

"She was always busy," Javenkoski said. "She stuck to herself & I remember her saying that she was always working like 60 hours a week."

But Anderson did want more, Javenkoski said.

"She told me once that she'd like to meet someone," she said.

A hectic schedule, which included getting Stephen off at dawn for the private Blake School in Hopkins, was always apparent.

"It seemed like she wanted to give him a lot," Javenkoski said.

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