Daughter Recalls Murdered Mom Was Obsessed With Hitchhiking

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Lena Teinila was an introvert who liked to write poetry and wanted to be a good mother, says her daughter.

“I remember her telling me stories about when I was a baby in Finland. She wanted to have a good, happy home for us,” said Patricia O’Neal, who is known as Tricia.

But Teinila’s wish was not enough. A shy girl whose family thinks her road to mental illness was triggered by the killing of her adored older brother, she was a mother who became obsessed with hitchhiking, even occasionally bringing her young son with her.

After years of battling alcoholism and mental illness, she was found murdered 33 years ago on Feb. 6, 1989. She remains the only cold case homicide for the town of Palm Beach.

On the night she died, the 38-year-old Lake Worth Beach resident had spent time in the Little Owl Bar and Ryan’s Bar and Grill, both on North Dixie Highway in Lake Worth Beach, police have said. She was last seen walking north on North Dixie at the West Palm Beach-Lake Worth line at 1 a.m.

She was found dead less than three hours later — at 3:27 a.m., police said.

According to Palm Beach Daily News archives, a delivery man found Teinila’s body in the eastbound lane of South Ocean Boulevard between Mar-a-Lago and the Bath & Tennis Club. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office listed her cause of death as “multiple stab wounds with asphyxiation as a contributory factor,” according to the archives.

She also was known to hitchhike along Dixie Highway and frequent John Prince Park near Lake Worth, police said. Last month, on the anniversary of her death, the department sent out an appeal for help.

O’Neal recently shared with the Daily News details of mother’s life gathered from her own experiences and conversations with her grandparents.

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Teinila was born in Massachusetts, the second of child of Finnish immigrants who had come to the United States after spending time in Canada. Urho and Sylvi Kivikoski moved to Lake Worth when Teinila was about a year old.

“She had a stable childhood,” O’Neal says, but she was a shy, quiet child. “I think it was hard for her being in the shadow of her older brother, and her parents were busy building their construction business.”

Teinila was a good student but felt like she didn’t fit in. “I don’t know that she ever had a lot of friends at any time,” O’Neal says.

Her brother, Stephen Kivikoski, was 10 years older. He joined the Navy, likely to prove his worth as a man to his father, O’Neal theorizes, because he previously had shown little interest in his dad’s construction business.

Stephen’s Navy career included a few years in Antarctica. When he got out, he got a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but concerned it wasn’t enough, he decided to get his master’s, O’Neal says.

That decision would change the family forever.

Brother, a UF student, fatally shot by police near Gainesville

Stephen, who by this time had changed his last name to Kivi, enrolled at the University of Florida in the fall of 1967 for a graduate degree in finance, leaving his wife, Joan, and baby back home in Lake Worth.

The couple had married on June 17, 1965. They met in New Zealand where Joan, a native of Great Britain, was working as a pharmacist at a hospital and Kivi was on a special mission following a 13-month tour in Antarctica, according to a wedding announcement in The Palm Beach Post. Teinila was a bridesmaid at their wedding.

Kivi was a graduate of Lake Worth High and as a 12-year-old seventh-grader had been the school’s runner-up in the Spelling Bee.

According to O’Neal, her uncle had been out drinking with his college friends on Sept. 26, 1967, and after they parted ways he mistakenly tried to get into a home in McIntosh — a small town near Gainesville — that he thought was his. The homeowner thought he was an intruder and called police.

Kivi ran when he saw police, but “they shot him in the foot. He was still trying to run away and they shot him in the back,” O’Neal says. “He didn’t die right away.”

Kivi, who was unarmed, was 27. When Teinila’s parents got word of the shooting, they “left my mom at home” and went immediately to see him in the hospital before he died, O’Neal says.

The incident received extensive coverage from papers around the state.

A Marion County coroner’s jury ruled in October 1968 that the shooting was justifiable homicide and that Kivi had committed a felony. The officer who fired the fatal shot testified that he didn’t know Kivi had been shot in the leg when he shot him in the back, according to a report in the Tampa Tribune.

His parents told The Post that what Kivi did was mistaken but that “they are positive he was up to no wrong.” He had been in the Gainesville area for only three days, The Post reported.

Kivi had no criminal record. His widow sued the Marion County sheriff and the deputy who fired the fatal shot. saying the shooting was not necessary to catch him. The case was dismissed.

Joan Kivi and her baby moved in with her in-laws after her husband’s death, but they eventually left for England.

Shooting the catalyst for mental illness?

Teinila was in high school when her brother died. O’Neal thinks the trauma of the incident “set her on the course with her mental illness — I think it was the trigger.”

O’Neal says her mother told her about a vision she had at about that time: “She was in her dining room and she saw a version of The Last Supper where Stephen was a demon surrounded by lesser demons.”

Her grandparents thought the vision was an indication of mental illness. “I think, especially in hindsight, they saw it as the beginning of the end for her.”

Teinila went on to graduate from John I. Leonard High and took some classes at Palm Beach Junior College (now Palm Beach State College), but she never finished, despite some notable work.

O’Neal recalls her mother reminiscing about a college paper she did on the Emily Brontë novel “Wuthering Heights.”

“She was proud that it got special mention from the professor.”

O’Neal says her grandparents told her that after Stephen died, Teinila “was inconsolable and distracted. So that’s why they sent her to Finland as a graduation present, to help get her mind off of it.”

While in Finland, she reconnected with family members and eventually married her first cousin, Markku Teinila. O’Neal speculates they connected because they both felt like outcasts. Lena, because she just never fit in, and Markku, because he was born out of wedlock and grew up without a father.

Teinila lasted only one winter in Finland, O’Neal says. Conditions were hard: “They were living in a summer cabin, which was not meant to be lived in year-round.”

The couple moved with their infant daughter to Lake Worth, and Markku Teinila, who had worked construction in Finland, got a job with his father-in-law.

Urho and Sylvi Kivikoski weren’t thrilled about the marriage because of the social stigma of them being cousins, but they had to be supportive of their daughter and new granddaughter, O’Neal says.

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And they wanted more for their daughter: “My grandparents were very ambitious and just wanted her to be a little bit more than she was,” O’Neal says, something her mother was aware of.

Marriage falls apart

She and Markku welcomed another child, Andrew, three years and three months after Tricia. But by that point, the marriage was under heavy strain because both parents were alcoholics. Her father eventually left, and each parent had a different version of events, O’Neal says.

“According to my dad, my mother’s behavior became increasingly erratic and she was too difficult to live with. She said she threw him out.”

O’Neal remembers when he left. He stayed in Florida before moving back to Finland around 1980. “I saw him one time after he had moved out.”

Teinila and her children moved into a cottage behind her parents’ home and were supported by them. “But she was not doing well,” O’Neal recalls. “Sometimes we would spend the night with our grandparents’ because my mother would go hitchhiking.

“I’m not sure what she was running from. Not sure if she was running from herself or just trying to get into bad situations. She told told me (later on that) she had been attacked ... when she was doing all this hitchhiking.

“I wanted to ask why would she keep doing it if she knew what could happen,” she said. “That’s one of my big questions – I can’t help but think it had something to do with her mental illness.”

When O’Neal started kindergarten, she moved in with her grandparents, but her mother held on to Andrew.

“She kept my brother a little longer. She actually took him hitchhiking with her. And so eventually my grandparents convinced her to let them take Andrew also because she wasn’t able to take care of him.”

The children saw Teinila on and off during their elementary school years. She continued drinking but would make attempts to get sober.

“I would visit her at different rehabs so I know she tried to quit drinking,” O’Neal says. She finally quit drinking for a whole year and wanted her children back. At that point she had a boyfriend, Richard Van Strander, who also was in construction.

“My granddad built us a home in Port St. Lucie but after living there for a year she decided to come back to Lake Worth. Richard also had family in the (Lake Worth) area.”

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Their relationship was on-and-off and when Van Strander was not around. Teinila’s father supported her family financially.

“He knew my mom really wanted to be a mom, but she just didn’t have a trade or any means to support us,” O’Neal says.

Teinila stayed sober until about halfway through O’Neal’s senior year at Lake Worth High in 1987.

“I don’t know whether she was bipolar,” but she would talk more to people than she ever had and became obsessed with current events, O’Neal recalls about the events leading up to when Teinila began drinking again.

“She didn’t leave the house a lot … When I got home (from school) she would want to talk about everything. But it wasn’t really a discussion. It was a one-way speech — sometimes referred to as pressured speech.”

Sometimes there was a lot of anger, O’Neal says. And Teinila was paranoid.

“I remember at one point she told me the CIA was listening to her through some kind of dental implant. So she thought she had special knowledge that the CIA was trying to get a hold of … it was a constant quicksand of conspiracy and paranoia all mixed in together.”

Sober days come to an end

When Teinila started drinking again, O’Neal moved in with a friend and her mother because Teinila could be very cruel when she was drunk, she says. Her grandparents had moved to Jensen Beach, so she stayed with her friend’s family to avoid spending the rest of her senior year at a different school.

O’Neal was accepted to Vanderbilt University and headed there after graduation. She got some scholarships and “Granddad paid the rest of my way … I wanted to be a teacher.”

But she would not realize that dream.

“The whole time I was at school I was feeling guilty,” she says, because of her family’s problems. Her brother Andrew had been institutionalized after suffering a schizophrenic break. And her mother’s living situation was unstable; she would call her daughter occasionally, but from a different place each time.

O’Neal’s then-fiancé Mike O’Neal recalls Teinila calling him while he was at Duke University Divinity School “and got into weird delusional theology about what the colors green and red meant. When I couldn’t confirm her ideas biblically, she accused me of being a sham minister.”

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By end of January 1989, during her sophomore year at Vanderbilt, O’Neal began to unravel. Consumed with worry about her mother and her brother, she ended up in the hospital diagnosed with clinical depression.

“One of the precipitating events,” O’Neal says, was “I had heard a voice say, ‘Do you know where your mother is?’ I did not know where my mother was. The voice was upsetting but the question was even more so – some kind of bad omen.”

After a couple of weeks, she persuaded the staff to release her because she was missing too many classes. A week later, she acknowledged to herself that “I wasn’t doing well.”

She decided to return the hospital, and “on my way walking back .... a police officer started talking to me. I think he asked me where I was going and he asked if he could walk with me.

“We walked together into the hospital, where he told me that my mother had been murdered.”

O’Neal was devastated.

“Mostly I felt responsible and I was completely destroyed because I felt it was my fault – that if I had stayed in Florida, that would not have happened to her.”

She dropped out of college.

Because Teinila was battling alcoholism, Andrew became a ward of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in April 1988, according a report in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which detailed a court case over keeping Andrew hospitalized at the state’s expense. He is a catatonic schizophrenic, and is currently institutionalized in Washington state.

O’Neal has had ‘a great life’

“My life did go on,” O’Neal says. She married Mike, who is a minister, in September 1989. They have two sons, Jameson and Christian, and three grandchildren. Both sons are teachers.

O’Neal was a stay-at-home mom for many years before becoming a receptionist at a medical facility. She now owns an antique mall. “I have had a great life,” says O’Neal, who also lives in Washington state, close to her brother.

O’Neal says she took the 33rd anniversary of her mother’s murder as the moment to share her Teinila’s story because it is important to talk about mental illness. She had remained silent, she says, because she didn’t have any information that could help solve her mother’s case.

O’Neal did reconnect with her dad.

In her 30s she wrote him a letter and he responded. They exchanged letters for about a year and then she went to Finland to visit him for two weeks.

“It was very healing because I had thought that he just didn’t care,” she said. “Because he never tried to contact my brother and I thought he had abandoned his kids.”

He told her his side of the story, which gave her the answers she sought. Her reunion with her dad happened about two years before he died.

“I think there is still a lot of false guilt and shame around mental illness — look at how poorly we deal with suicide,” said Mike O’Neal, who has watched his wife face the issue for decades. “The medical science is still in its infancy regarding brain disorders and treatments.”

However, “one of the blessings of being in a family with schizophrenia is compassion,” he said. “Both of my sons are schoolteachers with a love of their students and compassion for the challenges they face.”

The struggle to not say ‘Grandma was murdered’

Jameson O’Neal, 31, the older of the couple’s sons, recalls that growing up he would always refer to his father’s parents or his great-grandparents when people asked him about his grandparents.

Jameson, who is married with a daughter and a son due in early August, teaches English to seventh-graders.

“I kind of avoided conversations about mom’s parents when I talked to my friends or other families,” he says. When asked directly about them, he would say her dad was out of the picture and her mom had been murdered.

“People would be shocked,” he says, but they wouldn’t press for details and generally would express sympathy and move on.

He recalls his mom recounting her relationship with her mother as one of mental and emotional — and occasionally physical — abuse as well as love and friendship. “It wasn’t all bad all the time,” he says.

Mental health is often a topic of family conversation, Jameson says. Because of Andrew and Teinila, “we’re often very primed to worry about ourselves if we’re going to fall into some of the same challenges that our other family members have faced.”

Lack of understanding of mental illness

The nature of mental illness sometimes can make others question their own sanity, O’Neal said.

Then there is the constant worrying about the person, she says, because their actions can lead to them getting hurt. Her mother was injured while hitchhiking and “my brother was damaged by being a witness to seeing his mother attacked.”

And, in her case, Teinila’s death directly affected her and Andrew, she says.

She recalls that her grandfather had tried to get legal custody of her and Andrew but it was difficult to get a diagnosis when the symptoms weren’t always evident. “I remember my grandfather saying she didn’t always … seem — for want of a better word — crazy because she could be very articulate.”

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Her grandfather became involved with mental illness causes after Andrew became schizophrenic, and at one point served on the board of directors for the Martin/St. Lucie Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

“I think it’s easy,” O’Neal says, to dismiss, ignore or get frustrated with people suffering from mental illness, “but the thing is, when you’re dealing with people with mental illness it’s almost like you’re fighting shadows because their ideas are always jumping around. I have the benefit of time to understand her better and show more compassion.

“Because when I was a teenager, I was just consumed of getting out of there, getting an education and having my own life. But I was kind of desperate.

“It was impossible to try to help her. That’s the biggest mistake I think I made – to think that I could actually help her. I was not a psychiatrist, I was not a psychologist,” she said. ”“When she ended up being stabbed to death, I did feel responsible … though I understand that I could not protect her from everything.”

O’Neal says it would be wonderful if her mother’s death could be solved. “I have hoped for that all along, but as time goes on I’m not optimistic. I thought (Scott) Erskine was the most likely suspect.”

In 2004, police questioned a man named Scott Erskine about Teinila’s killing. Erskine, who was serving prison time in California for kidnapping and raping a woman, had been linked through DNA with the killing of two California boys who had disappeared while riding their bicycles.

Searching for links to other cases, San Diego police traced him to Palm Beach County and connected him to the murder of Renee Baker, who was found dead in Palm Beach just over the Southern Boulevard Bridge a few months after Teinila’s murder, Palm Beach Police Detective John Scanlan said.

Baker, 26, of West Palm Beach was found face down in an oyster bed. She had been strangled. Erskine had left a cigarette butt at the crime scene, Scanlan told the Daily News last month.

Erskine got a deal in which he would plead guilty to the Baker murder as long as he could serve his time in California.

“He also agreed to speak to us about Teinila,” and investigators could have used his statement against him, Scanlan said.

But he told police he had played no part in Teinila’s death.

“And with no evidence, he was never cleared, but we never had enough to charge him,” Scanlan said.

Erskine died in prison last year from COVID-19, the detective said.

Scanlan said Tuesday that while different people of interest have come up over the years, there has been no new developments in the case.

O’Neal points to mental illness as the chief obstacle in her mother’s life.

“Even though my mother created a lot of chaos, it really wasn’t her. I don’t think that was what she would have wanted if she had a clear mind. I know she loved me and my brother.

“Besides the alcoholism, I think the mental illness was the barrier between her and the life that she could have had.”