Monica Louise Berlin grew up on the San Mateo County Coastside and attended local schools. Her mother, Leslie Berlin, says she has a large network of friends in the Half Moon Bay area and is not violent by nature.
But in the past four years Monica Berlin struggled with mental health issues that include post-traumatic stress disorder and delusional disorder, her mother said. Family says the problems stem from a drawn out custody battle that she ultimately lost that left her unable to make contact with her young son.
“This started her odd behaviors, fixed delusions and conspiracy theories involving tech companies and the government,” Leslie Berlin wrote in an email to the Review on Tuesday.
Authorities say those odd behaviors culminated with her setting two fires on the Coastside over the last two weeks and leading police on a chase that she documented on social media even as she tried to elude capture.
It was in this state, Berlin reached out to Mike Alifano. She originally “friended” him on Facebook in 2014.
The owner and founder of Alifano Technolgies lives across the street from the Giannini property where fires burned hay bales on consecutive Tuesdays. In the days surrounding the fires, Alifano said he received countless messages from Berlin who said there was a coming zombie apocalypse along with other bizarre conspiracy theories. She claimed Martin’s Beach was a Nazi camp, for example, and told Alifano that zombies were using the hay bales to block the roads. Alifano said the night of June 26 she “looked possessed” as she took video of the fire scene from the middle of the street. He said deputies had to tell her to stay back.
Alifano said he understood that Berlin was battling mental health issues and tried to engage with her through Facebook in the hope that he could encourage her to get help.
“I feel so bad that she’s lost so much and it’s because it’s her illness,” Alifano said.
Alifano says he thought the first fire was an isolated incident. He and his family went on vacation and were surprised to hear about Berlin in the aftermath.
He says on July 4, Berlin made it past the Ocean Colony gate and to the side door of his parents’ house. Alifano says his mother, Anong Alifano, let Berlin into her home and that Berlin told her that Mike Alifano and his family were kidnapped. His mother knew better, and, at that point, she asked Berlin to leave.
Mike’s father, Allan Alifano, wasn’t home at the time but recounted the incident on Monday. He said that Berlin told his wife that she was her son’s neighbor and that she was concerned about the family’s welfare.
“My wife was concerned also, (but) the more she talked to this woman the more she realized she something wasn’t quite right,” Allan Alifano said. “She said , ‘I’m sorry you have to leave.’”
A neighbor also told Mike Alifano that Berlin was at his home that day while the family was away. The neighbor said she was attempting to climb the fence and shaking the gate violently.
That day a Sheriff’s deputy called Alifano to say Berlin reported him and his family as missing. About that time, authorities began looking for Berlin.
This isn’t Berlin’s first experience with the court system. In 2015, Berlin filed a civil suit alleging assault, libel and slander against members of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, the Foster City Police Department and a host of other defendants. That suit was dismissed.
Berlin also has a series of misdemeanor offenses filed with the San Mateo County Superior Court dating back to 1997. These cases included driving under the influence and driving on a suspended license, said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
The arson charges are Berlin’s first felony offense with the county of San Mateo, Wagstaffe noted.
“This situation and incidents have been quite shocking and disturbing for our family,” Berlin’s mother wrote in the same email referenced earlier.
Leslie Berlin noted that things with her daughter seemed to spiral out of control about six weeks earlier when she received unfavorable news in a child custody court case. This, coupled with reports of children being separated from their parents at the southern border, triggered a mental break that led to her erratic behavior, Berlin’s mother wrote.
Berlin’s mother said they tried to put her on an involuntary psychiatric hold, also known as a 5150, but she said her daughter didn’t meet the criteria the first time around. The second time she was placed on a 5250, which extends to a 14-day hold. Nevertheless, Monica Berlin was discharged a day later after a hearing.
“Monica doesn’t really know the Alifanos,” Leslie Berlin wrote. “We believe she pursued them due to the Alifano tech business (with that being one of the conspiracies she pursued the most), the proximity of their home to a friend’s place she frequented and lastly that she saw his name on many local social media outlets.”
Berlin’s mother added that she was unsure of what awaited Berlin in the court system but that getting her daughter mental help was her top priority. Monica Berlin was expected to make her first court appearance late Tuesday afternoon, after Review print deadlines.
Review editor Clay Lambert contributed to this report.