Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

The Second Trial

In June 2002, the second trial began, and it was equally technical, but this time both sides promised in the media to bring more to the table. The prosecutor hoped to delve more deeply into Bergna as a person, while the defense attorneys (three of them) claimed to have information about the braking system of the truck. Schwartz tried to get a change of venue, due to media coverage, but Judge Adams said he would do that only if he could not seat an impartial jury in Reno. He apparently succeeded.

On May 13, 2002, the emergency workers who had arrived at the scene recounted their surprise that Bergna had sustained so few injuries. Ejection, they stated, often produced more serious injuries, even life-threatening ones. Nevertheless, they were forced to admit that some people do manage to escape an ejection incident without injury.

Schwartz claimed that a test done of the truck since the first trial showed that there had indeed been a failure, as Bergna had claimed. In fact, he had hoped to prove that the Ford Motor Company had a history of cover-up involving the brake systems on this specific truck model and make, and thousands of such trucks had come in for repair of the brakes. He offered several thick binders full of evidence to support his claim, containing documents from another attorney who was involved in a lawsuit against the automaker in North Carolina. He said he had evidence that would show that these trucks could easily fail in such a way that the person did not have enough effective breaking distance to stop before hitting something.

However, the official position of the Ford Motor Company was that there was no such wide-scale brake problem, and Judge Adams determined by looking at the materials that the many reports were irrelevant, since they were not specifically about the Ford truck at the heart of the case. Schwartz was posturing, he said, and these items would not be admitted.

Clifton indicated that even if Bergna could not stop, he could have at least tried to avoid hitting the guardrail. There was no evidence of that. He told his wife that he was having trouble, so he clearly had time to do something of that nature. When asked why had had not tried steering away, he had offered no explanation. In addition, Clifton said once again, if he had indeed been thrown from the vehicle as he claimed, he would have kept going down the hill, not stopped where he was found.

Friends of Bergna's once again testified that he had deeply loved his wife and had been terribly distraught after her death. His coworkers affirmed that the marriage had been stable and supportive. At first after the incident, one man said, Bergna had been numb and without energy, unable to work effectively.

Following that testimony, however, was Bergna's first wife, a rebuttal witness who said she had been frightened of him. "I was very, very fearful of my physical wellbeing," she said. Rebecca Tillery had been married to Bergna for three years and she recounted how Bergna was able to show a façade to others of an affable guy, but "once the door was closed, I found there was a totally different person."

In closing, Deputy DA Kelli Anne Viloria, working with Clifton, depicted Bergna as a calculating killer who was hoping to commit the perfect crime. She said he viewed both his wife and the truck as easily replaceable. He was unhappy over Rinette's new career and the loss of income, and had been looking at other women during the weeks prior to the murder. She repeated all the known facts that supported their case and reiterated how terrible it must have been for Rinette to go over the cliff's edge. "She threatened his self-worth," Viloria contended, "and the cost was Rinette's life."

Schwartz insisted again that the case was all supposition and interpretation, not fact. The evidence pointed to a different scenario, he stated, and the story about an accident was entirely credible. In addition, Bergna's complete assistance with the investigation undermined the notion that he was a calculating killer. "Let's have some evidence before we start making these claims, shall we?" he pleaded.

Yet it was Clifton who had the last word, and a rather convincing one at that.

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