Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

'I Can't Stop!'

The damaged guardrail and area where the truck went over the side
The damaged guardrail and area where the truck went over the side

The spot where Peter was going had a wide gentle curve, a pull-off area, and a guardrail that allowed people to park for a brief time and look at the lights in the Washoe Valley 3,000 feet below. Suddenly, as they drove down toward the spot, Peter claimed that the brakes were not working. The car picked up speed, going straight toward the guardrail. "We're not stopping!" Peter yelled. At least, that's the story that he gave afterward.

We'll never know what went through Rinette's mind as the truck struck the guardrail and crashed through. It kept going, plunging down the steep incline to land nose down 100 feet below. It then tumbled over and over another 700 feet before coming to a rest upside down, shattered and damaged beyond repair. Inside, Rinette, so full of optimism about her future just moments before, had been battered and crushed to death. Her lifeless body hung from the seat belt. But Peter was not with her. He had not been strapped in and he'd even dismantled the passenger-side airbag because Rinette was so short and he thought it might harm her if deployed. Thus, she had been without any buffer or cushion. And he had supposedly been thrown free as the truck jolted down the mountain.

The truck after the crash
The truck after the crash

Overhead, he called 911 on the cell phone he had in his jacket pocket to alert authorities, crying and screaming that he was on the side of the mountain and his wife was in the car below. He was sliding down, he said, and was clinging to a branch. The emergency dispatcher had a difficult time getting him to calm down, according to Michael Fleeman in Over the Edge, and that delayed getting someone there to assist him. In addition, there was some confusion as to just where he was, but finally emergency personnel were sent to the scene. Peter lay on his side, saying he could not move his legs.

While he waited, Peter looked down from his vantage point to try to see where the truck had gone. His foot and back hurt, he would later claim, and he was scanning the darkness for a fire. Apparently he'd expected that the vehicle had hit and exploded, but he saw nothing. The camper shell had broken free and gone flying, but the valley was silent. Over and over, he called for Rinette.

Washoe County Sheriff's officers responded to the 911 call
Washoe County Sheriff's officers responded to the 911 call

The first patrol officers on the scene found a gaping hole in the guardrail and saw Peter about eighty feet below. They went to assist him and were surprised that he appeared only slightly hurt and not very dirty, especially when he said he had been ejected from the truck before it went down the precipice. In fact, the only real dirt was on the seat of his pants. The officers noted that the temperature was about 60 degrees, without a chill, yet Peter was dressed for a much cooler climate. He said he was okay and urged them to find his wife.

It was too dark below to see anything, so the trooper called for a Care Flight helicopter. With the helicopter's powerful light, they were able to see the crushed vehicle below. They knew it was unlikely that anyone could have survived, but they had to check, so down they went. As they had feared, Rinette had been badly battered and was not breathing. They cut her out of the seatbelt and placed her into a body bag.

As Peter was being treated by a paramedic and a nurse who had arrived on the helicopter, he kept shouting for his wife, and said at one point, "I think she's dead." The nurse wondered why he did not seem upset. In fact, while he appeared to be sobbing, she saw no tears.

On the road, the troopers found a baseball cap with the word, "Incline" written on the front. It would later turn out to belong to Peter, adding yet another angle on this mystery. For those who arrived at the scene, it just didn't add up. Not all accidents turned out to be genuine accidents, and the observant officer can often provide the small clues that reveal the truth.

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