Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna


The Reno Gazette-Journal would carry this story, which would be picked up by Las Vegas papers, the Associated Press, and even some television magazine shows, but most of their coverage would view the story in retrospect. Initially, despite suspicions raised at the scene, there was no reason not to just record Peter Bergna's version of events and then let him go.

Peter Bergna
Peter Bergna

As night passed into the first light of day, officers were checking the crash site. They found no leaked fluid that might signal defective brakes, but more important, they saw no skid marks or even an attempt to steer away from the guardrail. Tires under duress would have left some impression, but there was none. It appeared that the truck had moved right into the impediment. Later they would perform more thorough tests, but at this time they wondered why Bergna had been unable to steer the truck into the curve, even with failing brakes. It was sufficiently wide and graded in such a way as to bank toward the mountain.

Investigators look from the top of the road
Investigators look from the top of the road

Unfortunately, rescue vehicles had driven over the area and rescue personnel had taken the same path the truck had taken, so the scene had not been preserved. Yet certain evidence such as the two full gas cans found in the truck, demanded some answers. Why would someone be carrying them around with him? When Detective James Beltron arrived from the Washoe County Sheriff's Department, he also noticed the lack of tire marks.

As he was looking around, a car drove up and to everyone's surprise, Bergna got out on the passenger's side. Just when he should have at least been extremely sore from being ejected, here he was back at the scene, with only a slight limp. And he wasn't there asking about his wife, who had been brought up the mountain and placed on the road a few yards away, but about his missing fanny pack. He did have a broken foot, as it turned out, but no cuts or scratches from the jagged edges over the side of the cliff. Without even noticing his wife, he got back into the car and left.

Beltron smelled a rat. He decided to bring Bergna in for questioning. Bergna was agreeable, although on pain medication, and during the interrogation he told Beltron that he had been thrown free on impact when the brakes failed, going out the open driver-side window and tumbling down through the sand. He'd had his window open because he had just smoked a cigar. He later said that perhaps he had opened the door and jumped; he wasn't sure because he could not remember. He seemed to have no clear memory for events after he realized he wasn't stopping the car. He also wondered whether he might have accidentally stepped on the accelerator instead. He had simply panicked.

Peter Bergna interviewed by police
Peter Bergna interviewed by police

When questioned about the gas cans, Bergna said that he'd filled them for a trip to Las Vegas, because he did not want to have to fill up at more expensive stations, but he also said that he had needed the gas for his snow blower and other machines.

When pressed, Bergna admitted that he and his wife had been having difficulties over her work and his desire to have children, and, yes, after he'd picked her up, divorce had been mentioned. He did not go into details about that. He also indicated that the place where the crash occurred was one of their favorite romantic spots, but they had only been up there five or six times. Yet he also stated that Rinette had never been there.

Beltron expected some amount of confusion, and he kept trying to catch Bergna in some obvious slip, but Bergna managed to leave the session without giving up anything Beltron could use. All he had gained were some inconsistencies. He had no proof that anything sinister had occurred. He asked Bergna to come back again to take a polygraph, and Bergna agreed, but he neither passed nor failed. Instead, he breathed so heavily during significant questions that the examiner was unable to get reliable results. He believed that Bergna had done this intentionally. The question was, why? The police decided to learn more about this "lonely" man.

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