Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

The Grand Jury

By this time, investigators had discovered that Bergna's shoes appeared to have asphalt on them, an indication he might have jumped from the truck before it hit the guardrail. They also knew that the tops of the gas cans had been unsealed, and that Bergna stood to receive $450,000 from a life insurance police on his wife, as well as several hundred thousand dollars from a property inheritance. In fact, he had already collected all of it and had even demanded more from Rinette's family. They had responded with a civil suit, now believing that Rinette's death had been no accident.

Rinette Riella-Bergna
Rinette Riella-Bergna

Among the items that made this case stand out as a potential murder were:

  • Peter's cap in the road and asphalt marks on his shoes
  • Peter's lack of injury from "ejection"
  • His inability to say how he could have been ejected from the car
  • The gas cans and his remark that he'd been looking for a fire
  • His ability to use a cell phone while he was "sliding" down the mountain
  • His attention to other women and the problems in his marriage
  • The fact that his truck showed no sign of brake problems
  • The inconsistencies in his stories to police
  • His manner that night and afterward
  • His lack of tears when he cried
  • The fact that he could have steered the truck away from danger if he'd tried
  • The physics calculations that precluded him from being in the position in which he was found if ejected from a moving truck
  • His fight with Rinette's family to get money to which he felt entitled

In December 2000, after listening to more than a dozen witnesses, the grand jury took very little time to indict Bergna on murder charges. He was arrested in Seattle, the city to where he had moved to be with his new fiancée. Rather than fight extradition, he returned to Reno to face the charges. His attorney assured him that in their favor was the fact that it had taken so long to investigate and bring charges. They probably didn't have much of a case. Once the criminal case was in motion, Rinette's family ended the civil proceedings and the prosecutor announced they would not seek the death penalty.

Peter Bergna in court
Peter Bergna in court

Prior to the trial, lab work was completed on the unknown smudges on Bergna's tennis shoes, to ensure that the substance was from the asphalt at the scene. A solution that dissolved asphalt was applied and it successfully dissolved the smudge material. Infrared spectroscopy found elements that were consistent with asphalt, and some of same material was found on other areas of Bergna's clothing. But there was no evidence of the expected plant matter with which he had allegedly made violent contact on the side of the hill. Thus, the crime lab results did not support his story. Yet the defense would have its own expert opinions on this matter, not the least of which was to comment that Bergna's clothing had not been confiscated in a timely manner.

Bergna's attorney, Michael Schwartz from Seattle, said he would not accept a plea. It was time to go to trial.

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