Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

The Next Phase

Beltron played a tape of his interview, supplying the jury with transcripts so they could see for themselves Bergna's odd statements and inconsistencies. These included his statement about the romantic place he shared with his wife along with the statement that she'd never been on Slide Mountain in that spot. The jury was also left with the impression of how Bergna had disliked his wife's new job. To conclude, Beltron stated that he had overheard the defendant tell his father, "I did it," but he did not know to what Bergna had referred, and this odd remark was never quite clarified.

On cross examination, Schwartz showed how poorly the case had been documented and investigated, accusing the entire team of acting under the influence of tunnel vision — forming a theory and supporting it rather than collecting facts and then coming up with a viable explanation for them once they were properly gathered. Tunnel vision is the bane of inexperienced officers, encouraging them to overlook evidence for other possible explanations. That, said Schwartz, appeared to be the case here.

It was a crucial point, as the trial centered on technical details about accident reconstruction that depended on getting the facts right — and getting them all. Schwartz could only hope the jury members would keep this in mind.

They were shown the mangled guardrail and scale models of the side of the mountain where the incident had occurred, so they could understand how it was reconstructed. A lab tech testified that while cornstarch had been identified on Bergna's clothing, it was in the amount consistent with what was in the air at any given time and did not necessarily indicate the airbag as its source. Asphalt marks on his tennis shoes and on his cap lying in the road indicate he could have been out of the truck before it hit the guardrail.

A group of people look at the damaged guardrail
A group of people look at the damaged guardrail

On October 20, during the trial's third week, the jury went to the accident scene to see it for themselves. Clifton wanted to give them a better idea of what Rinette had endured as she crashed down the side of Slide Mountain, as well as provide a three-dimensional view. "There's really nothing that allows them to truly live the experience other than seeing it in person," he was quoted in the AP as saying. "It really hits home."

Rinette Riella-Bergna
Rinette Riella-Bergna

The jury members were instructed to say nothing as they looked over the precipice and saw a yellow flag 700 feet blow. They also saw the spot eighty feet down where Bergna claimed to have come to a rest. Bergna was there as well, conferring a short distance away with his attorneys. Fleeman says he then walked over and looked down himself.

Back in the courtroom, a final and dramatic witness for the prosecution was a prison inmate who claimed that Bergna had admitted to killing his wife because she did not want children and did not want to pay out in the event of a divorce. He allegedly said that he had a good attorney who could get him off. This man claimed he was coming forward because it was the right thing to do. But Schwartz presented the man's lengthy criminal history and continuous deception, effectively destroying him as a credible witness. Now it was Schwartz's turn to lay out an alternate scenario.