Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

On the Defense

Kay Sweeney, an investigator from King County, Washington, testified for the defense on October 30 that the evidence had not been properly protected. The truck had stood outside in the weather, which exposed scratch marks on it to fading, as well as making it difficult to analyze trace evidence inside. Nevertheless, he showed how the truck had sideswiped the guardrail and bounced over the top of a wooden post, ejecting Bergna. Particles on Bergna's clothing from the airbag were consistent with the possibility that he had been in the truck when the bag inflated, so he was still inside when it made impact. In addition, the marks on his shoes were not necessarily from asphalt from that roadway.

Two other investigators agreed that the lack of evidence preservation made the evidence difficult to accurately interpret. Dean Jackson, a retired professor of material science from Arizona State University, used several items to support the possibility that Bergna had been ejected from the truck in the manner he had described: marks on his shoes and clothing, and a bent area of molding on the driver-side window. He claimed that the bottom of the shoes had not come into contact with something hard, as they would have had he jumped out while the truck accelerated. The smear on his shoe matched items such as motor oil, which could have come from the truck — or an unrelated source.

Robert D. Keppel
Robert D. Keppel

On October 24, Robert D. Keppel, with a lot of experience with staged accidents, insisted that this one did not have the markers typical of staging, and Bergna's behavior was not what was expected from men planning to kill their wives. There had been no recent insurance policy to enrich himself and no mistress on the side. Indeed, a plan to jump from a moving vehicle before it went through a guardrail — if it even would — seemed risky and preposterous. On top of that, the investigation itself was full of holes.

One expert offered testimony with a simulated rendering of how the accident had occurred, indicating exactly how the truck had caught on the guardrail post and twisted around at a 50 degree angle. To make this simulation, he had used the width of the truck's wheelbase and looked at marks on the guardrail posts from the truck's tow hooks.

For several days, character witnesses took the stand to discuss Bergna's demeanor after Rinette's death. Then an insurance broker stated that Peter had not wanted to take out such a large life insurance policy; it had been Rinette's idea, and it was she who added extra coverage for accidental deaths.

By the time Schwartz was finished, Peter Bergna did indeed appear to be the victim of an accident, having little to gain and a lot to risk by staging an accident in this particular manner. But it was time for the rebuttal.