He Called It A Tragic Accident.
On a May evening in 1998, the idyllic marriage of wealthy Lake Tahoe couple Peter and Rinette Bergna ended in a crush of metal as their truck plunged 800 feet down a Sierra-Nevada mountainside. Peter was thrown from the vehicle and lived. Rinette, strapped in her seat, died on impact. In time, the grieving widower would meet a new woman, and put the tragic past behind him. Two-and-a-half years later, his life took another fateful turn...
Authorities Called It A Crime.
Bergna, esteemed art appraiser and son of one of California's most prominent attorneys, was indicted for the murder of his wife. Was Rinette's death really an accident-or deliberate homicide to free a controlling killer from a financially and emotionally trying marriage? The contradictory twists and turns of the case resulted in a hung jury. But it was the second trial that would yield even more surprises as a divided community waited for the final stunning verdict.
About the Author
Michael Fleeman covers show business for People magazine in Los Angeles. Before joining People, he worked for the Associated Press, covering such high-profile stories as the two O.J. Simpson trials and the Oklahoma City bombing trial of Timothy McVeigh. He lives in Altadena, California, with his wife Barbara, and their two children, Katherine and Scott. He is also the author of "If I Die...", The Stranger in My Bed, and Laci.
Michael Fleeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and editor and the author of several true-crime books published by St. Martin's Press, including the New York Times bestseller The Stranger in My Bed and Crazy for You about the Andrea Sneiderman murder case in Atlanta. Fleeman appeared in the second season of Investigation Discovery's "Tabloid," a series about sensational true-crime stories.
A graduate of UC Berkeley and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Fleeman previously was West Coast Editor of PEOPLE.com, overseeing entertainment and crime/human interest reporting for PEOPLE magazine's website out of Los Angeles. Prior to that, he was a reporter for the Associated Press in Los Angeles and New Jersey, covering the O.J. Simpson and Timothy McVeigh trials, general assignment and entertainment.
Fleeman has covered all the major awards shows and film festivals, including the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys and SAG Awards, and his work has been repeatedly honored by the Los Angeles Press Club. His O.J. Simpson trial coverage was nominated by the AP for a Pulitzer Prize.
A frequently requested public speaker and television commentator, Fleeman appears regularly on Entertainment Tonight, "E! True Hollywood Story," Inside Edition, HLN's "Showbiz Tonight," CNN and a variety of true-crime programs on TruTV, Investigation Discovery and Oxygen. He has also participated on panels at the conference of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society.
Read an Excerpt
Over the Edge
By Michael Fleeman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Michael Fleeman
All rights reserved.
In the stillness of the mountain night, a blue Ford F-150 pickup truck stopped at the end of the road, the headlights sweeping across the gate blocking off the parking lot to the Slide Mountain Ski Area. It was just before midnight on the last day of May 1998 and dirty patches of snow remained, soon to be washed away by the spring rains. The only lights came from the cab of the pickup and the stars. A man got out of the truck. He was in his forties, stocky, with bushy eyebrows. He wore blue jeans, a dress shirt, a jacket, canvas shoes, gloves and a green-and-white baseball cap with "Incline" written across the front. He lit a thin Cuban cigar and paced. He raised his voice and profanity punctured the night.
In time, the man got back into the truck and drove from the ski area, with the radio on, the window rolled down and the heater off. Heading down the 1950s-era road, rarely used in the skiing off-season, the man drove a few hundred feet to a broad, banking left turn, where the road was wide enough to pull over to the side, next to the guardrail that separated the pavement from the side of a cliff. From this precipice, there was a sweeping view of the Washoe Valley, some 3,000 feet below, where on this clear night the lights of Sparks and Washoe City twinkled to the right.
Next to the guardrail a windsock hung, limp. By day, this is a jumping-off place for hang-gliding enthusiasts, who leap from the edge past the guardrail and catch the updrafts created when the sun warms the valley floor. A skilled flier can ride these thermals all day, soaring thousands of feet, over the ledge, and land near the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Had the man steered the truck on the gentle left and gone past the turnout, he would have seen in the valley below the blazing blanket of lights of Reno. He never made it.
A tremendous crash shattered the mountain quiet. Metal slashed through metal, wood splintered, glass shattered, as the truck barreled through the guardrail and soared off into the vast nothing before striking the rocky slope 100 feet down, then tumbling. The camper shell went flying off as the truck cut a swath down the hill, scattering clothes and suitcases and paperback books and a pair of plastic cans that spewed gasoline.
The truck came to a thunderous halt 700 feet below the guardrail, lying upside down and facing uphill in the rocks and a clump of manzanita bushes.
Hundreds of feet back up the slope, the man lay on his stomach, clinging to a branch with one hand and his cellular phone with the other, screaming hysterically to the 911 operator, then shouting, "Rinette! Rinette!"
Below him, in the mangled remains of the overturned truck, dangling upside down from a seatbelt, was his wife.CHAPTER 2
"Nevada Highway Patrol."
It was just after midnight at the Reno dispatch center. Michelle Lewis was working the graveyard shift, sitting in front of her two computer screens at the dispatch console. She wore two headsets, one delivering 911 calls into her right ear, the other transmitting dispatches from patrol cars and other emergency vehicles into her left ear. This night, Lewis was handling calls from the rural sections of Washoe County while her partner, Paula Ryssman, fielded calls in the urban areas in and around Reno.
In her right ear, her 911 ear, Lewis could hear a man panting uncontrollably.
"Sir, sir," Lewis said in a measured voice into her headset mouthpiece. "Calm down. Where are you?"
"I'm on the side of the mountain!"
"Sir, sir," she said. "I need you to calm down. Where are you?"
He panted. "Ski resort. My wife is in the car."
"Sir, where are you?"
"I'm on the side of the mountain."
"You're on the side of the mountain?" asked Lewis, exasperation creeping into her voice. Reno is surrounded by mountains. "What mountain is that? Sir, we need to get somebody out to help you. You need to tell me where you're at. I need you to take a couple of breaths and then tell me where you're at."
Her computer screen told her only that he was calling from a cellular phone. It didn't give her a location.
"I'm on the side of the mountain off the edge," he said. "My car went down the hill. My wife is in the car."
"OK, we'll get someone right out there," said Lewis. "You're on ...Which mountain are you at?"
"Up by the ski resort."
"Up by the ski resort?"
"OK, hang on the line." Lewis knew that cell phone reception worked only from one mountain with a ski area: Mount Rose, about 25 miles southwest of Reno. Cell phones didn't work from the other resorts in South Lake Tahoe or Heavenly Valley. "Sir, are you by Mount Rose?"
"How far from the ski resort are you?"
"It's the Slide Mountain area. It's not Mount Rose. It's Slide Mountain."
Slide Mountain — the Slide Side or East Bowl as locals call it — is on the eastern side of the Mount Rose–Ski Tahoe Resort and accessible by a different entrance from the main ski area, a distinction that got lost in the early hysteria, complicating the rescue operation.
By now, 12:20 a.m., Lewis had stood up and started pacing, dragging her headset cords behind her. She worked better on her feet. She stood over her partner, Ryssman, who scribbled down the information from the man and radioed highway patrol cars to respond to Mount Rose to look for a man who had gotten into an accident. Normally Lewis, with her two headsets, would handle both matters: the 911 call and the patrol car dispatch. But from the hysterical tone of the man, she knew this was going to be a difficult call, so she handed off the dispatch duties to Ryssman. Along with radioing the patrol cars, Ryssman phoned the Washoe County Sheriff's Department's substation in Incline, just over the summit from the Slide Mountain Ski Area.
"Hi, Incline," she said, "this is Paula from Nevada Highway Patrol. We have a subject on the line. He says that his wife — he's very hysterical — he says that his wife is inside the vehicle, the vehicle rolled off the side of the mountain up by the ski resort. The Mount Rose ski resort. Do you have someone up there?"
The deputy on night watch said, "The Mount Rose ski resort?"
"Yeah, that's the best that he's got," said Ryssman, who, in the transfer of information from Lewis, didn't get that the man was actually on the eastern, Slide Mountain side. "We've got him on the other line here, and he's just extremely hysterical."
"OK, what kind of vehicle is it?"
"I don't know. He said that the vehicle rolled off the side of the mountain and his wife's in it."
"All we know is that it's by the Mount Rose ski resort?" asked the sheriff.
"That's all I got so far. We do have him on the other line trying to get further."
On that other line, the man was groaning, "Ah, ahhh, ahhh," while Lewis was imploring him to "Calm down, calm down."
"I'm sliding down the hill," the man said. Then he shouted, "Rinette! Rinette!" before moaning into the phone.
Lewis tried to pinpoint the man's location. She asked, "How far down the mountain is the vehicle?"
"I can't even see it," he said, then again shouted, "Rinette! Rinette!"
Things were now happening all at once: Lewis on the line with the groaning man, Ryssman on the line with an increasingly frustrated sheriff's man, who asked again, "No description of the vehicle?"
"No description," said Ryssman.
"OK," the sheriff said, "what I'm going to do is, I'm going to send a deputy up from my end and try to contact Reno and have them send a deputy from Reno."
Ryssman then dispatched two highway patrol cars from Reno. That would allow for rescuers to come up both sides of the mountain on the Mount Rose Highway, deputies from Incline to the west, the highway patrol troopers from Reno to the east. There would now be at least four cars scouring the mountain. The burden rested with Michelle Lewis to get the man to calm down long enough to give them a better description of his location.
As the man moaned, Lewis said in a concerned, even tone, "Calm down. What kind of vehicle is it?"
He did calm down. "It's a Ford truck," he said.
"It's a what?" she asked. The phone reception suddenly had become fuzzy.
"A Ford truck."
"It's a truck?"
"OK," said Lewis. She told Ryssman that it was a Ford that had crashed on Mount Rose. She returned her attention to the man. "OK," she told him, "we've got people on the way to you. Do you know how far from the ski resort you were?"
He only answered her with heavy breathing. "I didn't hear you," he said, then he moaned, "Oh, oh, oh, oooooooh."
"Have you been injured?" Lewis asked.
"My ankle and my back."
"Your back?" This was a bad sign.
"Yes, ma'am," the man answered.
"OK," she said, with a now more serious tone. A person with an injured back must be handled with extreme care because of the risk of paralysis. "I want you to stay still. Are you still with the vehicle?"
"No," he said, "the vehicle is down the hill. I was thrown out. I'm sliding down the hill. I've got to hang on with one arm. I can't hang on. I'm sliding down the hill."
His voice raised in intensity, ending with an "Oh!" and then heaving sobs.
"You're what?" asked the dispatcher, but all he answered with was, "Ooooh, oooh."
"What's your name, hon?"
All she heard was moaning, more, "Uh, uh, oh, uh, uhhhhh, uhhh!"
"Stay with me," she pleaded.
"Uh, uhhh," he said, then gave out with a long groan followed by fast breathing.
"Stay with me," she said. "Take deep breaths. I don't want you hyperventilating."
Then the man shouted the woman's name again. "Rinette! Rinette! Rinette!"
Lewis tried to distract him from Rinette for a moment and refocus his attention on the accident, seeking more information to pass on to the sheriff and highway patrol officers now working their way up the dark, curving roads up each side of Mount Rose.
"Can you see the car from —"
But before she could finish her question, the man blurted out fragments of details from the crash. "It went down the hill. Way down the hill," he said. "Oh, God! Oh, God!" The heaving sobs came again, with a long "Ahhhhhhh."
"Can you see the road from where you are?" she asked. She needed to know where he was. She was being pressed by the other dispatcher for a better location.
"Can you see the highway?" asked Lewis.
"No, ma'am," he said, then moaned something unintelligible.
"No, you can't see the highway?"
"OK," she said, backing off. She said "OK" with a tender, concerned tone, like she was comforting a sick child. She didn't want to lose him.
He breathed heavily again, then cried.
So far, all Lewis could elicit from him was that he had crashed his Ford on the mountain, that he was thrown from the truck, that his wife had stayed inside the vehicle. The crash occurred somewhere near the Mount Rose ski resort. Lewis continued to feed what little information she had to her partner dispatcher, Ryssman. With the man complaining of back pain, the dispatchers now had to call for medical help. While the man continued to moan into the phone, Ryssman dialed paramedics.
"Hi, this is Paula from Nevada Highway Patrol," she said. "We've got a report of some sort of accident. We're landlined with the PR." PR is cop-speak for Person Reporting. "He's extremely hysterical. He's advising that his vehicle rolled off the side of the mountain and his wife's still in the vehicle."
"And where was this at?" asked the paramedic dispatcher.
"On Mount Rose, in the area of the Mount Rose ski area," said Ryssman.
"The ski area?"
"Where's he at right now?" asked the paramedic dispatcher.
"I don't know. He's calling from his cell phone."
"Oh, he's on his cell phone?"
"Yes, he's calling from his cell phone."
"So when we get up there, he'll be able to flag us down, then?"
"Hopefully," said Ryssman, though her voice didn't carry much hope. "He's extremely hysterical. I don't know if he's going to be able to make it until then. He's just — that's the most we've got."
"We can't get his cell number from him?" asked the paramedic dispatcher.
"He's on the line," said Ryssman. "We barely got his location. If we can get his cell phone for you, we'll get it."
"If you can, go ahead and give us a call back. We're on our way."
While still on the phone with the man, Highway Patrol Dispatcher Lewis could overhear her frustrated partner talking to the paramedics. Lewis again asked the man, "Do you know how far off the road you are?"
"I have no idea where I am," he said, a note of calm now creeping into his voice. "I just drove off the side of the mountain. We were coming down."
"You were driving down the mountain?" she asked.
"We were coming down. And I was braking. And it wouldn't stop," he said, the hysteria returning. "It wouldn't stop!" He started sobbing. "It wouldn't stop!"
"Calm down," Lewis said. "I need you to calm down so we can get you some help."
But he didn't calm down.
"It wouldn't stop!" he cried, his voice slurred by the sobs. "It wouldn't stop! It wouldn't stop! It wouldn't stop!"
"Sir," she said, calmly but firmly, "I need you take a deep breath. We need to get you some help."
But all he did was shout the name again. "Rinette! Rinette!" he cried. "It wouldn't stop!" he repeated, then more sobs.
"Sir," she said over the sounds of his crying, "I want you to listen to me."
"Why didn't it stop?" he cried, then shouted, "Rinette! Rinette! It wouldn't stop."
"Sir, calm down. I need you to help me," said Lewis. "We've got officers and ambulances on the way to you, but I need you to help me." Then she remembered what the paramedic dispatcher had wanted. "What is your cell phone number that you're calling me on?"
The man composed himself long enough to give the phone number, which Lewis jotted down and relayed to Ryssman.
"OK, calm down," Lewis said. "You're doing fine. Now tell me what color your truck is."
"It's blue," the man said, sniffling.
"It's blue. OK. You're doing good. Calm down. Calm down. Stay with me. What's your name, hon?"
He only answered with a weak, "Uh, uh, uh," but his crying subsided.
The man had given the highway patrol precious little with which to work. A frustrated Ryssman told the dispatcher at the sheriff's station in Reno, "We've got a subject landline advising that his vehicle rolled off the mountain. He's on Mount Rose. Probably east of the Mount Rose ski area. But he's not sure. But he said his vehicle rolled off the mountain and his wife's inside of it. Do you guys have anybody in that area?"
"Are you guys responding?" asked the sheriff dispatcher.
"We're responding. Our closest unit is en route from Reno."
"You need Hasty Team?" — the volunteer rescue team that works with the sheriff's department.
"I have no idea," said Ryssman. "We're still on the line with him. We're trying to get as much as we can out of him, but he's hysterical. He's on the verge of hyperventilating. And I've got medical en route. Incline's going to check their side."
"What would be the closest cross?"
"Mount Rose ski area, in that area."
"And he's actually on the highway?"
"As far as we know. As far as we know he's on the highway," she said, annoyance creeping into her voice. "He's calling from his cell phone. How he got his cell phone out of the vehicle when his vehicle rolled, I don't know."
"We got a call in," said the sheriff's dispatcher. "We got it from Incline."
"Great," said Ryssman.
To try to narrow down the man's location, Dispatcher Lewis asked him if he could see the road.
"No," he said. His voice was much calmer.
"You can't see the road?" Lewis said. "OK, what I want you to do is, I want you to listen for the sirens."
"And we're going to have a bunch of lights, and I need you to tell me when they get close to you so we can find you."
Lewis told Ryssman, "He can't see the road from where he's at," then again told the man, "We have a bunch of people on the way to you."
"OK," he said, now with no trace of panic.
"You're not going to hear them just yet, but it will be soon. OK?" The calm didn't last.
The man began to sob. "Why didn't it stop?"
"It's OK," said Lewis, trying to maintain the precious calm in an attempt to pinpoint his location on the mountain. "We've got help. It's OK. Calm down."
"It wouldn't stop," he repeated, and the sobs returned. "It wouldn't stop. Oh, God."
"OK, stay with me. We've got a bunch of people on the way to see you. I can't understand you on your cell phone very well," she said, trying to keep him talking and distract him from his plight. "How long ago did you leave the ski resort?"
"Ten minutes ago."
"About ten minutes ago?" said Lewis.
Excerpted from Over the Edge by Michael Fleeman. Copyright © 2004 Michael Fleeman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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