Bergna back on trial in fatal Tahoe crash; brake failure blamed
RENO — New evidence of brake failure on Peter Bergna’s Ford pickup should help clear him in the cliffside crash that killed his wife near Lake Tahoe, his lawyers said as his second murder trial began Monday.
Michael Schwartz, Bergna’s lead defense lawyer, also accused an engineer for the Ford Motor Co. of working with local police to bring about Bergna’s arrest to minimize Ford’s liability in the fatal crash off a mountainside road four years ago.
Schwartz said there is a history of brake problems with the Ford F-150 pickup like the one that crashed through the guardrail, sending Rinette Riella-Bergna 700 feet to her death.
He said a local mechanic, Terry McCreary, who since has tested the brakes on Bergna’s mangled vehicle will testify at the retrial that there was a problem with the vacuum booster that resulted in brake failure.
“Since the last trial we have verified the brakes were bad,” Schwartz of Seattle told reporters outside the courtroom before jury selection began for the retrial.
Bergna’s first trial ended with a hung jury last fall.
“This particular unit leaks. And when the vacuum leaks, there is no power and the brakes don’t work,” he said.
“I think it’s huge. I think it’s even huger that Ford knew about it. They had every reason to suspect it (the brake failure) and never said a word.”
Prosecutors had no immediate comment on Schwartz’s comments. Officials for Ford denied there was any problem with the brakes on Bergna’s truck or any history of brake trouble with the pickup model.
“We have great confidence in our products and belive the brakes worked as they should have,” Ford spokesperson Kathleen Vokes said from company headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.
“The Nevada Highway Patrol investigated the vehicle and found there was no problem with the brakes,” she said.
Jury selection for Bergna’s retrial is expected to take at least three days. The new trial is expected to again last several weeks. Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams concluded in the first trial in November that the jury was unable to reach an unanimous verdict and declared a mistrial.
Police accuse Bergna of staging the wreck and jumping from the vehicle before it plunged over the cliff with his 49-year-old wife strapped inside June 1, 1998.
He telephoned 911 with a cellular phone from his pocket about 80 feet down the mountainside near the Mount Rose Ski Resort, shouting hysterically that he’d been in a crash and couldn’t find his wife.
Bergna, 49, an art appraiser for a prominent auction house who was living in Incline Village, Nev., told police he pumped the brakes but nothing happened.
Prosecutors say the angle the truck hit the guardrail combined with the only minor injuries to Bergna show he planned the crash. They say Bergna filled gasoline cans in the back of his pickup as part of the plan that night partly because he was unhappy with his wife for traveling so much as a tour guide after giving up a higher paying job as a pharmacist.
Schwartz said he has evidence of the history of brake problems in the Ford pickup.
“But frankly, we’re not allowed to talk about it,” he said.
“There’s a series of documents obtained in discovery for a civil lawsuit back East about Ford trucks and bad brakes, but there’s a protective order in place,” he said.
He said the same Ford engineer and same specialist for Hartford Insurance worked together in testifying in a similar case in Hawaii in the mid-1990s involving alleged brake failure on a Ford pickup that resulted in a fatality on a mountain road.
“We’ve got three pieces — bad brakes, blue paint and bad faith,” Schwartz said.
“The bad brakes caused the accident, the blue paint on the guard rail shows the accident could not have possibly happened the way the prosecution says it did and the bad faith of Ford and Hartford that got Peter Bergna indicted,” he said.
Schwartz said Ford and Hartford sent experts to Nevada “to work with police” in the case.
The Ford engineer’s “job with Ford is basically to come into situations where there is potential liability for Ford products and say ‘Everything is OK,”‘ Schwartz said.
“They didn’t tell law enforcement this line of Ford truck had a history of brake failure,” he said.
“If you didn’t have the bad faith on the part of Ford and Hartford, Peter would not have been indicted.”
Bergna earlier filed suit against Hartford Insurance, seeking unspecified damages and accusing the company of acting in bad faith. Hartford has denied the charge.
Bergna, who now lives in Seattle, spent almost a year in jail before the judge allowed him out on $750,000 bail after the mistrial.
Chief Deputy District Attorney David Clifton said he would not comment on the case during jury selection because it could taint the jury pool.
Of the first 31 potential jurors called Monday, only five indicated they had heard nothing about the original trial.
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