Tahoe art appraiser Peter Bergna files new murder appeal
RENO, Nev. – A wealthy art appraiser from Lake Tahoe sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife by staging a crash off a cliff 12 years ago has again appealed his conviction.
Peter Bergna, 57, said in the new challenge filed Monday in Reno’s U.S. District Court that he would have had to have been suicidal or schizophrenic to try to pull off such a stunt, and that he was neither.
Bergna, a son of a longtime former district attorney in Santa Clara County, Calif., also asked a federal judge to appoint him a lawyer because he only has $821 in the bank.
“The state’s theory that (Bergna) could/would murder his wife by staging a vehicle accident which, by its ‘design’ placed himself in mortal danger, is weird,” Bergna said in the appeal.
He claimed the brakes failed just before he jumped through a window from his 1997 Ford pickup truck. His wife, Rinette Riella-Bergna, did not escape and went over the side of a mountain to her de ath near the Mount Rose ski resort in June 1998.
At the time of the crash, Bergna was wearing sneakers, blue jeans and a windbreaker, not an “astronaut jump suit” worn by stunt-car drivers, the appeal said.
“The theory that this ‘designed staged accident’ featured him driving his truck straight into a guardrail in pitch darkness on a steep-pitched mountain road is even weirder,” it said. “A person who would do that would have to be either suicidally depressed or schizophrenic.”
He also claimed that the guardrail, which was missing eight or nine bolts, also failed.
Riella-Bergna, a 49-year-old international tour guide, had just returned from a trip when Bergna picked her up at the airport and drove up the Mount Rose Highway toward their home at Incline Village before stopping on an access road near the ski resort to talk.
A Washoe County jury in 2002 found him guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with parole possible after 20 years .
In the federal appeal, Bergna said the prosecution claimed Bergna planned the crash and jumped from the vehicle seconds before it went down the mountain. They said Bergna strategically placed two 5-gallon gasoline cans in the back of the truck to ensure a massive fire.
Bergna said, however, prosecutors could not “explain away” the lack of footprints on the side of the road, or the cornstarch from the air bags that was found on both Bergna and his wife proving he was inside the truck when they deployed, or the blue paint on the guardrail where his truck sideswiped the metal.
He also said that at the time of the crash, 2,931 Ford pickup trucks had problems with anti-lock brakes. But before the indictment, neither the state nor the Ford Motor Company inspected his truck for brake problems.
After he was indicted, Ford and the prosecutors would not let Bergna’s expert inspect the brakes, he said.
Bergna said the media portrayed him as being “guilty, guilty, guilty,” and that the public “hate people with money.”