Tahoe man accused of staging fatal wreck says he’s innocent
RENO, Nev. (AP) – A wealthy art appraiser accused of killing his wife in a staged crash over a cliff near Lake Tahoe said he’s anxiously awaiting the start of his trial this week and confident he’ll prove his innocence.
”I’ve waited for my day in court to tell my side of the story for over 2 years. I welcome it,” Peter Bergna said in an interview after jury selection began Monday in his trial on first-degree murder charges.
”I’m an innocent man. I’m humble but confident,” he told The Associated Press.
Bergna, 48, and his 49-year-old wife Rinette Riella-Bergna were living in the upscale Tahoe community of Incline Village, Nev., at the time of the crash.
An appraiser for the prestigious auction firm Butterfield & Butterfield, Bergna told police his brakes failed just before their Ford pickup crashed through a guard rail and plunged 800 feet down the mountainside on May 31, 1998.
But prosecutors say Bergna steered the truck through the guardrail and jumped to safety before scaling 80 feet down the mountainside and calling 911 with his cell phone.
Bergna was arrested in Seattle in November, more than two years after the accident. His late father Louis was the Santa Clara County district attorney for 25 years in neighboring California.
Jury selection is expected to continue through Wednesday and Washoe District Judge Brent Adams anticipates the trial will last as long as six weeks. Bergna faces life in prison if he is convicted.
”I’ve always grown up in a system with a father who was a district attorney to know the system as being fair and honest. I hope it will be for me,” Bergna said during a courtroom break.
”I’m very nervous but I believe I’m an innocent person and want to show that to the court and have my life back,” he said.
Police investigators allege Bergna was angry with his wife and wanted her dead because she traveled too much and didn’t want to have children.
She was an international tour director and owned a pharmacological consulting business.
Bergna said in a written statement to the Reno Gazette-Journal published in an article in Monday’s editions that he loved and cherished his wife.
”It really hurts that people would even think or believe that I would intentionally ever do anything to harm my wife,” he wrote. He has been in the Washoe County jail on a no bail warrant since his arrest in November.
”I’m a Christian man. I spend a lot of time in prayer and reading the Bible,” he said in the 15-minute interview Monday that ended with him in tears.
”I’ve been examining my own life. I came to the conclusion I have nothing to be guilty about. I have nothing to be afraid about,” he said.
Dressed in a charcoal pinstripe suit with black wing tips, a blue dress shirt and navy tie, he held his wire-rim glasses in his hand while talking with his three lawyers during jury selection.
He said he understands the significant media attention surrounding the case and said he hopes his acquittal garners as much coverage.
”In all honesty, when I sit back and look it over myself and see how involved it is and all the different facets, I can see where it is a very interesting case,” Bergna said.
”My only regret I will tell you in this whole thing is that people on my side, family and friends and people who were willing to talk to the police were never contacted. I had to wait until now to tell my side of the story,” he said.
He cried and wiped away tears when he recalled the accident, and that he missed his father’s funeral this spring when he was held in jail.
”It was absolutely a horrific accident my wife and I were in. I love my wife to this day. It is unfair what happened to me and the fact I was unable to attend my father’s funeral,” he said.
”But it is important the truth come out now and that people hear the whole story, not just what they want to make up.
”My father taught us kids to be honest and ethical and upstanding. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
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