March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

When police first arrived at the remote spot on an isolated Nevada road, they figured it was an ordinary, if grisly, accident. A pickup had crashed through a guardrail, tumbling nearly 800 feet down the steep slope of a mountain near Lake Tahoe. When rescue workers reached the mangled Ford F-150, they found the lifeless crushed body of Rinette Riella-Bergna, 49, still wearing her seat belt. But upon examining the evidence, investigators say some troubling questions emerged: How could the driver, Peter Bergna, 48, Rinette’s husband, be thrown from the moving vehicle, land 80 feet down the same slope and only suffer minor injuries? Why weren’t his clothes more damaged? And why were there no skid marks on the road or any sign that he had tried to steer away from the guardrail? “Things weren’t adding up,” says Nevada Highway Patrol trooper John Schilling, one of the first to arrive that night of May 31, 1998. “It just didn’t seem right.”

Nearly four years later, the case still hasn’t added up. Though police charged Bergna, a Seattle-based art appraiser, with murdering his wife of 11 years, last November a jury deliberated for 50 hours after hearing seven weeks of testimony—and came out deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction. Washoe County Judge Brent Adams declared a mistrial and released Bergna on $750,000 bail. Now the perplexing case is scheduled to be tried anew on April 29, and the family of Riella-Bergna, a package-tour guide, is eager to see justice done. “From the first day, something stunk to high heaven,” says her brother Jack Riella, 51, a trucking-company traffic manager. “We just want the truth to come out.”

That might be difficult, since prosecutors have no eyewitnesses and a largely circumstantial case. At the first trial, they charged that Bergna—angry that his wife’s new job as a tour guide had meant lengthy absences from their Incline Village, Nev., home—had intentionally steered the truck off the cliff and jumped out before it tumbled down the mountain. The defense maintained that the crash was all just a terrible accident. “This case,” Bergna’s lawyer Michael Schwartz told the jury, “has been a conclusion in search of evidence.”

It is true, Bergna admits, that the couple’s marriage was troubled. On what turned out to be the last night of her life, vivacious and outgoing Riella-Bergna had just returned from six weeks in Italy, where she had been leading her first European trip in the nine months she had been working for Tauck World Discovery. Bergna—who did not testify at the trial—told police he picked his wife up at the Reno airport at 10:20 p.m. and drove with her to Slide Mountain, stopping near a parking lot to gaze at the lights below and discuss their relationship.

Before long, the discussion became heated as he complained about her absences. “I kept telling her, ‘I do not want to be alone,’ ” he told police. ” ‘I want a wife who’s home with me.’ ” Though he said they discussed the possibility of divorce, Bergna insisted later that Rinette had agreed to focus on their marriage and cut back on her travel.

Then, as they drove down the hill, he told police, he lost control. “I started to brake…and it wasn’t stopping,” said Bergna. Defense lawyers said he was ejected from the driver’s window because he was not wearing his seat belt, unlike his wife. The next thing he knew he was sliding down the hill with a sprained ankle and a scuff on his head. He then used his cell phone to make a 911 call, which jurors heard on tape. “I’m on the side of the mountain,” said Bergna, apparently sobbing uncontrollably. “My wife is in the car!”

But prosecutors charged that Bergna had planned to murder his wife. “What he claims is physically impossible,” argued prosecutor Dave Clifton, who portrayed Bergna as lonely and resentful of his wife’s long absences—so lonely that he was asking other women out both before and shortly after his wife died. He also may have had financial motives, Clifton suggested. “He stood to gain from her death and not from divorce,” Clifton says of Bergna, who received $472,000 from her life insurance and inherited $275,000 worth of his wife’s property. As evidence that he had planned the murder, prosecutors pointed out that just before picking up his wife at the airport, Bergna had filled two canisters with gasoline and left them—allegedly uncapped—in the bed of the pickup. But Bergna’s friend, soccer coach Steve Sampson, testified that the defendant frequently carried cans of gas in the truck.

Other things struck the investigators as suspicious: for instance, that the exact section of the guardrail the truck had slammed through was missing eight out of nine bolts, and that he was wearing extra layers of clothing that night, possibly to protect himself from injuries when he leaped from the truck. There was also a confession—of sorts. Darrell Coursey, 39, who claimed he met Bergna in Washoe County jail while Coursey was awaiting sentencing for armed robbery, testified that Bergna—awaiting his initial trial—had admitted the crime to him. But none of that swayed the jury to convict. “The people who know Peter well,” says friend Allan Walker, a writer, who says he visited a deeply shaken Bergna soon after Rinette’s death, “know that he couldn’t have done this.”

Indeed, before his wife’s death, few would have predicted that Bergna would even be accused of murder. When he was growing up in Saratoga, Calif., his father, Lou, was the well-regarded district attorney of Santa Clara County. (Bergna was one of four children with wife Pat, a schoolteacher.) Graduating from Seattle Pacific University, Bergna worked as a coach at a San Jose private school before following a longtime passion for fine art and becoming an art appraiser in the late 1970s. Not long after that, while he was visiting Lake Tahoe, a friend introduced him to Rinette Riella.

One of four children of a Manteca, Calif., dairy rancher and his wife, a homemaker who worked part-time in an Army-depot store, Rinette excelled in science and in 1975 earned a degree in pharmacology. “She was very high-energy and very accomplished,” recalls her brother Jack. Moving to the Lake Tahoe area, she worked in two hospitals and a drugstore and also ran a consulting business.

The couple married in 1987, settling in a spacious three-bedroom house in upscale Incline Village, where Bergna—who earned about $100,000 annually at Butterfields auction house—gained a reputation for gregariousness and generosity. “He fit into the community,” says former Incline High principal Mike Whellams, who recalls Bergna acting as auctioneer at school benefits. “He could talk to a crowd of 700 as though it was nothing.”

Bergna admits that the couple differed on one significant issue: Having married at 39—and valuing her independence—Rinette never wanted children; Bergna did. “He eventually accepted it,” says Tim Gravett, a Bergna friend. More difficult for him to accept was her decision in 1996 to drop her pharmacy practice and the following year become a tour coordinator after a four-week course. Not only did her $100,000 salary drop by half, but her husband felt abandoned. “Three days before the death, we have him telling people he hardly knew that he couldn’t take being alone like this,” says Clifton.

Bergna now insists that he supported Rinette’s new career and even financed her study, but that he also wanted his wife around. “She was the love of my life,” he says. “To have her gone six months out of the year was difficult.”

Then came the deadly crash in the spring of 1998. Though police were suspicious from the start, they did not immediately name Bergna as a suspect. In 1999 he relocated to Seattle, where he continued to work for the auction house. He was on a flyfishing trip just months after Rinette’s death when he met Robin Russell, a Seattle bank executive. They were engaged in the late summer of 2000, but by that November, investigators had accumulated enough evidence to arrest him on the murder charges.

With the new trial in Reno pending and both sides confident of victory, Bergna claims that the one person who would be incredulous about his situation is Rinette herself. “She always wanted the best for me, and I always wanted the best for her,” he says. “This would strike her as just crazy.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles

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