Mystery On Slide Mountain

A Tragic Accident or a Pre-Meditated Murder?

Peter and Rinette Riella Bergna were a seemingly normal and happily married couple who lived in upscale Incline Village, Nev., near Lake Tahoe, Calif.

He was an antiques dealer and she had just switched careers. Once a highly paid pharmaceutical consultant, she became an international tour guide, a job that paid much less and required weeks of travel at a time.

When Rinette was killed in a mysterious crash on Slide Mountain, near Reno, Peter, her husband of 11 years, became the chief suspect in what police said was a murder investigation, Susan Spencer reports for 48 Hours.

The crash happened on June 1, 1998. Rinette had just returned from a six-week work-related trip to Italy. Peter picked her up at the Reno airport and told her he wanted to have a deep discussion about their marriage and her lengthy travel schedule. He drove her high into the Sierra Mountains to Slide Mountain to tell her how he felt.

"We talked about her being gone so much," he says. "I said, 'You know, I want to talk about this.'"

Peter, 45 at the time of the accident, called Slide Mountain "one of our favorite spots overlooking the valley."

"At night, it's absolutely gorgeous up there," he says. "And so we went there to talk." He says the conversation ended on an upbeat note.

But, as Peter and Rinette started down the hill in his pickup truck, he says he started yelling, "Rinette, we're not stopping. We're not stopping." The truck went throught the guard rail.

He says he's not sure if he hit the brakes and that the next thing he remembers is being outside the truck, on the ground on the side of the mountain, while the truck ran down an 800-foot cliff with Rinette in it. She was killed; he only had a broken foot and some scrapes.

"I may have opened the door, for all I know," Peter told investigators, "and jumped outta the truck. I don't know. I may have jumped outta the window. I don't know."

He says he remembers only panic: "I don't remember going through the guardrail. I don't remember coming out of the vehicle. I don't remember hitting the ground. I don't remember anything of it at all."

Peter and Rinette's family were devastated by the accident. With many questions left unanswered about the crash and Peter (the only witness) not remembering what occurred, the police tried to recreate the scene. Trooper John Schilling, lead investigator for the Nevada Highway Patrol, specializing in accident reconstruction, became supicious.

"There was no roadway marks," He says. "There was nothing to show that somebody coming down this roadway was steering, swerving or braking, or anything, to try to avoid the guardrail."

And for a man who somehow was ejected from a deadly crash, Peter wasn't badly hurt. Rinette suffered such massive, multiple injuries that the medical examiner couldn't say when exactly she died or even if she was alive when the truck went over the mountain.

Also, Peter had told police, at one point, that the discussion that night with Rinette had become heated, and they had discussed divorce. "I was upset," he says. "I was upset with her. I was upset with the fact that I wanted her home. I did not want her gone. And yet she really wanted to be traveling."

At first, Rinette's familiy believed her death was accidental. But soon, they, too, began to have doubts.

"You don't want to think it was a murder," says her brother, Jack Riella . "I mean, that takes a lot to really come out and think right off the get-go, 'Man, this is a murder.'"

Another brother, Rick, says details of the accident began to make him suspicious: "This just didn't sound right. It kinda stinks, basically. You know, it just didn't seem like what he was saying jibed with what took place, you know?"

The police had many suspicions about the case, but little evidence against Peter. However, more than 2 years after Rinette died, the district attorney charged Peter with his wife's murder.

Last fall, the trial began. The prosecution and defense engaged in a battle of the experts with many theories about how the truck went over the cliff. The jury seemed lost in the technical minutiae, so the prosecutor then turned to Peter's character.

Witnesses included women who claimed that Peter tried to date them while he was married. The defense painted a more positive picture and brought in several witnesses who proclaimed Peter was genuinely devastated by Rinette's death.

After seven days of deliberation, the jury could not agree, and Judge Brent Adams had to declare a mistrial.

Juror Jean Wessman, one of the nine who voted for conviction, says there were too many inconsistencies in Peter's story. She expected the jury to hand down a guilty verdict before the end of the first day of deliberations. But three other jurors could not be swayed. "I had no doubt at all that he was innocent," says juror Eric Carnes.

After a year in prison, Peter was released from jail on bail.

The district attorney decided to retry the case. "We still believe we should have, and could have gotten a unanimous verdict of guilty and we are hopeful we will next time, but the tone of the case will be the same," said prosecutor Dave Clifton.

The second trial began in June. Guardrails, gas cans and paint smears were still the key evidence, but this time the prosecution zeroed in on Peter Bergna's supposed character flaws.

After a six-week trial, her was found guilty of first-degree murder, and was sentenced to life in prison. He will spend 20 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.