By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Steve Mccrank"He was dumb to tell his girlfriend. It was almost like he was bragging."—Marcia, 36, Irvine, law-firm marketing director
"He was an idiot for telling anyone. You never tell anyone you killed someone or you cheated the IRS."—Stan, 56, Newport Beach, self-employed
In the end, Eric Bechler was done in by a dumbbell.
A dumbbell and talk.
Bechler is scheduled to be sentenced March 16. His conviction last month for killing his wife, Pegye, came about in large part because there were two 35-pound weights missing from his home and because he told his girlfriend—a bikini model wearing a wire—that he had used the weights to bash his wife in the head and dump her body at sea. When confronted with a tape of his confession, Bechler claimed he had only said those things to impress his girlfriend, Tina New, who chalked up her preoccupied tone on the tape to her frustrations with a leaking breast implant.
As for physical evidence, there was none: Pegye Bechler's body was never found; none of her blood was found on the rented boat on which Eric told New he bludgeoned Pegye with one of the weights and then attached the dumbbells to her body and threw it overboard halfway to Catalina; and the prosecution never found a motive, according to jurors.
Although they believed Eric killed his wife, they said they did not believe the prosecution's claim that he did it to cash in on her $2.4 million life-insurance policy. Jurors said they just agreed that something about the whole scenario didn't seem right. They couldn't put their finger on what—it was just something.
Talk about that "just something" has been circulating around Newport Beach and the rest of Orange County since Pegye disappeared in 1997. Talk about the perfect couple that twice called police to defuse domestic disputes. Talk about their physically fit lifestyles and the booze-till-you-puke parties. Talk about the business success and the Medicare fraud. Talk about the kindnesses that came with a price. Talk about the control that money gave a savvy wife over a husband whose biggest concern was when he was going to play volleyball.
At his trial, Eric's best friend testified that Eric had not only mentioned a plan to kill his wife and dump her in the ocean, but that he had also talked about her controlling, manipulative nature. Apparently, others knew that side as well, which is why it's not unusual to hear someone float the theory that Pegye is alive, still pulling the strings, waiting out a seven-year statute of limitations for Medicare fraud in Morocco.
Although many people knew Pegye and Eric and say he wasn't trustworthy, they'll often add that he wasn't capable of the murder scheme for which he was convicted.
"I don't think Eric is smart enough to concoct a plan for an accident to take her life at sea," said one guy who played volleyball with him. "I think either something happened and he didn't do anything, or he had help."
From the company newsletter: Eric and Pegye with kids at a fund-raiser;
Pegye with a Geri Care employee
Then again, others mention that Eric may have gotten the idea from the death of Pegye's brother-in-law. He was lost at sea while serving in the Navy, and the body was never found.
But that's just talk—and it's usually followed by the stipulation "but don't use my name." People are afraid. Not afraid the way most Americans are when they say they don't want to get involved in a legal hassle, but rather afraid that if someone "helped" Eric, maybe they're still out there taking names.
But that's just talk, too.
"Oh, that goes on all the time. That's just the way things are in Newport. But usually it's the man who's the older one with the money and the power. [The Bechler case] is just Newport Beach in reverse."—Chris, 26, Corona del Mar, restaurant parking attendant
"What a good-looking man, huh?"—Lori, 69, Downey, retired
They met at a beach-volleyball game in Newport Beach, where they were introduced to each other by Pegye's friend Glenda Mason. They were both beautiful and came from hard-working, middle-class families. Both were athletic and active, and both were drawn to Newport Beach, though for different reasons.
Pegye was from the farming town of Dexter, New Mexico, and came west a few years after graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in physical therapy.
"To people in a small town like Dexter," said a college classmate, "Newport Beach was a big name on the map with big dollar signs."
Working long hours, Pegye rehabilitated patients through a health-care company. Colleagues were impressed by her dedication. She earned a reputation as a devoted therapist and was known to continue treating patients after they were discharged, often at no cost. She had bigger plans.
Newport Beach offered more than money. It offered the emblems that spoke of success and drive, and Pegye would eventually surround herself with them: a beautiful home and office; a purple Porsche; and a model family, complete with model husband.