By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Eric was 23 when he met Pegye, who was then 31. He was living in his mother's Long Beach home and riding his bicycle to classes at UC Irvine because he didn't have a car. He loved beach volleyball, which he played well and often. He was an intense player who would berate himself when he missed a shot, though friends recall that he was always quick to pull himself back together.
He was eye-catching and posed no threat to Pegye, who enjoyed the challenge of acquiring the baubles of success, one of which was Eric.
Eric just liked the toys.
"He probably did it, but without a body and with no physical evidence, I didn't think he would be convicted. I'm surprised something like this could happen in this safe area."—Mark, 39, Newport Beach, mergers and acquisitions
The Bechlers had two weddings: one was a civil ceremony, the other in a castle in Germany in the fall of 1991. They returned to live on Balboa Island and start the company Pegye had been dreaming about. In June 1992, Geri Care Rehabilitation opened, with Pegye as president and Eric as vice president.
Things went well: by the summer of 1996, Geri Care moved from Superior Avenue to a $12,000-per-month ocean-view location on Newport Center Drive. The husband-and-wife business partners seemed inseparable—from each other and their three children. Even with a full-time nanny, they frequently brought their children to work. Pegye set up a swing in her office. Employees were treated generously with an annual ski trip to Big Bear and lavish parties at the couple's home. Of one, the company newsletter says, "To everyone's surprise, guests were greeted at the home of the Bechlers by what appeared to be genies offering holiday cheer. The house was beautifully decorated in gold, with servers in Middle Eastern-style dress including ornate headwraps. The guests were feted with a menu of international cuisine, including Moroccan and North African fare. Fina, a belly dancer, entertained guests throughout the evening."
When one employee broke her leg and was unable to work, Pegye insisted she move into the Balboa Island home rent-free. Their new Cliff Drive guest home housed two Geri Care employees for minimal cost.
"[She was] the most caring person I've ever worked for," said one former employee of Pegye.
They exuded energy and devotion to each other. It was not uncommon during a meeting to have Pegye give a blushing Eric a small present, such as a poem. A friend from Dexter—who eventually went to work for Pegye—invited the couple for dinner and watched as they arrived in a new red Corvette that Pegye had rented to celebrate Eric's birthday.
"Things aren't always what they appear. Money can hide a lot of stuff. That's how plastic surgeons get rich."—Ann, 48, Santa Ana, language instructor
Geri Care was Pegye's company, and everyone knew it. When Eric's defense attorney, John Barnett, said the couple were "equal partners in marriage and business," it elicited sideways smiles and head shakes from Pegye's family sitting in the courtroom.
Prosecutor Deborah Lloyd pointed out in her closing remarks that 22,000 pages of financial statements showed that Pegye kept her money separate from Eric and that when she gave money to Eric, she called it a loan. Whether that was because Pegye was selfish, didn't think Eric was smart enough to handle money or thought he couldn't be trusted—as many Geri Care employees believed —isn't clear.
It is clear that Pegye oversaw day-to-day operations. She ran the meetings, hired personnel and controlled the company's billing. The company's success was due largely to her questionable billing practices, especially when it came to Medicare. It seemed to employees that the more Pegye learned about the system and how it did and didn't work, the more she took from it and the more fortune smiled on Geri Care. When the company's consultant for Medicare billing strongly suggested she change her billing methods, she fired him.
Pegye wrote the company newsletter, which always displayed pictures of beautiful people—many times the president and vice president —winning performance awards, getting promotions, and participating in company-sponsored activities such as a walk for Alzheimer's. She hired fit, attractive people and gave them each three monogrammed shirts and two pairs of shorts.
She threw parties in a disco she'd built in the basement of the couple's Newport home. The parties were mandatory for employees and weren't always models of decorum.
"I thought it was perverted the way the stairway wall in the disco was lined with mirrors so the men could look up the ladies' skirts as they walked up the stairs," said a former employee.
Eric apparently drank heavily at the parties and tended to let go. At one, he jumped onto a guest's car, crashing through the sunroof. A lot of the staff began to feel that the parties weren't so much about building camaraderie or enjoyment as to flaunt the Bechlers' wealth. The friend from Dexter, at whose house the Bechlers had shown up in the red Corvette, said she thought immediately that Pegye's intention was to "show off."