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.
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."
Employees were pressed into baby-sitting the kids in the office swing. At the Bechler home, the therapist with the broken leg soon realized she had become the new live-in baby sitter.
"Nothing from Peggy was ever free," she said. "She always wanted something back in return."
The employees in the guesthouse found that their non-treatment positions, with titles such as "task leader" and "clinical training coordinator," gave them more free time to perform errands for their boss. They were often paged to come into the office to baby-sit or sent to pick up the children or tutor employees for upcoming physical-therapy exams. Once, they spent the better part of a day searching for a specific rice cooker Pegye wanted for a party. When they returned with the item, she outfitted the men in tuxedos and told them they would be serving at the party that night.
With virtually no distinction between their home and office, things became increasingly tense between Pegye and Eric. More and more arguments could be heard behind closed doors, arguments about Pegye's attempts to dictate Eric's life, such as who he could have as friends and when he could play volleyball.
Employees at Geri Care began to notice that Eric had become "kind of lost in his role." Pegye enjoyed putting him in his place, telling others she had him "under her wing." Employees started referring to Eric as "the Mole."
"Frankly, I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often."
—Carol, 36, Irvine, attorney
In 1996, a company named American Retirement Villas (ARV) was looking to acquire a company to help expand its retirement services in the rehabilitation area. Impressed with the growth and strategy of Geri Care, it purchased the company in August. As part of the acquisition, Pegye and Eric were able to keep their titles and continued running the company.
The transaction was announced to the staff at a mandatory meeting in the Newport Beach office. Pegye, as usual, ran the meeting. She told her employees and her new ARV employers the Geri Care story and how her dream had developed to this day. Then, with what those at the meeting say was unmistakable condescension, she turned to Eric and asked, "Do you want to say anything?" Those present say it was embarrassing to watch a blushing Eric shake his head no.
But ARV had not acquired a healthy operation. During the summer of 1996, Pegye began having trouble meeting payroll. Even though the company was reported to have a net worth of $1.6 million, much of the company's money had been diverted into the Bechlers' personal accounts. Ten employees discovered their 401K retirement contributions were missing. They reported the couple's actions to the IRS, and the Bechlers were required to pay back the money.
With a $639,000 first and $79,000 second mortgage on their home, a new Porsche, recent trips—including one to Morocco—and a $12,000 monthly lease payment on the Newport Beach office, Pegye needed help.
She became more demanding about productivity. Whereas she had always been generous with wages, she now attempted to make cuts. When she decided to cut one employee's salary, Eric actually stepped in on behalf of the employee and said no.
"Pegye's jaw literally dropped," the employee said, who added that Pegye seemed to resent Eric for overstepping his authority in front of others.
ARV had already begun to investigate Pegye's billing and spending practices after several employees came forward with concerns. An accountant noticed inconsistencies in her financial work and several therapists followed with stories about misuse of company funds.
ARV fired the Bechlers in March 1997 for alleged misconduct and misuse of funds. The compensation package was rumored to be worth several million dollars in company stock. ARV, according to Pegye, had made "a promise to take care of them."
With their company gone and a Medicare investigation pending, Pegye faced the possibility of serving time in jail and losing her physical-therapy license. Since Eric held no license, he could not be held accountable.
This only served to make things even tenser between the two. Glenda Mason testified in court that Pegye was crying about her marriage virtually every time she saw her. Eric's friends were so tuned in to what was going on that one bought him the book Divorce for Dummies.
It was around this time that Eric asked his friend Kobi Laker, "What do you think about the possibility of killing my wife?" In court testimony, Laker said Eric went on to detail how he would kill Pegye and dump her body at sea.
Then, one day in 1997, Pegye and Eric Bechler went out on a boat. Only Eric came back. As to what happened, or why, only they know. For the rest of us, there's only talk.
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I used to hang out with Eric in the late 1980s, before he met Pegye. He was a mellow guy. Do I think he was capable of killing his wife? Hey, look around here—would you think anyone here could kill someone?"
—Todd, 33, Costa Mesa
"Is that the guy who killed his wife? Yeah, I read about it. I mean, he's guilty, whatever, but he could have come up with a better story than that. Body boarding a mile out in the ocean? And then a wave comes and knocks the boat over, and his wife disappears? C'mon! You gotta do better than that! I mean, if I ever have to kill my wife, I think I could do a lot better than that."
—Tim, 39, Newport Beach, boat owner