Husband Accused in Boater’s Death
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ When Pegye and Eric Bechler went to sea to mark their fifth wedding anniversary, it was supposed to be a return to romance and adventure in their relationship.
Within hours, she was missing and presumed drowned and he was found, screaming for help, hanging onto a body board four miles off the Southern California coast, in what was believed to be a bizarre accident.
At the time, the Coast Guard used Mrs. Bechler’s death to remind people of the dangers of drinking at sea and not wearing a life vest.
Two years later, though, investigators say it was no accident. It was murder.
Authorities say Bechler killed his wife and staged the accident to collect a $2 million life insurance policy, then moved in with a girlfriend three months later.
Now Bechler, 32, is jailed without bail on a charge of murder for financial gain, which could bring the death penalty.
His attorney, John Yzurdiaga, would not comment on the allegations. Bechler has repeatedly said his wife’s death was a ``tragic accident.″
Bechler told investigators that on July 6, 1997, he and his wife rented a 19-foot speedboat. He said they had a few margaritas, and then she began towing him on a body board. He said he hit a swell and fell off, and when he surfaced the boat was circling in the distance and his 38-year-old wife, who wasn’t wearing a life vest, had vanished in water 1,000 feet deep.
Within 30 minutes of her disappearance, the Coast Guard and Orange County Sheriff’s Department, using boats and helicopters, began a two-day search for Mrs. Bechler. Her body was never found.
In the hours after her disappearance, Coast Guard and boating officials handed out sheets with boating-safety tips to TV and newspaper reporters covering the accident.
But privately, investigators were suspicious of Bechler’s story. A Coast Guard report filed two weeks after the incident recommended that police take over the investigation.
``Based on sea trials with the vessel, it remains very unlikely Pegye Bechler was ejected from the vessel, never to resurface,″ the report concluded.
It wasn’t until this year investigators uncovered enough evidence to charge Bechler, said district attorney spokeswoman Tori Richards. Neither the district attorney nor the sheriff’s department would disclose what led them to the husband, and a judge has sealed investigators’ reports.
Investigators will not say how Mrs. Bechler was killed.
Mrs. Bechler’s father, Glenn Marshall, said that in the months before his daughter’s disappearance, the two had sold her business for $1.5 million. Bechler inherited the money after her death.
He was also the beneficiary of his wife’s $2 million life insurance policy. But he was unable to collect because the coroner never issued a death certificate, Marshall said.
``We would just like to see justice _ whatever that might be,″ he said.
At one time, the Bechlers were the picture of success.
The two met on the beach playing volleyball. He was a college student and she owned a successful physical therapy business. The two married and Bechler helped her run the business. He later earned a real estate license and began a small business designing Web sites. They had three children within four years and appeared to family and friends as a happy couple.
But Norma Ballew, a former business partner, said they often fought over money.
``She was the one with the education and the money, and she was a professional,″ she told the Orange County Register. ``When they first got together, Eric didn’t even own a car.″
After her death, news reports showed a tearful Bechler recounting the accident and later, at her memorial service, cradling his 9-month-old daughter and fighting back tears.
Within three months, Bechler had given up custody of his children to his wife’s family and moved in with a new girlfriend. Their 18-month relationship ended when he was arrested for abuse. He pleaded guilty in August to domestic violence and was ordered to attend counseling sessions.