The finding that the 53-year-old was suitable for release was a third try for Mark “Gator” Anthony Rogowski, who had admitted killing Jessica Bergsten.
The 1991 attack on the 22-year-old model in Carlsbad was particularly brutal.
Jessica Bergsten was beaten with a metal bar into semi-consciousness. She was raped repeatedly, then stuffed into a surfboard bag and suffocated so neighbors wouldn’t hear her scream.
The killer, then-24-year-old Mark “Gator” Anthony Rogowski, was a star in the skateboarding world of the 1980s. He had toured internationally, been on MTV.
He’d even shot a television commercial hours before ambushing Bergsten, slamming down a steering wheel lock onto her skull.
Twenty-eight years later, Rogowski is a graying prison inmate. On Tuesday, he was recommended for parole.
The finding that the 53-year-old was suitable for release came on the third try for Rogowski, who long ago admitted killing Bergsten, a friend of his girlfriend, in his Carlsbad condo. His previous bids for parole were denied in 2011 and 2016.
Tuesday’s recommendation is the first step in the approval process. The state’s parole board has 120 days to review the case. If it moves forward, Gov. Gavin Newsom gets 30 days for review — and if he wants to, revoke it.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Sachs represented the prosecution at Rogowski’s parole hearing Tuesday at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, where Rogowski is housed. Sachs said he wants to see the inmate stay behind bars.
“We respect the board and the difficult decisions they have to make, but in this case we are very disappointed with the result, and feel he still represents a significant threat to public safety, particularly women,” the prosecutor said in an interview Wednesday.
Most people, Sachs said, “don’t have it within themselves to beat a young lady with a metal rod, handcuff her, cut her clothes off, rape her repeatedly, and murder her through suffocation.
“Most people don’t have it within themselves to do that. But he did. And anyone who can commit a crime like that — which is so horrific and monstrous in character — demands the highest level of scrutiny.”
Michael Evan Beckman, Rogowski’s attorney for the parole suitability hearing, said in an interview Wednesday that he believes the board found that Rogowski accepts full responsibility for the crime.
“He has insight into the causative factors, and he has sincere and heartfelt remorse for what he did,” Beckman said of his client. “And he has changed.”
Beckman noted that within a year before the attack, perhaps sooner, Rogowski had suffered a serious head wound, an injury that happened in Germany, and his behavior changed.
The attorney also said that while in prison, Rogowski earned a bachelor’s degree, took vocational courses, is now certified as a paralegal and dove deep into self-help programs, internalizing the teachings.
He said his client is “somewhat” happy about the initial finding that he is suitable for parole.
“He wishes there was something he could do to ease the pain of the family,” Beckman said. “He knows that there isn’t [anything he can do] right now.”
Transcripts of Tuesday’s parole hearing were not available. The following account of the crime comes from news stories after Rogowski’s arrest, and from what he told parole hearing officers in detail in 2016. (At that time, he was not found suitable for parole.)
Bergsten had years earlier met Rogowski through his ex-girlfriend in Arizona, and called him after she moved to Pacific Beach. He was one of the few people she knew. In March 1991, they arranged to meet.
At his Carlsbad condo, they watched a rented movie. They drank. They talked.
At one point, he went into his garage. He came back with a steering wheel lock and suddenly clubbed her with it. As she lay on the floor dazed, he called her names and spewed Bible verses at her.
He handcuffed her then and raped her for hours, Rogowski has said. Around dawn, he put her into a surfboard bag. She kicked and screamed and struggled. He said he put his hand over her mouth so a neighbor wouldn’t hear. She stopped moving.
Rogowski said he drove Bergsten’s body out to Imperial County, tossing evidence — like the steering wheel lock — out the window as he drove.
In April 1991, about 10 days after Bergsten was reported missing, vacationers found her body in a shallow grave off Interstate 8 in the desert near Ocotillo. But nobody knew who she was.
A month later, Rogowski — who’d become a born-again Christian in the months before the slaying — confessed to his minister. They went to police, and the man who had once been a skating star confessed that he had been with the missing model when she died. He took authorities to the gravesite, where Bergsten’s body had been found.
The prosecutor at the time said Rogowski let out his rage at his ex-girlfriend on Bergsten, his ex’s close friend.
Rogowski pleaded guilty to rape and murder the following year and was sentenced to 31 years to life, taking a plea deal that took the possibility of life in prison without parole off the table. At the time, the prosecutor handling the case said he agreed to the deal because “I really don’t think he will ever get out of prison.”
In 2003, Rogowski was the subject of a documentary titled “Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator.”
Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.