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Bechler gets life in prison

Deepa Bharath

SANTA ANA -- Seconds after Eric Bechler told a packed courtroom that

he loved his wife and did not kill her, a Superior Court judge on Friday

sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Judge Frank F. Fasel said he agreed with a 12-member jury, which on

Feb. 1 found the 33-year-old man from Newport Heights guilty of

first-degree murder for bludgeoning his 38-year-old wife, Pegye Bechler,

on a boat and then dumping her body in the ocean in trash bags filled

with weights.

Bechler has continually pleaded not guilty and maintained that the

July 6, 1997, incident was a “tragic accident.”

In Bechler’s account, a wave pushed his wife, an expert swimmer and

triathlete, off the rented speedboat that she was driving while towing

him on a bodyboard. Her body was never found.

On Friday, he took one last opportunity to stress his innocence.

“As much as the Marshalls are hurting, my family is also hurting,” he

said in reference to his wife’s relatives. “I love my wife terribly and I

miss her, and there’s nothing else I can say.”

His mother, Linda Bechler, said the family is determined to appeal the

verdict.

“Eric is an innocent victim of a [flawed] system,” she said, wiping

away tears. “He thought justice will prevail, but it didn’t. . . . He’s

still keeping his faith that the appeal will work.”

Defense attorney John Barnett said the appeal, to be filed within 60

days of the sentencing, will be based on the argument that a California

court has no jurisdiction over a crime committed in federal or

international waters.

Another part of the appeal is the “corpus” issue -- a body of evidence

that could be negated because of lack of proof that a crime was

committed.

Members of Pegye Bechler’s family took the opportunity in court Friday

to flesh out the portrait of a daughter and a sister whose death they

struggled to explain, justify or understand.

In the courtroom, they placed enlarged photos of Pegye Bechler smiling

in each frame -- in a wedding dress, with her children, showing off her

muscular body at the Milkman Triathlon in her hometown of Dexter, N.M.

“She was my cheerleader,” said her brother, Larry Marshall, as he

recalled how his sister would send him encouraging quotes during times of

distress or worry.

Pegye Bechler’s sister, Kim Marshall, tearfully recalled “silly camp

songs, secret conversations in bathroom stalls and telephone

conversations that didn’t begin with formalities.”

June Marshall, Pegye’s mother, chastised her son-in-law directly and

sarcastically for committing a “cowardly act” and recounted the gruesome

murder as pieced together by prosecutors.

“He hit my precious girl on the head with a dumbbell,” she said. “He

had to clean the boat all by himself . . . lot of work for such a li’l

boy.”

June Marshall talked of how the tragedy has affected Eric and Pegye

Bechler’s children -- Bryelle, 7; Brenyn, 6; and Brodryk, 4. They think

their mother was devoured by a shark when she fell off the boat, she

said.

“Brenyn is afraid to get on a boat,” she said. “Bryelle gets

hysterical, sometimes crying for her mommy: ‘I want my mommy. I need my

mommy. I’m afraid I’ll forget her.’ She’s afraid she won’t remember what

her mommy looks like.”

Police arrested Bechler more than two years after the crime when his

former girlfriend Tina New told investigators that Bechler had confessed

to her about killing his wife.

New also wore a recording device and helped police secretly record

conversations with Bechler when he referred to the murder. The

surreptitious tapes and New’s testimony that lasted four days created a

significant body of evidence in sealing Bechler’s fate.

For Pegye Bechler’s family, Friday’s sentencing was an oasis after

weeks and months of dry anticipation -- motions, evidence and testimony.

“It was good to hear it,” June Marshall said. “But this isn’t over.

It’s going to be hard dealing with questions” from the children.

The Marshalls have legal custody of the three children.

And there is still a “lot left to talk about,” Larry Marshall said.

“Our main concern is the children,” he said. “But at least now we can

move on. With this load off our shoulders, we can take a deep breath and

go back to living our lives.”


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