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Husband Charged in Woman's 1997 Death

Court: Eric Bechler is accused of killing his 38-year-old triathlete wife for her money, and making it look like an accident.

November 03, 1999|JACK LEONARD and DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — Two years after a Newport Beach woman disappeared during a wedding anniversary boat outing, prosecutors charged her husband with murdering her for financial gain and trying to make the death look like an accident.

The accusations mark a dramatic turn in a case that immediately raised suspicion among law enforcement officials, because the victim, 38-year-old Pegye Bechler, was a triathlete and expert swimmer.

The case was put together by Orange County sheriff's detectives and prosecutors who picked it up in January. A 1997 investigation by the Orange County Sheriff's Department did not result in the filing of charges.

Officials said Tuesday that they recently uncovered new evidence linking the defendant to the crime, but declined to reveal more because the investigation is ongoing. The police report was sealed by a judge.

Bechler's husband, Eric Christopher Bechler, has maintained that his wife disappeared while piloting a rented speedboat towing him on a bodyboard. Bechler, now 32, said the couple were about four miles off Newport Harbor when a wave knocked him off the board. When he surfaced, he said, he saw the boat circling in the distance with his wife gone.

He was arrested Saturday and charged with murder Monday. The charges contain a "special circumstance," because prosecutors allege that Bechler killed his wife for her money.

Her father said Tuesday that just before her death, she had sold her physical therapy business for about $1.5 million. Glenn Marshall of Dexter, N.M., also said Pegye Bechler had a life insurance policy, but that her husband was unable to collect the proceeds because a death certificate was never issued by the coroner. Bechler had repeatedly requested the certificate, he added.

"It's not a shock. My daughter was a triathlete, and in extremely good condition, and all her life, a great swimmer," he said. "We would just like to see justice, whatever that might be."

Now, Marshall said, he must break the news to his daughter's three young children, who live with him and his wife in New Mexico.

On Tuesday afternoon, Bechler, a Web page designer, appeared in Superior Court in Santa Ana wearing an orange jailhouse jumpsuit, standing stiffly and without expression as his attorney won a postponement of his arraignment. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Bechler's attorney, John Yzurdiaga, declined to comment, saying: "It is too early to say anything."

Two months ago, Bechler pleaded guilty in court to a misdemeanor domestic violence count. Bechler repeatedly pushed his girlfriend in April after the two argued over how he delivered orders to her daughters, according to court documents.

The woman suffered a slight cut during the incident. In court papers, she said she met Bechler three months after his wife's disappearance and moved in with him two days after their meeting. She lived with Bechler off and on for 10 months, court papers said.

As part of a plea bargain, Bechler agreed to enroll in a yearlong treatment program for batterers.

July 8, 1997 had seemed like a calm Sunday afternoon when the Bechlers, celebrating their fifth anniversary, ventured out on a rented 19-foot motorboat. Neither wore a life jacket, and their towing a bodyboard behind the boat, which can reach speeds of 40 mph, violated the rental company's policy.

The couple were about four miles outside Newport Harbor when she disappeared. Within 30 minutes, 11 rescue boats and helicopters were combing the icy waters. The hunt for her body lasted 15 hours.

A day later, Marshall and his family arrived from New Mexico to see where their daughter had disappeared. Meanwhile, their son-in-law appeared grief-stricken. If there were any problems between the two, Marshall didn't know about them.

"She never told me, but that would be typical," he said. " She'd figure that she should handle it herself."

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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