Eric Bechler, the Newport Beach man convicted of killing his wife during a birthday boat cruise, received a life sentence Friday as he and his wife's family squared off during the tense climax of the highly publicized case.
Relatives of Pegye Bechler, the physical therapist and triathlete who vanished while celebrating her birthday in a speedboat off the Orange County coast, told a judge the woman's loss has shattered many lives--particularly the couple's children.
"What kind of man would murder the mother of his babies?" asked the victim's mother, June Marshall. "The children scream for their mommy, night after night after night. . . . You're a coward and a disgrace, Eric Bechler."
But Bechler, 33, who has said his wife's death in 1997 was an accident, proclaimed his innocence during a brief speech in a Santa Ana courtroom crowded with family members, reporters, Hollywood producers and curious onlookers.
"The accident was a horrible tragedy that has befallen both of our families," Bechler said. "As much as [his in-laws] are hurting, my family's also hurting because I didn't commit this crime. I love my wife terribly. And I miss her. And I . . . there's nothing else I can say."
After his remarks, Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel sentenced Bechler to life in prison without parole--the maximum sentence because prosecutors didn't seek the death penalty.
During the trial, Bechler testified that his wife was piloting the speedboat, towing him on a bodyboard when a wave knocked him underwater. When he surfaced, he said, the boat was circling and his wife was gone.
Relatives of Pegye Bechler said they almost immediately suspected foul play, noting that she was a champion swimmer as a child in Dexter, N.M., and a physically fit woman unlikely to drown in a boating mishap.
It was more than two years later that sheriff's investigators arrested Bechler, armed with a secretly recorded admission to a new girlfriend who had grown suspicious. He told the girlfriend, model and "Baywatch" actress Tina New, that he bludgeoned his wife with a dumbbell, then dumped her weighted body into the ocean.
Soon after his wife's disappearance, Bechler began an unsuccessful effort to cash in more than $2 million in life insurance. At the urging of suspicious sheriff's detectives, the policy was never paid.
A jury deliberated seven days before convicting Bechler of first-degree murder in February. The panel said it struggled with a lack of physical evidence. No human blood was found in the boat; Pegye Bechler's body has never been found.
Defense attorney John Barnett said he believes the conviction will be overturned on appeal. He said the state court had no jurisdiction over the case because the woman vanished in the Pacific Ocean, outside California's jurisdiction.
Bechler's relatives have started a Web site--http://freebechler.com--on which they are publicizing his appeal efforts and soliciting funds to pay his legal bills.
"My son is a victim of a miscarriage of justice," Bechler's mother, Linda, told reporters after the sentencing. "He loves his children. He loved his wife. . . . Eric will prevail on appeal. We all have faith."
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Debora Lloyd said she is confident the case will withstand legal challenges. She called the life sentence a fitting end to the case.
"The family waited a long time for this. It's going to be nice knowing his plan worked a little differently than he expected," Lloyd said. "I don't think he envisioned on that day how it would end up."
Pegye Bechler's relatives are now raising her three children--Bryelle, 7, Brenyn, 6, and Brodryk, 4--in her native New Mexico. Relatives have told them that their father was accused of their mother's death, but they haven't told the whole story, June Marshall said.
And although the children are in counseling, relatives fear that losing their mother at their father's hands may forever haunt them. Bryelle, for example, has converted her dollhouse into a jail, the victim's mother said. And Brenyn, haunted by his father's story that a shark ate his mother, is petrified of boats.
"He thinks the shark jumped in the boat and turned it over and ate Mommy," June Marshall said.
On Friday, Pegye Bechler's relatives planned to take a run together in the woman's honor. Back home in New Mexico, they've scheduled a camping trip with the children. Then they'll try to resume their efforts to give the children an ordinary life, with soccer games, ballet lessons and the church choir.
"We're just going to have fun," June Marshall said. "And when they have questions, we'll do our best to answer them."