Last week’s case was the bizarre plot Chris Pritchard hatched to kill his mother and stepfather. This week, our case is the 1997 murder of Pegye Bechler at the hands of her husband, Eric.
Pegye Bechler grew up in the small town of Dexter, near Roswell in southeastern New Mexico. She was the fourth child of Glenn and June Marshall. As a young girl, Pegye suffered from scoliosis and had to wear a back brace day and night. The only time she didn’t have to wear the brace was when she went swimming. Consequently, she became an accomplished swimmer. She excelled in other athletic activities as well.
Pegye’s scoliosis meant she underwent physical therapy. It was those sessions that helped her decide to become a physical therapist. After completing her schooling, she moved to Newport Beach in southern California and opened a physical therapy business. Before long her business was booming.
In 1991, Pegye went with a friend to watch the friend’s husband play beach volleyball. There she met another volleyball player, Erich Bechler. Handsome and fit, Eric was still a student—and eight years younger than Pegye. The two were quickly “an item,” and about a year after meeting, they married.
After their marriage, Eric joined Pegye’s physical therapy business to handle the business and technology side of things. They had three children together and seemed to have an idyllic life.
Pegye Bechler Goes Overboard
In July 1997, Eric and Pegye threw a large party to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary and Pegye’s 38th birthday. Two days after the party, on July 6, they rented a speedboat. Then they departed for what was supposed to be a romantic cruise in the Pacific. Instead, tragedy struck.
Another boat, the Greene Machine, found the rented speedboat circling in the water with no one aboard. Eric was nearby, clinging to a body board. Passengers and crew on the Green Machine did not see Pegye anywhere.
Eric told the Coast Guard that Pegye was driving the boat, towing him behind on a boogie board. He said a rogue wave hit the boat and he wiped out. When he came up out of the water, he couldn’t see Pegye.
The Coast Guard searched for two days but never found Pegye or her body.
Accident of Something Else?
Using Eric’s description of the accident, the Coast Guard tried to recreate Pegye’s fall overboard. They determined she couldn’t have fallen out of the boat the way Eric said she did. So, the Coast Guard contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff’s detectives interviewed Eric. He claimed that his marriage to Pegye was solid, a claim backed up by his friend, Kobi Laker. Since it was more than a week after Pegye disappeared, recovering physical evidence from the speedboat was virtually impossible. But detectives were now suspicious of Eric Bechler.
Detectives got a break when Kobi Laker contacted them and asked to be reinterviewed. He explained that he lied to investigators the first time. Now he said that Eric had told him he was sick and tired of his wife. Eric also asked Kobi what he thought of him (Eric) killing his wife.
Investigators were eager to follow up on this latest information. Kobi agreed to wear a wire and met Eric at El Matador, a restaurant in Orange County. Unfortunately for the detectives, Eric didn’t say anything incriminating enough to use as evidence.
Tina New Replaces Pegye Bechler
Three months to the day after Pegye disappeared, Eric met Tina New at a trade show. Tina was a model and hopeful actress whose career had peaked with a small role on Baywatch Nights. By the time she met Eric, she was at rock bottom. She’d had problems with drugs, was broke, and had lost custody of her two children. Eric asked her out that very night. The following day, she moved in with him. This ticked off Pegye’s family. And it caught the attention of Orange County detectives.
Eric’s and Tina’s relationship progressed rapidly. Before long she’d agreed to marry him. But one night she put a tape in the VCR, and it brought up a recording of a news report about Pegye’s disappearance. The details presented in the report differed from what Eric had told Tina. And Tina saw the color drain from Eric’s face when the recording showed on the television.
Tina demanded an explanation. Now Eric came up with a modified story. This time he told her he thought Pegye hit a wake and fell overboard. He said that he couldn’t get to her, then changed that and said he could have helped Pegye but didn’t.
Eric Bechler, Murder Suspect
One night, Eric and Tina came home from an evening of partying. Lying in bed together, Tina had a sudden thought. “You hit her over the head!” she exclaimed. Eric’s response was, “How did you know that?” She hadn’t known before, but now she did.
Eric came up with yet another story, a horrific one. He said he and Pegye had that big party to show their friends how happy their marriage was. Two days later, he took Pegye out on the rented boat. Unbeknownst to her, he also took along a couple of dumbbells. Coming up behind Pegye, he struck her a vicious blow with one of the weights, killing her instantly. Next, he bent her body double and tied her wrists and ankles together. Then he stuffed the body into two plastic bags, weighted it down, and threw Pegye overboard. It was a confession, but Tina was the only one who heard it.
Two weeks later, Eric and Tina had a fight violent enough for a neighbor to call 911. In the aftermath of that fight, Tina decided to contact detectives. They asked her if she would wear a wire and she agreed. She invited Eric to dinner at El Torito (he must have had a thing for Mexican food). During dinner and the drive home, Eric didn’t exactly repeat his earlier confession, but he made enough incriminating statements for deputies to arrest him for Pegye’s murder.
Finally, Justice for Pegye Bechler
Just before Eric Bechler went on trial for his wife’s murder, Tina made a statement to a newspaper saying she doubted his guilt. Today she says she really didn’t believe he was innocent. But she said she herself felt guilty about putting his children’s father away after they’d lost their mother, too. But the newspaper story made her a problematic witness.
Nevertheless, Eric went on trial in late 2000. Eric’s attorney noted that there was no blood found in the boat. If Eric had clubbed Pegye with a weight, he argued, there would have been a lot of blood. He pushed the theory that stress and a couple of margaritas caused Pegye to accidentally fall off the boat. And he attacked Tina New’s credibility.
But there was evidence of blood. Even though it was more than a week after Pegye disappeared, luminol tests indicated someone had cleaned up considerable blood. Eric also had a weight tree in his home that was missing two weights. And he stood to gain over $3 million from Pegye’s death.
It took the jury seven days of deliberations, but they returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. Incongruously, they found him not guilty of murder for financial gain.
Eric Bechler continues to maintain his innocence. His mother, Linda, believes the verdict was wrong and speculates that Pegye faked her own death. Nonetheless, Eric remains in California’s Avenal State Prison, serving life without the possibility of parole.
In 2015, NBC’s Dateline aired an episode about Pegye Bechler’s murder titled Troubled Waters.
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