Five Puzzle Pieces: A complicated investigation spanning over a decade. Meticulous police work will finally crack it… with a little help from the victim.
Taxi Driver: He had the perfect cover for a serial killer. Victims got willingly into his taxi cab. Some never got out.
A Pathetic Kind of Evil: A born loser, desperately clinging to a failing romance; two innocence kids who he sees as an encumbrance; a sickening solution.
The Only Way Out: As a cop, he swore to uphold the law. As a husband and father, he promised to love and to cherish. He did neither.
Flesh for Fantasy: The victim wanted to fulfil a lifelong ambition, to be killed, butchered, and eaten. Is it still murder under those circumstances?
Mommy Loves You: Alice had a love for her son that bordered on the romantic. Woe betide the woman who tried to usurp her in his affections.
The Hunchback of York Street: Two little girls fall into the clutches of a cannibalistic pedophile in this gothic horror from Old England.
The Preacher from Hell: The Reverend knew his Bible well. He’d yet to encounter a sin in it that he hadn’t committed.
Murder Most Vile Volume 42
“There’s a lady lying in the street with blood coming out of her head. I think she’s been shot.”
This was the report, called in by a motorist, that would launch one of the most convoluted murder inquiries ever conducted by the Anaheim Police Department. It came in just after 11 p.m. on the night of January 17, 1998. Officers who responded to the scene found 40-year-old Elizabeth Bergaren lying on the ground with a pool of blood spreading out around her. She’d been shot twice, once in the face, once in the chest. Nearby, officers located a law enforcement badge. The victim had worked as a corrections officer. Huddled together nearby were her husband, Nuzzio, and his 10-year-old daughter, Angelica. It was Nuzzio who described to the officers what had happened.
According to the distraught husband, he and Elizabeth had visited a mall earlier that evening. While they were there, he’d handed her $5,000 in cash, which Elizabeth had stuffed into her purse. However, the transfer of money had not gone unnoticed. As Nuzzio looked up, he saw three men watching them, men he described as “gang members.” He and his wife and daughter had left the mall soon after. They’d stopped a short distance away at a Chevron station to fill up. That was when he spotted the gang members again, circling the block in a light blue sedan. That same car had followed them when they got on the 91 and started driving towards Anaheim.
Nuzzio had tried losing the pursuers in traffic but was unable to shake them off. He’d decided to leave the freeway, loop around and then get back on, heading in the opposite direction. That turned out to be a mistake. The sedan intercepted them on the off-ramp, boxing them in. Three men got out and approached their SUV. As they got closer, Nuzzio pulled his daughter out and led her to the back of the vehicle, where they took cover. But Elizabeth was not going to cower down. She walked directly towards the men, brandishing her badge. Words were exchanged and then Nuzzio heard two closely spaced shots, followed soon after by the sound of screeching tires as the men got into their car and raced away. He emerged from hiding just as another vehicle pulled up. It was the driver of that car who had called the police.
On the face of it, Nuzzio Bergaren’s story was entirely plausible. The 1990s was a decade in which Southern California was particularly blighted by gang violence and carjackings. And Nuzzio’s version of events was backed up by his daughter, who added one important detail. She said that while the car was following them, her mom had written down the license plate number on a piece of paper. This was a vital piece of information and the police immediately launched a search for the note. They did not find it inside the vehicle. Rather, it was a keen-eyed patrol officer who spotted something fluttering in the breeze and went to retrieve it. The torn strip of paper had a couple of digits written on it. The remaining four pieces were soon collected allowing officers to piece together a seven-digit license plate. Also written on the paper was a descriptor, “light blue.”
The vehicle in question, a light blue Buick Regal, turned out to belong to Jose Sandoval, a known gangbanger with the street name Preacher. Brought in for questioning, Sandoval seemed genuinely perplexed. He did not know how Elizabeth Bergaren could have written down his license number since he’d been nowhere near Anaheim on the night of the murder. He’d been at the home of his cousin, Guillermo Espinoza, in east L.A. Guillermo would vouch for him and so would other family members who were present. This was a far from stellar alibi but with no other evidence against Sandoval, the police were forced to let him walk.
But investigators were still working the gang angle, wondering about the motive for the crime. Perhaps it wasn’t about money at all, perhaps this was about retribution. Elizabeth Bergaren had been assigned to a special unit within the California Department of Corrections, a unit that dealt with the most dangerous and disruptive inmates, including those with gang affiliations. Had she offended someone, written someone up, gotten in the way of some jailhouse transaction? Had someone put out a hit on her?
To explore this possibility, the cops brought in Elizabeth’s husband, Nuzzio Bergaren. Nuzzio was cooperative at first, even if he offered little by way of tangible information. But then the investigators asked if they could talk to his daughter, Angelica, and Nuzzio’s demeanor changed. He became angry and aggressive, accusing the Anaheim PD of trying to set him up and threatening to sue them for harassment. This outburst surprised the officers but it also got them wondering. Was Nuzzio hiding something? Had he perhaps coached the little girl to lie for him? Had there been any gangbangers at all or was it Nuzzio himself who’d pulled the trigger?
These questions took the investigation in an entirely new direction. Looking into Nuzzio Bergaren’s background the police found that he and Elizabeth were newlyweds, having tied the knot in Las Vegas just ten days before her murder. No one in Elizabeth’s circle, not her family or friends, seemed to like the man, who they described as controlling and abusive. The only reason Elizabeth had accepted his proposal, they said, was because she was 40 years old and afraid of being left on the shelf.
But Elizabeth would soon come to regret her impulsive action. Just one week into the marriage and she was already talking about getting out. Nuzzio wasn’t just abusive towards her, he was a compulsive gambler and a work-shy loser, who’d never held down a steady job in his life. Elizabeth was the sole breadwinner in the relationship.
All of this made investigators wonder whether Elizabeth might have told Nuzzio that she was leaving him and if he’d killed her as a result. But then they discovered a far more powerful motive. Two days after he married his wife, Nuzzio Bergaren had insured her life for $1 million, making himself the sole beneficiary. He had, in fact, been shopping for a policy on the day they exchanged their vows.
All thoughts of a gang-related killing were now set aside by the investigators. Their entire focus was now on Nuzzio Bergaren. Nuzzio was placed under 24-hour surveillance. A few weeks into that operation, he gave the police even more reason to suspect him of murder. On that day, Nuzzio took a 100-mile taxi ride from south L.A. to the house he’d shared with his wife in Lancaster. He emerged from the property holding a garbage bag. He then directed the cabbie to a nearby convenience store where he got out, walked to the back of the building, and dropped the bag in a dumpster. Detectives later retrieved the bag, convinced that it must contain some incriminating evidence. They would be disappointed. The only item of note was an itemized phone bill, torn into several pieces. None of the numbers on the bill could be linked to the murder.
A battle of wits was now being waged between Nuzzio Bergaren and the Anaheim Police Department. And it was Nuzzio who struck the next blow. He sued the department for harassment and ultimately reached an out-of-court settlement which gained him $25,000. Then Nuzzio went after the big prize. His insurance company had been refusing to pay out the proceeds of his wife’s policy, citing the fact that he was a suspect in her murder. Nuzzio sued and the insurers buckled. Now a wealthy man, he left the US for his native Romania. There, he acquired a common-law wife and fathered twin boys. The murder case against him had gone stone.
And it might well have remained that way but for the persistence of Elizabeth’s father, Robert Wheat. Robert had remained in touch with investigators for over a decade, hoping against hope that there would be some break in the case. In 2009, eleven years after his daughter was gunned down, he decided to appeal directly to the Anaheim District Attorney. The letter was so heartfelt that the D.A. asked one of his prosecutors to look into it. Larry Yellin was an expert in cold cases and this one immediately spoke to him. He could not understand why the investigators had so easily dismissed Jose Sandoval as a suspect. To him, it seemed obvious that Sandoval was involved.
Unfortunately for Yellin, the police held a different opinion. They still believed that Nuzzio had acted alone. It would take two years and the appointment of Sgt. Daron Wyatt to the Cold Case Unit, before the case started gaining forward traction. Wyatt was with Yellin and believed that Sandoval was the key that would unlock the case. The former gangbanger, now a married man and the father of two children, was thus brought in for questioning. He swore that he knew nothing, but Yellin persisted, threatening him with a charge of murder with special circumstances, a death penalty offense. Sandoval’s lawyer then made an error of judgment. He challenged Yellin to make good on his threat or let his client go. Yellin obliged by charging Sandoval.
This was a calculated risk but it quickly paid dividends. The possibility of a trip to death row loosened Sandoval’s tongue. He admitted that he’d been present on the night that Elizabeth was killed but insisted that he’d been just the driver. The shooter was his cousin, Guillermo Espinoza.
And then Sandoval offered up another name, one that the police had never connected with this case. Rudy Duran had been affiliated with a rival gang but was connected to Espinoza by marriage. According to Sandoval, it was Duran who had recruited them for the hit on Elizabeth Bergaren. And who had recruited Duran? None other than Elizabeth’s husband, Nuzzio.
Rudy Duran was easy to find. He was currently serving time for assault. Confronted with Sandoval’s statement, he buckled and admitted his involvement. According to him, the hit was supposed to go down at the Chevron station. But Nuzzio had panicked and driven off when he spotted a police car. Sandoval then followed and eventually caught up with Nuzzio’s vehicle after he pulled off the freeway. They had not cut Nuzzio off, as he’d told the police. They’d simply pulled up behind him. Nuzzio then got out and walked away with his daughter, covering the child’s eyes. As he passed, Duran asked what he wanted them to do. Nuzzio’s instruction was explicit, “Do it,” he commanded.
In her final moments, Elizabeth realized what was going on. As Espinoza approached holding the gun, she cried out, “No Tony, don’t do this!” (Tony was her pet name for Nuzzio.) Moments later, the gun spat fire, and Elizabeth’s life was taken.
Nuzzio Bergaren, undoubtedly convinced that he’d gotten away with murder, had by now returned to the United States. Imagine his surprise when investigators showed up at his door and placed him under arrest. Still, Nuzzio was not going to make it easy for them. He insisted that he’d never heard of Rudy Duran and challenged them to prove otherwise.
It was here that the meticulous police work of a decade-and-a-half earlier paid dividends. In Duran’s statement, he’d told the police that Nuzzio had called him twice in the aftermath of the murder. Now investigators went back to that phone bill that they’d found in the trash 15 years earlier. Scanning the list of numbers, they soon found one that Duran had used back then. This was confirmed when detectives matched it to a number he’d given on one of his many arrest records. The link between Nuzzio and his hired assassins had been established.
Still, this was far from a sure thing. Prosecutors had to sweat through three days of jury deliberation before the verdict came back – guilty as charged. The sentence was 25 years to life. Rudy Duran and Jose Sandoval were also convicted for their part in the murder. Duran got six years. Sandoval was released with time served. That left just the shooter, Guillermo Espinoza, still at large. He would eventually be arrested in 2016, in Mexicali, Mexico. Brought back to the US to stand trial, he entered a guilty plea to manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
One of the remarkable things about this case is that it was solved by the victim. That scrawled license plate number was what led the police to Jose Sandoval in the first place. But for that, the killers would likely have evaded justice. Those five puzzle pieces, the torn fragments of Elizabeth’s note, had nailed them.
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