Nancy Bergeson, slain federal public defender
Slaying of federal public defender in Portland stuns family
By Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian
November 27, 2009, 9:00PM
Nancy Bergeson, right, with her mother, Marian Bergeson, center, and sister, Julie McCormick
When Marian Bergeson, a retired California legislator and state education secretary, learned Tuesday that her oldest daughter, Nancy, 57, had been found dead in her Portland home, likely of natural causes, she couldn't understand it.
She wasn't aware of any ailments her daughter had. In fact, Nancy Bergeson ran marathons, skied, climbed mountains, paddled, skated and skydived. The family began to wonder whether the strong, healthy and hardworking woman had suffered a seizure or a heart attack.
"She'd never had a problem. That's why it was so hard for us to believe," said Marian Bergeson, 84, from her California home. The parents and surviving siblings just clung to the hope that Nancy's death was quick.
But the next morning, when Marian Bergeson called Oregon's medical examiner for an update, she learned the death was a homicide.
"That was, of course, like a double whammy," she said. "You just couldn't conceive of that sort of thing happening to Nancy."
Autopsy indicates strangulation
An autopsy showed Nancy Bergeson, an assistant federal public defender known for her independent spirit and deep commitment to her work, was strangled.
She was found Tuesday afternoon lying face down in the dining room of her Southwest Portland home. A girl who stopped by daily to walk her golden retriever saw her through a front window and alerted a neighbor.
Portland patrol officers first were called about 3 p.m. Tuesday. Then a police forensic criminalist and a deputy medical examiner went to the home in the 4100 block of Southwest Hamilton Street.
"The deputy medical examiner is actually in charge of the body and makes an initial determination because that's their area of expertise," Detective Cmdr. John Eckhart said.
"In this case, it's my understanding, they felt it was a natural death," Eckhart said. "And it wasn't until the body had been removed to the medical examiner's office and examined the next day that an autopsy determined it was a homicide. Apparently, it was not obvious."
No forced entry at home
There was no sign of forced entry, and the house wasn't ransacked. The front door was unlocked, but investigators were told that wasn't unusual.
Homicide detectives spent Wednesday and Thursday searching for evidence at the house. At this point, Eckhart said there is no clear suspect.
An FBI agent has been assigned to monitor developments.
"We are watching the case and staying briefed on the case," FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele said, "in the event that down the road, the homicide was related to her employment."
It is a federal crime to kill a U.S. government employee because of official duties. A conviction can carry the death penalty.
Nancy Bergeson, who kept in close touch with her family, had e-mailed her mother last week, relieved that her defense of a man in a tax evasion conspiracy case had wrapped up Friday after a three-week trial.
She was looking forward to flying to Boston on Wednesday to spend Thanksgiving with her only child, Jamie, 23. Instead, her daughter, who learned of her mother's death while at work Tuesday night, flew to Portland.
Nancy S. Bergeson was an assistant federal public defender. She was found dead Tuesday in her Southwest Portland home.
Nancy Bergeson would have celebrated her 58th birthday Monday. Her siblings and parents were looking forward to her spending Christmas with them in Newport Beach, Calif. She was known for making special presents, one year writing a poem etched in wood for her mother.
"Aunt Nancy was the reason for Christmas," Marian Bergeson said. "She was always the one who brought the cheer."
The oldest of four children who grew up in Newport Beach, Nancy Bergeson fell in love with animals at an early age. She developed a passion for the underdog, whether it was needy kids, shelter dogs or criminal clients.
She became a role model to her siblings and was usually the "leader of the pack," her mother said. When she took Spanish in high school, she inspired a love of languages in her sister, Julie McCormick.
McCormick described Nancy -- whom she called "Nance" or "Nachita," the name she used in high school Spanish -- as energetic, compassionate and generous.
"She'd take my kids one at a time to Portland and spoil them rotten. She taught them how to ski," said McCormick, an elementary school principal who has five children.
Lawyer active in sports
Nancy Bergeson, who was divorced, traveled each summer to exotic countries for competitions with her dragon boat team. She and her sister went to China and South Korea in 1988 to see their younger brother, James, compete in the Olympics in water polo. Her sister recalled taking a run with Nancy in shorts through Beijing and being gawked at by residents unused to women baring their legs.
McCormick's husband, a county public defender in California, often discussed case strategies with Bergeson.
"She poured herself into her work,'' McCormick said.
She didn't talk about fears of retribution or retaliation by clients. "You always worry about that, but this was not a concern she ever expressed, " her sister said.
This Thanksgiving, her family gathered at McCormick's home.
"The family just needed to be together. We sat and we ate," McCormick said. "You just have to try to figure out how to breathe. It's still such a wicked, numb state. Words don't describe the gaping loss."
Bergeson was strong, challenging her teenage nephews to arm wrestling and winning, and leaving her sister in the dust when they ran. So her family can't imagine someone overpowering her.
"The irony in this to me is she defended people who committed crimes, and she was such their advocate," McCormick said. "If this person could do something so horrific to her ... She would have been probably their best ally, and this person takes her out. That's what kills me."
Nancy Bergeson found strangled in Portland home
10:09 a.m. | KPCC Wire Services Saturday Nov. 28th
NEWPORT BEACH - The eldest daughter of longtime Orange County politician Sen. Marian Bergeson was found strangled to death inside her Portland home.
Nancy Bergeson, 57, was found Tuesday afternoon lying face down in her dining room by a girl who had stopped by to walk Bergeson's golden retriever.
Bergeson was an assistant federal public defender in Oregon since 1991, and would have celebrated her 58th birthday Monday. Her mother represented Orange County in Sacramento for two decades, sat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and eventually was appointed California's Secretary of Education.
Bergeson had kept close touch with her family, police said, and had e-mailed her mother last week, relieved that her defense of a man in a tax evasion conspiracy case had wrapped up Friday after a three-week trial.
``The irony in this to me is she defended people who committed crimes, and she was such their advocate,'' Julie McCormick, Bergeson's sister, said. ``If this person could do something so horrific to her...She would have been probably their best ally, and this person takes her out. That's what kills me.''
Authorities told the Oregonian there was no forced sign of entry, and the house was not ransacked. The front door was unlocked, but investigators were told that was not unusual.
An FBI agent has been assigned to monitor developments., as it is a federal crime to kill a U.S. government employee because of official duties. A conviction can carry the death penalty.
Marian Bergeson is 84 and retired.
A killer remains free after public defender's death
Submitted by Anna Canzano
Thank you for the update, Anna
Wednesday, September 22nd, 10:10 am
PORTLAND, Ore. - Ten months after being murdered in her own home, a Portland woman who defended criminals for a living has yet to find justice in her death.
"I think someone has to know something," says Jamie Bergeson, the daughter of the slain public defender.
A suspect in the death of Nancy Bergeson has yet to be found.
The life of Nancy Bergeson
Tenacious, dynamic, full of life. That's who Nancy Bergeson was, and it's how she lived until her untimely death just before Thanksgiving in 2009.
She was a defender of constitutional rights, a leader on her dragon-boat racing teams and a devoted sister, daughter and mother.
"My mom was my soul mate, if that makes sense," says Nancy's daughter Jamie. "We were two peas in a pod. It feels like half of my being is gone."
Jamie was at her consulting job in Boston when she got the call about her mother - a federal public defender based in Portland. A girl who walked her mother's dog had stopped by Nancy's home on the afternoon of Nov. 24. There the dogwalker saw the public defender face down on the living room floor.
Police were dispatched to the home on Southwest Hamilton Street - along with a criminalist and deputy medical examiner.
There were no signs of forced entry at the Bergeson home. The deputy medical examiner determined she died from natural causes, so her body was removed.
It wasn't until a day later it was discovered that Nancy Bergeson had actually been strangled. But by then, whatever crime-scene evidence existed at Bergeson's home had been compromised.
Sources tell us this was a mistake. However, they say it's not one that affected the overall integrity of the investigation.
"Who did it, and why?"
Still, whoever killed Bergeson got inside her house, left other items intact, and knew enough about the investigative process to murder her in such a way that no one would realize it was a homicide until the next day.
"That's the fundamental unanswered questions: who did it, and why," said Steve Wax, a federal public defender.
Wax was Bergeson's supervisor in the federal public defender's office. He says she would have represented some 2,000 people during her time there - people charged with federal crimes.
However, though he admits it would be naive to say the job doesn't represent some sort of risk for those doing the job, danger "is not part of our daily existence," he said.
Wax says only a handful of clients over the years have been cause for concern, and none related to the tax evasion case Bergeson was handling when she was murdered.
Yet he says there are plenty of people - within the criminal justice system - who aren't always pleased with public defenders and the role they play.
"When we're representing a client, part of our job is to challenge not only the police, not only the prosecutors, but the people who are coming forward as the victims of the crime," he said.
Wax says his office has provided as much information to investigators as it legally can about safety issues they've dealt with in the past.
The hole left behind
On a personal level, he admits Nancy's death has left an impact.
"It's painful," he says, sighing. "It's very painful."
And for Nancy's daughter Jaime, she also deals with frustration: "I am frustrated," she tells us. "But I think everyone - law enforcement, her family, her co-workers - feels that way at well."
Jaime does remain hopeful her mother's killer will be caught.
"People may be hesitant to come forward," Jaime said. "But I'm begging them ... my family is begging them ... to please come forward."
Shortly after Bergeson's death her friends held a "memorial paddle" on the waters of the Willamette. The boat trip was a tribute to what Nancy loved to do.
And on the bow of one boat was the word "passion." It's a word that friends and family say defined Nancy Bergeson as much as one word can.
The Portland Police Bureau declined an on-camera interview for our report. A bureau spokesperson told us this is not a good time for that, as detectives are working hard on the case.
There is a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in Nancy Bergeson's death.
You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others - something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.
-Albert Schweitzer (1875 - 1965)
Northwest News: Death of Portland attorney remains mystery one year later;
It's been a year since Portland criminal defense attorney Nancy Bergeson was found dead in her Bridlemile home. Oregonian staff writer Bryan Denson updates the status of the investigation, which police say remains active.
"It is a mystery," said Sgt. Pete Simpson, a Portland police spokesman. "Good old-fashioned police work is going to solve this case."
Simpson hopes someone in the public will come forward with a tip that helps crack the case. Crime Stoppers, a program he coordinates for the police bureau, is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to an arrest in the case. To raise more reward money, Bergeson's friends and family recently set up the Nancy Bergeson Trust at Wells Fargo Bank.
"Is it a cold case? Absolutely not," Simpson said. "The same investigators who were on it from day one are on it today."
Northwest News: Death of Portland attorney remains mystery one year later
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