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."
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