Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
Elizabeth Wheat, the subject of a recent “In Ice Cold Blood” episode, had nearly all that she wanted in life. The 40-year-old prison guard had risen through the ranks, purchased her own home, and had recently married a man named Nuzzio Bergaren. But just as Elizabeth’s marriage was beginning, she was shot dead in front of her husband and stepdaughter.
On January 17, 1998, a call came to 911: "There’s a lady lying in the street. With blood coming out of her head. It looks like she has been shot."
When officers arrived at the scene, they found that Elizabeth had been shot twice: Once in the face, once in the chest. Officers found her badge lying on the ground next to her body.
Nuzzio, who was present with his stepdaughter when the murder happened, told police a couple of people he perceived as gang members had taken notice when he and Elizabeth had exchanged a wad of money in a mall. The alleged gang members followed their car for almost 30 miles, and waved a gun at them on the freeway. In an effort to ditch the drivers, Nuzzio pulled onto a freeway onramp, and got boxed in by the stalkers. While he hovered over his daughter to protect her, he claimed Elizabeth jumped out of the car to confront the harassers.
This is when he heard the fatal gunshots that killed his wife.
On the ground near the crime scene police recovered five pieces of torn paper. When fit together, a seven-digit license plate was revealed as well as the description “light blue.”
Investigators were able to track down the car described in the note to a known Los Angeles gang member named Jose Sandoval, who insisted he was at his cousin’s house with other family members at the time of the murder.
Investigators also talked to Elizabeth’s co-workers and found out she wasn’t happy in her marriage, and was planning to leave Nuzzio. Within 10 days of getting married, authorities discovered, Nuzzio had taken out a one-million dollar life insurance policy on Elizabeth, naming himself as the beneficiary. No policy had been taken out for her.
Investigators searched the house where Nuzzio had been residing after Elizabeth had been shot, and did not find any evidence connecting him to the murder. But after continuing surveillance for several weeks, investigators watched Nuzzio take a cab for around 100 miles to where he and Elizabeth had lived. He entered the house, came out with a large trash bag, and continued on in the cab to a local gas station, where he deposited the bag into a dumpster. Though investigators recovered the bag, they were still unable to find any evidence connecting Nuzzio to the murder.
Nuzzio then sued the police for harassing him. According to The Los Angeles Times, the suit alleged that police “treated him as if he were a criminal” after his wife was brutally murdered. The two parties settled on approximately $25,000, and the case went cold due to lack of evidence.
In 2009, 11 years after Elizabeth’s murder, investigators re-opened the case and went back to Jose Sandoval, the owner of the light blue car. With fear of being put in jail, Sandoval told investigators that his cousin Guillermo Espinoza asked him to use his car for a job the day of the murder. He indicated that his cousin, who had been his alibi witness, was the individual who shot Elizabeth.
Sandoval also mentioned a third person who had never been on police’s radar: Rudy Duran. Already in jail, Duran admitted to investigators that he was involved and said he was asked to kill Nuzzio’s wife for a payment of $6,000.
Duran recounted asking Nuzzio what he should do with Elizabeth when he had his gun to her head, and he claimed Nuzzio replied: “Just do it.”
To convict Nuzzio, investigators needed more evidence than a confession from an inmate. They eventually sent the torn note to a crime lab for forensic testing. The results showed that it was in fact Nuzzio who had torn the piece of paper, indicating he was trying to dispose of any links to the crime.
But it was an additional piece of evidence that clinched the deal for investigators. Duran mentioned that Nuzzio had called him two months before the murder and two days after the murder. Investigators went back to evidence from the trash bag found in the dumpster over a decade prior, and were able to successfully link the information from phone bills proving the calls.
Nuzzio Bergaren was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life for first-degree murder, according to the Los Angeles Times. After pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, Guillermo Espinoza was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison, according to the San Diego Tribune. Jose Sandoval and Rudy Duran were also convicted for their roles in the murder, according to the OC Register.
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