Two weeks after Nicholas Berger was fatally shot by an Oregon State Police trooper at the High Desert Museum, the results of an investigation into the shooting and what preceded it are still pending, though some new details have emerged.
Berger, 36, was killed May 31 by Senior Trooper Richard Brannin after holding a museum employee at knifepoint and dragging her through the museum before releasing her near the exit.
Most violent crimes in the area are between people who know each other — Berger and the employee, Amanda Berry, 39, a Deschutes County resident, were strangers, according to investigators.
But officials have said little about a possible motive. Berger, who was from California and had a Kansas driver’s license, had recently moved to the Bend area; a family friend on Thursday said he had been expressing thoughts of suicide in recent months.
Linda Fontes, 62, of Taft, California, said Berger was a “gentle giant” who had been dealing with personal problems for some time, including two divorces in the past decade.
In a phone interview Thursday, Fontes said her son, who is also 36, played Little League with Berger, who as a child went on family camping and fishing trips with the Fontes family.
Fontes said Berger had voiced suicidal thoughts to her. Fontes said she spoke with him regularly over the social networking site Facebook, and more recently had texted and talked on the phone with him. She feels he committed “suicide by cop.”
“I know what he did was wrong and there’s no question about that, but I think what he decided (was) … he just wanted it (to be) over,” Fontes said.
Fontes said Berger had moved to Central Oregon to live near relatives on his father’s side of the family.
Berger’s sister, who also lives in the Bakersfield area, could not be reached for comment. An ex-wife said in a brief phone interview earlier this month that she was surprised by the news of the incident and Berger’s death, but deferred further comment to his family.
Although Berger had been living in Bend, he had a Kansas driver’s license, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in Deschutes County Circuit Court on June 2.
The affidavit, written by Bend Police Det. Josiah Pacheco, includes information gathered from Berry and another witness, the manager of the gift shop at the High Desert Museum.
According to the affidavit, the gift shop manager, Julie Sturges, 57, said that at about 3:15 p.m. on May 31 — about 10 minutes before the first 911 calls came in — Berger was browsing in the gift shop. He asked Sturges and Berry the time. Berger said he had to leave by 4 p.m. and then “mentioned something about his wife,” according to the search warrant affidavit.
“Sturges did not understand what Berger was trying to say and had to walk out of the gift shop for a moment,” the affidavit states.
When Sturges walked back into the shop, she saw Berger behind the counter with Berry and then saw Berger pull Berry out of the gift shop by the arm. Berry was signaling to Sturges in an effort to get help while trying to make sure that Berger could not see her doing so. Berry started screaming for help and screaming for somebody to call 911, according to the affidavit.
Sturges ran to get help, and by the time she returned, Berry had been released. It is not clear whether she came back before or after Berger was shot by the state trooper.
Hummel wrote in an email last week that based on radio traffic of the incident, the time between Berry’s release and Berger’s being shot could have been less than one minute but not more than two minutes.
Another Bend Police detective, Richard Bigelow, interviewed Berry. The affidavit states Berry told Bigelow that Berger threatened to kill her and bash her head in, and that she had difficulty breathing while his arm was around her throat. He let her go near the exit of the museum.
Berger’s 2003 Ford Taurus was in the parking lot of the museum. Police found a folding knife, a box cutter, a sheath, a knife sharpener and two pairs of gloves in the car. They also found two receipts — one from Tumalo State Park on May 28 and from Wal-Mart at 9:26 a.m. May 31, about six hours before the shooting, although police did not note what he bought.
Although it was at one point reported to dispatch that Berger had a gun, no firearm was mentioned in the affidavit, nor was one included in the list of items found in Berger’s car.
Kansas court records show a woman filed for divorce against Berger in January. Fontes said Berger’s ex-wife lived in Kansas but did not know how long Berger had been living there, if at all. Oregon court records show he had no convictions in Oregon — the state’s public court records system does not show cases that have been expunged — and that he was divorced from a different woman in Deschutes County in 2007.
According to court records, police are seeking access to Berger’s Facebook activity between Jan. 1 and June 1 — including all of Berger’s messages, photos and groups he was in; it’s an attempt to establish any documentation, planning or evidence of kidnapping, menacing and strangulation, the crimes that, had Berger lived, he may have been suspected of.
There was no indication in the affidavit filed June 2 that police wanted to search a home in connection with the investigation; it is not apparent where Berger was living at the time of the incident.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel is expected to publicly announce the results of his office’s investigation, although it is not clear when it will be complete . If Hummel believes Brannin committed a crime in fatally shooting Berger, the district attorney will present the case to a grand jury, which would decide whether to bring charges.
Last week, less than 24 hours after posting a witness’ cellphone video of the incident to the DA’s public YouTube channel, Hummel had the video removed, citing privacy concerns raised by an individual whom the district attorney would not identify.
The museum’s executive director, Dana Whitelaw, could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.