Hartford Courant

Bereaved, Blameless, But Bullied For Hours

June 25, 2006
By Donald S. Connery

What can be worse on a Christmas day than finding your mother's bloody, bruised, half-naked body under a stove, then being accused of murdering her?

Two weeks before Jonathan Peskin's ordeal began in early January 2005, another blameless citizen in another Connecticut community was subjected to a nine-hour confrontational "interview" by police pretending he was not a suspect and not in custody.

Like Peskin in Windsor, Roland Berstecher, a Mohegan Sun security guard, was grilled without his rights being read. The 40-year-old Miranda warning was ignored both by the Groton Town Police and a state police detective who made his own attempt to wheedle a confession.

Like Peskin, Berstecher believed he was not free to just walk out of the police station. He says he asked four times if he could go, but the cops said he must wait until reports came in from the crime scene. He was falsely told that Dr. Henry Lee, the famous forensic scientist from Connecticut, was in charge of the forensic investigation.

The big difference in Peskin's and Berstecher's cases is that Peskin succumbed to the pressure to confess, while Berstecher did not. One man suffered unjust imprisonment; the other was so traumatized by the exploitation of his first hours of grief that he took a month's unpaid leave of absence from work. He has been in therapy ever since.

Like Peskin, 63-year-old Berstecher is pleasant, unassertive man who has had a long-term relationship with a feisty woman who works as a nurse. On Dec. 25, 2004, he and Joann Degenhart planned on a day at home in Groton with her son Edward and his girlfriend. Roland's mother, Alexandra Berstecher, 89 and arthritic, preferred to remain in her apartment at a senior citizens' complex.

At midday, Roland drove over to his mother's place, just 10 minutes away, to deliver a Christmas dinner. When she did not respond to the lobby buzzer, he had to find a custodian to let him into the third-floor apartment. They discovered her body gruesomely extending feet-first from the stove bottom where the drawer for pots and pans belongs.

The custodian alerted the police while Berstecher frantically phoned Degenhart. Soon after she arrived, a detective asked Roland to accompany him to headquarters, claiming he had forgotten to bring his paperwork for a statement.

So began, at about 1:30 that afternoon, a marathon of police questioning, politely at the start but increasingly accusatory. Family members, waiting in a nearby room, were told a lawyer was not necessary. Eventually, they found an attorney willing to come down at 10:30 on Christmas night and put a stop to the process.

Police everywhere are all too quick to confine the handiest suspect and hope they can solve the crime with a confession. The Groton cops had no evidence and no motive to link Berstecher to his mother's death. They had nothing to refute his history as a good citizen and a good son. They would soon dismiss him altogether as a suspect but offer no apologies.

Bristling at the way he was treated, Berstecher feels foolish for "trusting the system." He remembers asking for something to eat, being told the town's take-out restaurants were closed for the holiday and settling for a Coke and a doughnut. Later, he saw two officers eating a Chinese meal in another room. Degenhart is furious about how they were all treated, including the repeated suggestions that the whole family could be in trouble if everyone stuck to the story of Berstecher's innocence. She remembers being asked if she knew that Connecticut has a death penalty. She and Berstecher both recall hearing the loud state police detective telling him, "Maybe things got out of hand, and you got into a fight with your mother and we possibly can get you off on manslaughter."

More than a year and a half later, Berstecher and Degenhart, now on their third lawyer, have hired a private detective to investigate Alexandra Berstecher's death because "we are still "getting the runaround." The police first thought she was murdered, then told The Day of New London that she had committed suicide, then said the death was accidental, and now claim to be investigating the possible homicide.

How the System Works
Truth in Justice