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Journey through tears — The Chevys shootings

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Second in a four-part series

MOUNTAIN GREEN — The Berg family started a year ahead, planning a Hawaiian vacation that would take Peter and Loydene Berg back to the island where they'd gone as newlyweds. The couple took a late honeymoon to Maui — after Peter cheated death the first time — and had always wanted their two children to visit.

In the end, after the shooting, they canceled Peter's ticket.

Loydene and her children, PJ and Whitney, went anyway. It was one of the hardest things they did after Peter was gunned down before his 12-year-old daughter's eyes following a family birthday dinner.

And this is how the Berg family has survived the past three years.

They show up. They talk. They try to forgive. And they work hard at moving forward.

"I don't know if I would say it's getting easier," Loydene Berg, now 47, said recently. "I would say we're getting better at managing it."

From the family's cozy home, within view of the cemetery where Peter is buried, Whitney, now 15, and Loydene Berg spoke about their journey through grief and toward forgiveness of Quinn Robert Martinez, the young man in prison for killing Peter and Jason Rasmussen, 32, and critically wounding three others April 27, 2000.

Their living room is full of warmth and photos and memories of Peter.

Here he is, smiling that huge Peter smile. Above the photo, a hand-painted placard proclaims: "Eat, Sleep, Ski." And there he is, choosing a Christmas tree with his family, niece and nephew. Here he is lounging on the couch with his wife and children, framed by the saying, "Family is at the center of life's meaning."

Everyone tells me he gave his life for me. I think that’s right. That’s the kind of guy he was,” — Whitney Berg, 12, at her father’s funeral.

Today, Whitney's memory of that night three years ago is crisp, but she haltingly tells how she came to be without a father.

"I was just listening to music. Quinn opened the car door. Just a few feet from me. Mom and PJ were in another car. We were all going up to Snowbird. But Quinn had a gun, and he made us get out. He wanted the keys. Dad threw them. Then he got shot. I was in shock."

In fact, an examination of court documents and police reports shows Peter was shot once in the left shoulder. A second bullet charged through his chest and into his heart. Despite his injuries, Berg rose as Martinez searched for the keys on the ground about 10 feet from Whitney. He seemingly distracted Martinez from his daughter as the man who'd already shot three others ranted about the keys to Peter Berg.

"They're over there," Peter Berg said before collapsing.

"We knew Peter," Loydene Berg said as she reflected in interviews this summer on her life with and without Peter. "His intent was to get Quinn Martinez away from Whitney, and he bought PJ and me time, too."

Because in these same agonizing moments, as Martinez confronted her husband and daughter, Loydene Berg heard shots from across the parking lot. She scrambled to unlock her door, got in her car, pulled away, became trapped in a loading dock of a nearby restaurant, then ran with PJ back to find Whitney and her husband.

"Whitney was alone for a few minutes," Loydene Berg said. "It seemed like 20, but it was probably a couple."

A week after the shootings, a woman came to Peter Berg's viewing and said she had performed CPR on Peter that night. The Bergs never learned her name, but the woman provided the family with insight to Peter's final moments on Earth.

In his last breath, Peter Berg asked the woman, "Is Whitney OK?"

News of the shooting received extensive local media coverage. It was reported the next morning on CNN.

"This happened in a place frequented by middle class Utah, that's why (Whitney) was such a symbol of, 'This could happen to me,' " said Jo Ann Zaharias, director of the Salt Lake County District Attorney Counseling Unit.

As the state's eyewitness, Whitney was a prosecutor's dream, said Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Bob Stott. "She had a great memory. She could express herself, and yet she was just a little girl."

But today, there are still certain things that bring Whitney back to that night. Sights or sounds or smells make her feel weak and sick. These are "triggers" — something her body and mind associate with a traumatic event.

The hum of helicopter rotors is a big trigger. She remembers the red-and-white helicopter on that April night, its blades drumming the air as it whisked someone else's parent to the hospital. It was too late for her dad.

Peter Berg had crossed the path of a killer.

Peter Berg's family still struggles with the memories and moments of that night that are fodder for nightmares. For Loydene Berg, bad dreams come only occasionally now. They used to come every night. She worked hard at therapy, recognizing that she has post-traumatic stress syndrome. She tried traditional counseling and eye movement desensitization reprocessing.

Like Whitney, Loydene Berg still has a long list of "triggers" that bring nausea and anxiety.

Sirens. Police. Helicopters. Thursdays. 8:45 p.m. Open car doors. Going to work. Being in Salt Lake City. Eating in restaurants.

On the first anniversary of the shootings, PJ and Loydene Berg went back to Chevys for the first time. They called the store owner, who met them before the business opened and let them in. "It was really hard. I stood inside the entryway. I was nauseous the whole time, and PJ got really sick."

No one went the second year. No one was up for it.

On April 27, 2003, Loydene Berg went alone on the third anniversary of Peter Berg's death. She took flowers to Chevys to honor her husband and Jason Rasmussen, the restaurant manager who was killed that night. "I wasn't physically sick, but it was probably the saddest time I've had."

The sadness is something she still fights, of course, and talking about that night, her husband and the impact of his death on her family seems to have been both wounding and cathartic.

But she wants other people to know that people who experience trauma can get through it. She wants to offer hope to others. She wants to share what has worked for her: music, talking, writing, prayers.

She started these strategies a few months after the shooting. Surrounded by the thick Hawaiian air and members of her family, Loydene Berg began writing letters to her husband during that ill-timed vacation to Maui after his death.

At home now, she visits his gravesite just a short walk from their home. And she plays the piano. She writes music and plays songs as Whitney and PJ fall asleep.

The Berg living room is home to a Yamaha baby grand concert piano and an electric Yamaha Clavinova. Guests are invited to "pull up a piano bench."

When he was alive, Peter Berg would sit close by as Loydene played. Now she plays to his memory and to new beginnings. Her piano has been a healer.

"It's one of the times I've felt OK. Especially in the beginning, I felt so changed, but when I played, I felt OK," she said.

She experiments with arranging her own music. "It's a way I've been able to express thoughts and emotions that have been hard to put into words."

Whitney loves to sing. Sometimes, her mother will tuck her in, and her now-teenage daughter will ask, "Will you play until I go to sleep?" Music, it seems, soothes this family.

Recently, Loydene Berg let the rich vibrations of the baby grand take her over. "I didn't realize PJ had gone to bed early that evening." When she apologized for the volume the next morning, PJ quieted her. "No, I love it," he told his mom.

“On Difficult Days … I sit at my piano and I play. As the music embraces me, my troubled soul is soothed and I am nourished with renewed faith, hope and courage.” — Liner notes from a CD titled “On Difficult Days,” hymn arrangements by Loydene Berg.

The tragedy has been maybe the most difficult for PJ, the young man who just turned 20 and is Peter Joel, named after his father and a great-grandfather.

Each anniversary is difficult because it also marks the young man's birthday. He is moving on. He developed a relationship with a wonderful young woman and was married in August.

PJ chose not to participate in interviews with the Deseret Morning News but shared a story titled: "How much is this classy car worth?" that appeared in The Morgan Valley Weekly newspaper months after his father's death.

About four years ago, Peter Berg bought an old Volkswagen Beetle for about $100 and brought it home as a father and son fix-up project. The two worked on the car in the evenings in the family's garage, and it was almost refurbished when Peter Berg was killed.

After his dad's death, PJ saved money he earned as an engraver at Interwest Laser in Layton and finished the car down to the stereo system and paint job.

But Loydene Berg says the car is connected to complicated emotional issues. The young man has driven it at times but worries when he does. Will something happen to the car? Will something happen to him?

"PJ has decided he will keep the car his whole life, because it's sort of his piece of Peter," Loydene Berg said. "But he doesn't drive it a whole lot."

“I think he is a hero. He was a man of integrity, so I don’t think taking a bullet was a big choice for him at all. He just did what needed to be done.” — Andre Malan, Berg’s close friend, said at the funeral where more than 1,000 people came to pay respects.

Peter Berg was born in Jamaica, N.Y., and grew up upstate. He was a child who loved wrestling, cars, sports and water. They called him "Bug" in his high-school yearbook.

He moved west to attend school at Utah State University. There he met Loydene.

Just before the two were to be married, Peter Berg, who was working a construction job, was hit by a car on the Morton Thiokol Highway near Brigham City. The collision flipped his bike through the air, and Peter Berg landed with disastrous results.

"His legs were … well, the doctors said they were Rice Krispies," Loydene Berg said. He fought for his life first — spending three months in the hospital — then fought for his ability to walk.

Peter Berg was in a wheelchair when he and Loydene married on Jan. 19, 1980, in Corinne, Box Elder County.

He lost 2 inches off his height, and his children never knew a time when he could run. But he learned everything again. Whitney says of her dad, "Ski, jump on a tramp, water-ski. He loved everything except camping." Camping for Peter Berg, his family jokes, was the Marriott.

About a mile and a half east of the house, Loydene Berg owns a lot in a beautiful area near what is known as Cottonwood Creek Canyon. The couple had hired an architect and had planned to build on the property when the family's life shifted dramatically three years ago.

With only one income now, an accountant told Loydene Berg to sell it, but she can't bring herself to do that. She imagines she'll build a house there sometime but not today. Today, those plans are still on hold.

Loydene Berg says that to move now "seems like leaving too much of Peter behind."

“They all lost. Quinn’s not coming home, and neither is Peter.” — Travis Peterson, Sandy Police Department’s lead detective on the case.

Through it all, the family demonstrated forgiveness for Martinez.

Bishop David R. Miller of the Mountain Green Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marveled at their ability to set aside anger and bitterness.

"They include the man who shot Peter in their prayers," Miller said shortly after the shootings.

In fact, the family has publicly demonstrated forgiveness time after time.

The most moving moment during Martinez's sentencing came when then 14-year-old Whitney offered her own raw expressions of compassion and forgiveness.

"I have the greatest love for you, and I feel so bad for what you're going to go through," a tearful Whitney told Martinez in court. Onlookers and family members sobbed.

"She was a very strong little girl," detective Peterson said recently. There were times throughout the investigation when Whitney wanted to talk to Martinez. "She wanted to ask him 'Why?' " Peterson said. "It was unusual because most victims are so angry."

But that avenue never seemed to fit the Bergs.

Loydene Berg says there certainly were times when she plagued herself with questions: Jason Rasmussen begged for his life. How could a person have done this to Peter? How could he have done this to Whitney?

"My heart is so tender, and it hurts so much, but I don't want it to be hard," Loydene Berg said. "I want to reject that."

Beyond that, the woman who now rears her two children alone is deeply philosophical in her compassion.

"There has been so much pain and suffering with this. I think of my PJ or about Whitney, and I consider that as part of this, Quinn is going to take on all of that pain one day.

"When I think about that, I have compassion for him," she said. "On that day I will cry for him."

Sunday, Sept. 14 — Part one: Horror and healing

In Tuesday's Deseret Morning News: Families eating out, passers-by, police officers. Dozens say their lives changed forever when they crossed paths with a killer.

E-MAIL: lucy@desnews.com