AVENAL — In a failed bid for freedom 22 years after his murder conviction, a once respected Pittsburg officer confessed that he and three others gunned down a Safeway manager during a botched robbery attempt and kidnapping in 1988.
The first public confession of ex-officer Eric J. Bergen, 59, came at his November 2017 parole hearing, where Bergen admitted not just to committing the March 1988 murder of 28-year-old Cynthia Kempf, but also a litany of other crimes: excessive force, shakedowns of drug dealers, a home invasion robbery, participation in a nonfatal shooting, a kidnapping attempt and at least a dozen restaurant and store robberies.
A transcript of the hearing was recently obtained by this news organization.

Bergen had previously admitted to using excessive force and robbing stores after his 1995 trial and conviction, but for years maintained his innocence in the murder of Kempf, an Oakley resident who suffered a horrific ordeal the night she was kidnapped and murdered by Bergen and three other people, including former Pittsburg police Sgt. George Elzie.
The other co-defendants included Bergen’s brother, Carl Bergen, and his friend Mario Joe Salguero.
“I don’t believe I ever stopped being a criminal,” Eric Bergen told the parole board, describing himself as a lifelong drug addict who bounced from job to job before joining the Pittsburg Police Department in the mid-1980s. He later added, “I don’t think I should have ever been a police officer without dealing with my personal issues.”
New public records related to Bergen may be released soon under Senate Bill 1421, the new police transparency law. The police department says it has located at least one document, an excessive force complaint, and is checking for others.
Bergen admitted he was a criminal cop, but claimed he was far from alone. He said he routinely saw colleagues shake down drug dealers and that then-chief Leonard Castiglione made it clear to officers excessive force would be swept under the rug.
“I rationalized it. I felt I was doing the city a service,” Bergen said, according to the transcript. He later added, “I witnessed officers breaking the law all the time … it just became normalized for me.”
Former Pittsburg city Councilman Pete Longmire — a retired Pittsburg motorcycle cop from that era — said Bergen’s depiction wasn’t in line with the police force he knew. He and Elzie arrested Bergen for the store robberies in 1988.
“That’s not how it was. I have no knowledge of that. I can’t agree to that whatsoever, and I don’t think anyone from that era would say there was a lot of lawlessness in law enforcement,” Longmire said. “I never saw anyone busting skulls or breaking the law. People go to jail for that stuff, especially under the color of authority.”
Bergen was a rising star in the Pittsburg Police Department when an April 1988 excessive force complaint forced him to go on leave. It proved to be the loose thread that unraveled the whole sweater; when authorities dug deeper, they discovered Bergen had completely gone rogue.
That led to a scandal of epic proportions. Bergen was arrested and convicted of store robberies in 1988, then along with Elzie was indicted for Kempf’s murder years later. In 1995, he was tried and convicted thanks to testimony of his cohorts, including Elzie, who testified as part of a plea deal that allowed him a 12-year prison term.
To this date, it is the only time an officer has been arrested for a fatal shooting in Contra Costa County, according to several law enforcement sources.
Bergen’s recent confession was not enough to convince the parole board he deserved freedom. The board noted the brutal nature of the crime, his disciplinary history including violence and drug dealing in prison, and his unwillingness to accept full responsibility, for example claiming he “shot over” Kempf and deliberately missed her.
Prosecutors say each of the four robbers — members of what authorities call the “Bergen Gang” — shot Kempf at least once, so they would all be equally culpable in the crime.
“Cindy was fun, funny, adventurous and caring,” Kempf’s sister, Jennifer Meyer, told the parole board. “In the following weeks, it was hard for me to understand how the birds could keep singing, how people could keep smiling, talking. I mean, did the world not understand what had just happened?”
Attempts to reach Elzie for comment were unsuccessful.

A double life

Bergen told the parole board he and his siblings grew up in an abusive household in Southern California where “we raised ourselves.” As youngsters they drank, used cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, PCP, and LSD, and even committed home burglaries, stealing a gun in one break-in. One of those landed Bergen in Juvenile Hall.
When he got out, he joined the U.S. Navy as a young adult, but quickly grew tired of that, saying he wished he had joined the Marines instead. He went AWOL, was dishonorably discharged, and then bounced from odd job to odd job.
In 1983, after moving to the Bay Area, he applied to police departments and was accepted. Current Pittsburg police Chief Brian Addington — who joined the force years after Bergen left — wonders how Bergen’s hiring was approved, given his past. He called Bergen a “stain on the profession” and “the worst of the worst in society.”
“How he got into ranks of the police department is astounding,” Addington said. “Today we have a very rigorous hiring process: They take a polygraph, they’re thoroughly vetted, they have to pass psychological medical examinations. … We don’t have a single officer here with a dishonorable discharge, I’ll tell you that.”
But in those early years, Bergen said he excelled at his job.
“I felt like I had found my calling in life and actually enjoyed it … helping people, um, ironically, making my community safer,” he said. “I finally felt like I was doing something meaningful and my life up to that point had been meaningless.”
Longmire remembers those days well. He said he was once good friends with Bergen and Elzie, describing the latter as a popular cop with a bright future. They appeared to be “good, solid cops,” but as the years went on, he noticed they were more closed off and started keeping their distance from others, he said.
“Now I know why,” Longmire added.
Bergen and Elzie’s crimes started with a home invasion robbery of a heroin dealer in the late 1980s. Later, Bergen said he helped Elzie commit a shooting at the home of Elzie’s ex-girlfriend. No one was struck by gunfire.
“I never thought of myself as a criminal. … Even after I committed crimes and came to prison, I still thought myself as just someone that, you know, went outside the law,” Bergen said.
The store and restaurant robberies followed, with help from Bergen’s brother and Salguero. The targets included a Domino’s Pizza in Pittsburg, a Red Lobster in Sacramento, and a fancy eatery in Lafayette, to name a few.
They plotted to rob a local Safeway, too, where Bergen and Salguero moonlighted as security guards. Kempf worked there as an assistant manager, a position she had earned through hard work after starting as a bagger. She had once caught them falsifying timecards and reported them for it, Bergen said.

The plan was for Salguero to kidnap her, take her to the store and force her to open the safe. It didn’t work. They attempted once at a gas station, but failed, regrouped, and tried again weeks later. This time, they handcuffed Kempf, blindfolded her and took her to the store.
There, Bergen claims he got cold feet and lied to his cohorts, saying he heard a policeman approaching and they needed to abort the mission. But they all decided Kempf had seen too much. They took her to a deserted field in Brentwood, forced her to crawl while blindfolded, and everyone took turns shooting her.
“They dishonored all of the good and honorable police officers who work hard each and every day to keep the streets safe … someone that cold and callous in my opinion does not change who he is in the depth of his soul,” Kempf’s mother, Merline Plants, said at the hearing. “What he did the night of March 14, 1988, changed my family’s lives forever.”