SAN JOSE -- Relying on notes and some sort of smelling salts to remain calm, the wife of Silicon Valley real estate mogul Clyde Berg finally took the stand Thursday -- after fleeing the witness box the day before -- to accuse her 74-year-old husband of outfitting her with a spiked dog collar and leash last fall, chaining her to a bed for two days and sexually assaulting her with a golf putter while she was nine months pregnant.
For the first time since police found her tied up in a bedroom of the couple's spacious home overlooking the San Jose Country Club, Ellena Berg, 37, offered an explanation for certain puzzling aspects of the case, including how she managed to call 911 with her hands cuffed behind her back and why she didn't try to get help sooner. But she also suffered significant lapses in memory regarding key details that Clyde Berg's attorneys are likely to probe when she resumes testifying Friday.
During her time on the stand Thursday in this highly contentious case, the tall, slender blonde acknowledged that she offered no resistance when her husband allegedly thrust a revolver in her face Sept. 5. She also listed three reasons she didn't try to escape until the end of the second day of her alleged ordeal.
Her submissiveness, she contended, stemmed from the physical and sexual abuse she endured at her husband's hands during their 10-year marriage. She also discussed her father's abuse of her during her childhood and her frequent hospitalizations for severe asthma as a youngster in Sweden, where she learned that resisting authority would result in more pain.
"Mentally, physically, I wasn't there," she said, referring to the moment she says Clyde Berg thrust a revolver in her face and cuffed her. "It's a response system to fear and stress I learned very early."
Skepticism in court
After the purported incident, she filed a 43-page lawsuit seeking punitive damages from Clyde Berg for the alleged physical and sexual abuse during her marriage. The two met when she was working as an au pair for a local family.
Clyde Berg is the brother and business partner of billionaire Carl Berg, one of the richest people in the United States. The brothers developed campuses for many of the valley's signature companies and recently sold their firm for $1.3 billion.
Clyde Berg contends he is a victim of a greedy scam aimed at getting around a restrictive prenuptial agreement and that his wife has mental problems. He is free on $3 million bail, released last year after a judge expressed some skepticism about how Ellena Berg managed to call 911 with her hands cuffed behind her back.
It will be up to Judge Ron M. Del Pozzo to decide if there is sufficient evidence to hold the mogul over for trial. He is charged with two felony counts -- corporal punishment of a spouse and penetration by a foreign object while the victim is tied and bound -- that carry a sentence of more than 15 years to life.
Thursday, Ellena Berg testified that she used a prepaid phone she had hidden under her mattress to call 911. She tucked the phone there because she said her husband was in the habit of confiscating her possessions and she wanted to be able to summon help, particularly because she was pregnant through a sperm donor.
Ellena Berg testified that after two days of being submissive, she decided to retrieve the secret phone because she was terrified he would kill her.
"I decided I had to save my (unborn) daughter," Ellena Berg testified.
So, she described to the court how she slid off the bed, scooted into a kneeling position and pushed her cuffed hands under the mattress.
How on earth did you dial 911, prosecutor Alison Filo asked.
"I counted the keys on the cellphone and I, I, I, I spent a lot of time thinking about it and counting," she said, adding the phone had raised buttons, not a flat screen.
Then she dropped the phone on the floor, she said, and "pushed the send button with my tongue."
Berg appeared to have regained her composure while on the stand, after astonishing the judge and veteran attorneys by striding out of the courtroom Wednesday -- except for one odd moment right before she took the stand.
In a letter she distributed to all the attorneys in the case, including the prosecutor, she complained she was not being treated fairly by anyone, including Filo, who believes Ellena Berg is the victim of a horrific crime. She wasn't even sure she should trust her own attorney, she wrote, whom she hired to help her through the preliminary hearing.
The letter appeared to support concerns expressed by the judge Wednesday, after she dashed out of the courtroom, that she may be "deeply disturbed" and "paranoid."
Late Thursday, Allen Ruby, one of Clyde Berg's attorneys, began cross-examining Ellena Berg, by chipping away at her credibility concerning a generous postnuptial agreement that figures significantly in the criminal case, which she claims her husband signed. Clyde Berg says his signature is a forgery.
Ruby got her to acknowledge that the multimillionaire was extremely stingy, to the point where he would berate her over spending $15 at a carwash. Then he asked her rhetorically if she really thought that Clyde Berg would ever have agreed to such a document, which called for him to pay her $2 million if they divorced, as well as all the expenses accrued by a "known (sperm) donor," who she testified was one of the top ballroom dancers in the state.
"Is it your testimony under oath that Mr. Berg agreed to pay a ballroom dancer to be the donor (without specifying the amount of expenses)?" Ruby said incredulously.
Please contact Tracey Kaplan at 831-227-7166 or via Twitter at @tkaplanreport.