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Oct. 6, 2010
For murdering his pregnant wife and unborn son, Scott Peterson became one of the most reviled husbands in the annals of crime.
by Denise Noe
Laci Peterson is missing!
On Christmas Eve, 2002, Scott Peterson called police to report that his 27-year-old wife, Laci Peterson, was missing from their one-story, ranch-style Modesto, California home. Laci was seven and a half months pregnant. Doctors had given her a due date of February 10, 2003. A sonogram had shown the fetus to be a boy; the parents planned to name him Conner.
When the police arrived, Peterson told them he left home alone that morning for a fishing trip to the Berkeley Marina in the San Francisco Bay, 85 miles to the west. He said his wife told him she intended to walk their golden retriever in a nearby park and then shop. “Scott Peterson asserted that he had returned home to find Laci’s Land Rover in the driveway of their Modesto, California, home, and the couple’s golden retriever, McKenzie, in the backyard, alone, with his leash on,” according to forensic psychiatrist Keith Ablow in his book, Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson.
Before calling police, Peterson called his mother-in-law, Sharon Rocha, and said Laci was “missing.” Mrs. Rocha thought her son-in-law sounded strangely calm for a man whose wife’s whereabouts were unknown.
Police searched the Peterson home. “When Modesto police officers John Evers, Matt Spurlock, and Sergeant Byron Duerfield visited the Peterson home on Covena Avenue the next day, they found no hard evidence of foul play,” Ablow reported. “The place was decked out for Christmas, with a glittering tree in one corner of the dining room, and presents piled high. The living room was nice and neat, furnished with overstuffed furniture. Leftover pizza was sitting in an open box on the kitchen counter: There was no evidence of a struggle.”
There were things that aroused the officers’ curiosity. Two mops leaned against a wall outside the back of the house and a bucket was close to them. The “sidewalk” area nearby was wet. A crumpled throw rug lay near the back door.
Peterson said Laci had been cleaning just before he left for his fishing trip. He speculated that their cat and McKenzie had scrunched up the rug. As he gave this explanation, he straightened the rug out before the officers had time to ask him to leave it untouched as possible evidence.
Catherine Crier, in A Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation, writes, “The officers also walked through the nursery, with its deep blue walls and nautical theme. A small white crib was set up against one wall, its mattress covered with new baby clothes. Miniature sailboats dangled from the ceiling, and a decorative life preserver hung on the wall bearing the greeting ‘Welcome Aboard!’”
The officers, like Sharon Rocha before them, thought Peterson’s cool demeanor strange under the circumstances. There were other oddities: Detective Al Brocchini recalled in an interview published in People that “when we questioned him a couple of hours after he got home, he didn’t know what [type of fish] he was fishing for or what bait he was using.”
Crier reports that Brocchini walked into the bedroom where he “noticed an indentation that spanned the width of the bed, as though a body had been laid out there . . . a crime scene photographer later captured the suspicious impression on film.”
Peterson accompanied Detective Brocchini and Officer Evers to police headquarters to provide a tape-recorded statement.
After Peterson left, members of Laci’s family congregated at his and Laci’s home.
“The Rocha family and their friends set up a command center at the local Red Lion Hotel and put together a $100,000 reward for information leading to Laci’s safe return. Sharon Rocha, her husband, Ron Grantski [Laci’s stepfather], and Jackie and Lee Peterson [Peterson’s mother and father] appeared on the news and gave press conferences every chance they could, getting the word out that Laci was missing,” according to Ablow.
Peterson made no appearances requesting information about the whereabouts of his wife. According to Ablow, Peterson ascribed his reluctance to grant interviews would “take the focus off Laci, and put it on him.” As the days passed, Peterson did not call police for updates on the investigation.
When investigators interviewed the Petersons’ neighbors, next-door neighbor Karen Servas told them that she had been backing her car out of the driveway about 10 a.m. when she spotted a golden retriever with its leash dangling. She got out of her car and checked the dog’s tags to find it was McKenzie. The Petersons’ back gate was unlocked so Servas left the dog in their yard.
In the days following Christmas 2002, volunteers distributed flyers throughout Modesto offering a $500,000 reward for information leading to the safe return of Laci Peterson. Two photographs of the pretty, dark-haired woman illustrated the flyers. One was a close-up. The other was a longer-range picture of her in a red pantsuit of shimmering material with her hands folded over her obviously pregnant abdomen. In both photographs, her face is lit up by a beaming grin.
“On New Year’s Eve, as more than a thousand people held a candlelight vigil for Laci, Scott was careful to stay away from the cameras. He avoided joining his family and Laci’s when they stood on the podium and spoke to the crowd,” Ablow reports.
Suspicion and “sis”
Detectives and divers searched in and near the San Francisco Bay for Laci on January 11 and 12, 2003, but were unable to come up with anything.
During the second week of January, Peterson asked his half-sister, Anne Bird, if he could stay with her and her husband at their Berkeley, California home. She allowed him to temporarily move in. “You can’t believe what it’s like down there,” a grateful Peterson said. “I’m basically a prisoner of my own face.”
Bird and Peterson had not grown up together. Anne was a few years older and, unlike Peterson, she had been born out of wedlock. Their mutual mother, Jackie Peterson (previously Jackie Latham), had given Anne up for adoption. Peterson and Anne had met as adults but were now very fond of each other.
When Peterson first arrived, Bird noticed that he was growing a goatee. The two of them were watching a TV news program that featured the search for Laci. Peterson turned to Bird and rubbed his chin. He asked, “So what do you think, sis? You think I should get rid of this thing?”
She answered, “It looks okay to me.” However, Anne Bird writes in Blood Brother: 33 Reasons My Brother Scott Peterson Is Guilty, “I wasn’t really thinking about the goatee, but I was wondering why he was thinking about it. Scott sat there watching himself on TV, listening to reporters talking about his missing wife, dissecting the case, scrambling for new developments . . . and he seemed more interested in his new facial hair than in the search for his wife.”
The next day a babysitter came to help Bird with her children. Bird observed Peterson instantly flirting with the young woman and was again struck by how inappropriate his behavior seemed for a man whose pregnant wife was missing.
That evening another news program featured a story about the search for Laci. Bird noticed that Peterson showed no interest.
Amber Frey comes forward and Peterson talks to the press
A Fresno single mother named Amber Frey phoned Modesto police on December 30, six days after Laci was reported missing. She said she had been having an affair with Scott Peterson, adding that he had called her on December 29 as well as that day, pursuing his romance with her even as people frantically searched for his wife.
Back on November 20, 2002, Peterson met the blond, attractive massage therapist. They were introduced by Amber’s best friend, Shawn Sibley. A month prior to this meeting, Peterson had been having drinks with Sibley – who believed him to be single. Since Sibley was in a relationship and wore an engagement ring, Peterson apparently did not think it worthwhile to woo her. He complained that he was tired of “bimbos” and searching for an intelligent woman with whom he “could spend the rest of his life.”
Peterson told Amber Frey that he sold fertilizer. She found him charming and slept with him on their first date.
Peterson phoned Frey the next day and made it clear he did not want this relationship to be a one-night stand. He soon met her 20-month old daughter, Ayiana. “She is so incredibly cute,” Peterson gushed. On a later visit, he presented Aiyana with a Christmas pop-up book. Shortly after that, Peterson picked Ayiana up from her pre-school.
Frey said that she, Ayiana, and Peterson enjoyed a picnic on December 2, 2002. “He couldn’t stop grinning at me and Ayiana. ‘Look at me,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a rigor mortis smile.’”
One of the puzzles of the Scott Peterson case is Peterson’s enthusiastic embrace of Ayiana. Observers tend to believe, as the prosecution would argue at Peterson’s trial, that he killed Laci to escape fatherhood. However, prior to Laci’s death, he ran from the specter of dirty diapers to the reality of them when he courted the single mother of a child not yet 2 years old. Perhaps he did not feel as “tied” to a child who was not his.
According to Amber Frey’s book Witness: For the Prosecution of Scott Peterson, the first sign Frey received that something was amiss with her new suitor occurred on December 6 when Sibley called her and said that someone who claimed he had previously met Peterson knew he was married and lived in Modesto. Sibley told Frey that she had confronted Peterson by saying, “Tell me I didn’t set my best friend up on a date with a married man?!” When told the reason for the outraged question, Peterson responded, “That’s crazy! It must be another Scott Peterson.” Later Peterson began weeping and said, “I’m sorry I lied to you. It’s just – I lost my wife. It’s been very hard for me. I haven’t fully dealt with it yet.”
An embarrassed Sibley stammered, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry, Scott. I had no idea.” Then Peterson pled, “I beg you: don’t tell Amber. I really care for Amber and I don’t want to screw this up. Let me tell her myself.”
Two days later, Peterson visited Frey and haltingly told her the story of how he had “lost” his wife. Later Frey plaintively asked, “Can I trust you with my heart?” Peterson ambiguously answered, “You know the answer to that already.” In other conversations, Peterson assured her he was “completely monogamous” and that it would be “totally appropriate” for Frey to describe him as her boyfriend.
On December 29, another friend called Frey and said he was certain her Scott Peterson was a man about whom he had startling information: “He’s married, and his wife is missing, and there’s been a huge search under way since last week.” Frey reports that she prayed, “Please God, tell me it’s not the same Scott Peterson.”
This accusation prompted Frey to call the Modesto police. The police confirmed that her Scott Peterson was the man with the missing wife. She also learned that his wife had been seven-and-a-half months pregnant. Frey immediately agreed to cooperate with authorities, including wearing a wire when she spoke to Peterson.
On the first tape, Peterson told Frey he was flying to France on a business trip. In reality, he was in Modesto, having recently been interviewed by detectives. The next day, the last day of 2002, he called and lied that he was at a New Year’s celebration near the Eiffel Tower.
Frey assured Peterson that she did not follow the news. On January 6, 2003, Peterson broke what he thought was news to her, admitting he had lied about traveling and was married to a woman named Laci who “disappeared just before Christmas.” He added, “For the past two weeks I’ve been in Modesto with her family and mine and searching for her. . .”
Frey asked if he had been “having conversations with me when all this is happening?”
“Yeah,” he acknowledged.
“Really? Isn’t that a little twisted, Scott?”
“It is,” he agreed.
On further recordings, Peterson always denied involvement in his wife’s disappearance but he sometimes spoke of her in the past tense.
Detectives informed both the Peterson and Rocha families about Peterson’s relationship with Frey on January 15, 2004. According to People, when Peterson’s mother-in-law was shown a photograph of Peterson and Frey together, “Sharon buried her head in her hands and said, ‘Why did he have to kill her?’”
On January 24, 2003, Frey went public about her relationship with Peterson at a police news conference. The professional massage therapist also stated that he had told her he was single.
When Bird asked Peterson about Frey, he told her, “She’s nothing. It was just a fling. Down and dirty. It meant nothing.”
“Did Laci know?” Bird asked.
“Yes!” Peterson replied. He added that his wife had been “pissed off” but would “get through it. She’s been through it before.”
In an interview Peterson gave to reporter Gloria Gomez, he claimed that throughout the days since Laci’s disappearance that he had been experiencing “a range of emotions, from anger to frustration to grief.” Asked why he went fishing on the morning of Christmas Eve, he insisted that he and Laci had “separate pursuits . . . It’s the way our relationship works.” Gomez asked about Frey, “I’m glad she did the press conference. I’m glad that’s out there. It had nothing to do with Laci’s disappearance,” Peterson answered.
Diane Sawyer interviewed Peterson on “Good Morning America” on January 28, 2003. Peterson called his marriage “glorious” and Laci “amazing.” He claimed he had informed Laci of the affair with Frey and that the couple was working through the emotional upheaval it had caused.
Sawyer asked, “Do you really expect people to believe that an eight-and-a-half month [sic: Laci’s pregnancy was seven-and-a-half months] pregnant woman learns her husband has had an affair and is saintly and casual about it, accommodating, makes a peace with it?”
“No one knows our relationship but us,” Peterson said.
“I think everybody at home wants the answer to the same question: ‘Did you murder your wife?’”
“No, I did not,” Peterson said. “And I had absolutely nothing to do with her disappearance. And you use the word ‘murder,’ and right now everyone is looking for a body. And that is the hardest thing because that is not a possible resolution for us. To use the word ‘murder’ and – yes, and that is a possibility. It’s not one we’re ready to accept, and it creeps in my mind late at night and early in the morning and during the day all we can think about is the right resolution is to find her.”
Investigators continued working the case through February and March but the major break came with gruesome discoveries in April 2003.
Bodies wash up on the shore
“It likely was the weekend storm that roiled the San Francisco Bay and dredged from its deep waters two ghastly specters, a People article entitled “A Deadly Mystery” speculated.” On April 13, 2003, a dog walker came across the badly decomposed body of a not-quite-full-term male fetus in a grassy area close to the shore.
The next day, in an area a little over a mile away, someone caught sight of the decomposed body of a woman washed up on rocks. As a result of the body’s being submerged in San Francisco Bay for over three months, it was missing its head, arms and legs beneath the knees.
The location of the bodies pointed ominously to Peterson because they had been found only three miles north of the Berkeley Marina, the site where he had claimed to have spent the morning fishing on the day of Laci’s disappearance.
Although DNA tests had not yet established beyond doubt that the recovered bodies were Laci and her fetus, Peterson was arrested on suspicion of murder on April 18, 2003. By then he had dyed his hair blonde and grown a goatee. According to an article in the Crime/Punishment section of About.com, among the items found in his car was a driver’s license belonging to his brother, John Edward Peterson, about $15,000 in cash, and 12 tablets of Viagra. There was also a considerable amount of camping equipment including an axe, a hammock, a fishing rod and reel, and a camp kit that held cooking utensils and rope.
Prosecutors announced they would seek a special circumstance of double homicide, which could carry the death penalty upon conviction. They hadn’t decided, however, whether they would seek the death penalty.
Peterson’s attorney, Kirk McAllister, said his client still hoped Laci and his son would be found alive.
Just before April 21, 2003, when Peterson was formally charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances, DNA testing had established that the female body that had washed up on the San Francisco Bay was that of Laci Peterson and that the fetus was hers. It had also established that Scott Peterson was the father.
Peterson entered pleas of not guilty.
Scott Peterson’s mother: The background of murder, abandonment, and babies given up for adoption
Many people took a close look at the background of Scott Peterson. His troubled family history was marred by a violent death followed by serial abandonment and babies given up for adoption.
On December 23, 1945, Peterson’s maternal grandfather, John H. Latham, had been beaten to death, his head crushed by a three-foot length of metal pipe. His killer took Latham’s wallet and emptied out the cash drawer of his tire store. Latham’s body was discovered the next day on Christmas Eve.
Robert Sewell, 28, was the culprit. Latham had fired Sewell two days before the murder. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he died in San Quentin – the same prison at where Scott Peterson sits on death row for crimes committed at or just before Christmas Eve decades after the discovery of his grandfather’s murdered body on a Christmas Eve.
Understandably distraught after her husband’s sudden and violent death, widow Leeta Helen Hixon-Latham found herself unable to care for her four children. She placed them in an orphanage run by Roman Catholic nuns called the Nazareth House. Peterson’s mother, Jacqueline (Jackie) Helen Latham, was only 2 years old at the time.
Little Jackie rarely saw her three brothers because children were segregated by sex at the Nazareth House. Her mother visited once a week.
One of her brothers, James Latham, compared the Nazareth House to a “prison” and said another brother ran away from it three times. Ablow quotes alumni of the Nazareth House as recalling that the nuns there were “brutal” and “beat” the children with “big sticks.” James Latham indicates that as girls reached puberty, the nuns tried to ensure that they would not appear sexually tempting: “If the girls were pretty the nuns cut their hair and tried to make them ugly.” There are also reports of sexual abuse by the nuns and by priests at the adjoining parish.
Jackie has denied that Nazareth House affected her negatively. She said, “I felt fortunate that I had a roof over my head, three meals a day, and was educated.”
When Jackie was 13, Leeta was sick and asked her daughter to come home. Jackie cared for her mother until her mother’s death shortly after Jackie graduated from high school.
That same year, Jackie became pregnant and gave birth in 1963. Her boyfriend abandoned her and the baby. Jackie gave her first son up for adoption.
In 1964, Jackie gave birth to a girl sired by a different man. That man also abandoned her and she again gave a baby up for adoption.
She had a baby in 1966 and was once again abandoned. She planned to give this baby up as well but a pediatrician persuaded her to break her pattern of having babies and relinquishing them. She kept John, raising him as a single mother.
Then she met Lee Peterson, a man employed at a trucking company who had three children from a previous marriage and who lived with his ex-wife. Lee Peterson broke the pattern of abandonment and married Jackie.
A new career followed marriage. Ablow reports, “Jackie bought a little dress shop in La Jolla called ‘The Put On.’”
The boy who looked forward to “great things and good deads”
Scott Lee Peterson was delivered by cesarean section on October 24, 1972, one year into the marriage, when his brother John was 6 years old. “Shortly after birth, Scott contracted pneumonia and needed to be separated from his mother. He was placed in a plastic chamber that delivered oxygen and controlled humidity and air pressure. His life was at risk,” Ablow recounts.
Many years later John recalled, “My first memory is of Scott in the hospital: He was sick so I was not allowed to see him.”
This early separation from his mother or any normally physically affectionate caregiver cannot have been good. Ablow writes, “…isolation under a plastic dome, with the cold reality of masked nurses and doctors peering at you, their eyes filled with worry that you will die, your body pierced unpredictably and uncontrollably by needles” may have caused a cascade of anxiety and despair that imprinted negatively on the infant’s mind.
The baby recovered and went home. Three children from Lee’s previous marriage often visited on weekends. Jackie cheerfully called her blended family “the Brady Bunch,” after the popular sitcom. With Lee Peterson operating a shipping and packing business, the Petersons enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle. Nothing abnormal sticks out about Scott Peterson as he grew up. He was such a quiet baby and toddler that his parents once forgot he was with them in a restaurant and walked out without him, Ablow reports. By age 5, Peterson was taking golf lessons. In the fifth grade he was crossing guard at his school. In the eighth grade, his classmates voted him the friendliest student.
His mother thought of him as her “golden boy.” Lee Peterson told Ablow. “We never had to swat him or anything. Ever. We just told him what to do and he did it. He just wanted to please. He was never in a fight, never said a bad word in front of us about anyone. He never had a single run-in with authority.”
As a teenager, Peterson impressed people as even-tempered and well disciplined. He earned good grades and tutored homeless people in his spare time. He also manifested a tendency to stretch the truth. He led his high school golf teammates to believe that he had won a golf scholarship when he had not. Some believe he may have learned to substitute fantasy for reality from his mother. Anne Bird has commented, “It is very, very easy for her to make up stories, dates, insist things happened that never did. . . She tries to change facts to suit her.” Ablow quotes a source as saying about Jackie, “You never get a straight answer from her . . . You could get different answers to the very same question at different times.”
In his high school yearbook entry, Peterson wrote: “In the future great things and good deads await all of us.” This might have been a typo but it would ring true soon enough.
After high school, Peterson enrolled at Arizona State University, but left after one semester. He returned home where he worked with his father at San Diego Crating. He attended Cuesta Junior College in San Luis Obispo and moved out of his parents’ house.
Peterson transferred to California Polytechnic State University, also in San Luis Obispo, in 1994, majoring in agriculture. While there, he asked Laci Rocha, a vivacious former high school cheerleader who sported a colorful sunflower tattooed on her left ankle, for a date. Laci was majoring in ornamental horticulture, learning how to use plants and flowers to beautify the grounds around homes and buildings.
Laci, according to her mother, was so taken with Peterson that she told her before their first date that she hoped to marry him. Peterson, likewise, according to Ablow, was smitten, telling his parents the first time he introduced Laci to them, “I hope this is the future Mrs. Peterson.”
On their first date, Peterson took Laci on a fishing trip and she became seasick. On their last encounter, he took her on a fishing trip and dumped her body in San Francisco Bay.
Laci: A people person
The couple were engaged just before Christmas 1994 and moved in together just before Christmas 1995.
Laci was born in 1975, the second child of Sharon and Dennis Rocha. That marriage ended when Laci was only a year old and her father left. Crier writes that Laci and her father “had little contact, mostly on holidays and family events.”
Laci’s weekends as a child were often spent with her paternal grandparents, Helen and Robert Rocha, on their dairy farm in Escalon, California.
Sharon Rocha married Ron Grantski and he became stepfather to Laci and her older brother Brent.
As a child, Laci became severely ill. Doctors discovered an eight-pound tumor in her abdomen. During surgery, one of her fallopian tubes had to be removed. Doctors assured Laci’s mother that Laci would have no problem becoming pregnant with only one fallopian tube.
High school is a notoriously difficult time when teens frequently experience ostracism and persecution from their peers, but Laci’s inherent friendly personality made her extremely popular. Outgoing and energetic, she played softball and basketball, was a member of several clubs, and was a cheerleader for Pop Warner Football. She also held part-time jobs in a market, a restaurant, and a doctor’s office.
Sharon Rocha described her daughter as “headstrong.” She was also extremely talkative and had earned the nickname “J.J.” for “Jabber Jaws.” Crier recounts a story Grantski related to Today’s Katie Couric that illustrated his stepdaughter’s motor mouth. The family took a trip to caverns near Sonora. Ron recalled, “She was talking all the way up there and I said, ‘Laci, do you think you could be quiet for 30 seconds?’” Laci cheekily replied, “Sure. How long is 30 seconds? Is it thirty seconds yet?”
In college, the ornamental horticulture major worked in a flower shop and later a winery. Laci was named Outstanding Freshman of the Year at Cal Poly.
Before meeting Peterson, she cohabited with a high school sweetheart named William “Kent” Gain. Gain physically abused her. He later attempted to murder another girlfriend and was sent to prison in Washington State.
During her relationship with Peterson, the couple frequently visited Peterson’s parents. Laci planted a flower garden at the Petersons’ home.
Laci greatly admired Martha Stewart and sought to pattern herself after the famous domestic diva. Always a people person and generous with her time and efforts, she enjoyed baking special birthday cakes for her friends and surprising them with gifts which she carefully wrapped so as to make their trappings eye-catching.
The wedding and then the affairs
Peterson and Laci’s wedding took place on August 9, 1997. Laci looked even lovelier than usual in her sleeveless, square-necked white wedding gown. Her hair was swept up with an intricately beautiful headpiece and flowing white veil. At the reception, a beaming Peterson raised a toast to his in-laws to thank Sharon and Ron for raising the “perfect daughter.”
Anne Bird did not meet Laci until after she married Peterson. She was quite taken by Laci, “I couldn’t get over how pretty she was . . . the porcelain-like skin, the dark eyes with those thick, perfect lashes, and that huge, dimpled smile.” Bird found Laci’s personality “full of love, warmth, energy, and enthusiasm for life and for people.” She also found Laci “a big talker” because “she was just bubbling over with energy.”
Although Peterson and Laci had lived together before they married, they lived apart for a period shortly after it. Laci worked in Prundale, California and Peterson attended school in Morro Bay, California. He lived off-campus with three male roommates. Peterson started a romance with Cal Poly sophomore Janet Ilse. Uncharacteristically for someone pursuing an extramarital affair, he asked to meet Janet’s parents.
Janet went to Peterson’s place one night and one of his roommates let her in. What followed was an odd reversal of a classic scene: The girlfriend walked in on the boyfriend with his wife.
Crier reports that Peterson was calm, gazing in cool silence at Ilse who furiously berated him.
That was the end of Peterson and Ilse but not of Peterson and Laci who apparently was willing to forgive for the sake of continuing the marriage.
In 1998, Peterson began another romance with another Cal Poly student. Her name was Katy Hansen. Peterson told her he was unmarried. Laci moved in with Peterson in San Luis Obispo while he was dating Hansen.
When Hansen spotted Laci placing a lei of flowers around Peterson’s neck and kissing him at the Cal Poly graduation ceremony, Hansen dropped Peterson.
Laci was hired as a banquet coordinator at the Sycamore Springs Resort. Peterson became a partner in his father’s crating company.
The couple frequently entertained. As Crier notes, “She was passionate about good food, and hosted dinner parties with fancy food and expensive wines.” Laci received a great deal of enjoyment from providing friends and family with enjoyment. Crier quotes a friend as saying, “Laci wanted to be sure, each and every time we were all together, that we would have fun. Laci not only taught us proper etiquette, but how to laugh. And not just giggle, but to laugh loud and often.”
Anne Bird was impressed because she found that Laci had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of flowers. Bird recalls an incident in which Laci urged, “Look at these incredible pansies! Aren’t these the most beautiful pansies you’ve ever seen?” Anne had not previously given much thought to flowers but under Laci’s influence and tutelage, Anne says that she too “fell in love with flowers.”
Once Laci complemented Anne on having set the outdoor tables for a family lunch in precisely the right manner. “With Laci, it wasn’t about being snobby,” Bird said. It was about doing things properly. She loved detail. She would have made Martha Stewart proud, imposing order and beauty on everything she touched.”
Peterson and Laci decided to go into the restaurant business and opened a small restaurant in San Luis Obispo near the Cal Poly campus that they titled “The Shack” that featured hamburgers and sandwiches as well as beer and wine. They ran this business for about two years. It was not a big money maker and they were dissatisfied with the amount of work it required so they sold it.
Financially hard-pressed, they left San Luis Obispo and lived with Laci’s mother and step-father for a couple of weeks in Modesto, the city in which Laci had been raised. Then in October of 2000, Jackie and Lee Peterson handed their son and Laci a $30,000 gift for a down payment on their own home in Modesto.
In Modesto, Laci worked as a substitute teacher. Peterson began working for Tradecorp, selling fertilizer and other agricultural products to farmers and flower growers, a job that kept him away from home at least one day a week.
After Laci’s disappearance, he told investigators that the division of Tradecorp for which he worked had lost a great deal of money over the last year. Documents uncovered by investigators showed that it had indeed been anything but profitable.
The planned pregnancy and the panicked paterfamilias
Laci yearned to start a family. After two years of marriage, the couple considered taking fertility tests, but before they moved on that, Laci learned she was pregnant. “She was overjoyed, and Scott seemed to share her feelings. Laci’s mother recalled watching Scott hurry over to feel Laci’s stomach when she said the baby was kicking. He seemed as excited as she was,” Crier recounted in her book. Peterson even went with Laci to appointments with her obstetrician.
After Laci’s death, her sister-in-law, Rosemarie Rocha, told police that Peterson had confided, “I was kind of hoping for infertility.”
A social drinker, Laci cut out alcohol when she learned she was pregnant. She started attending a maternity yoga class during November 2002. Anne Bird told Crier that the pregnant Laci looked “radiant.” However, in the later stages of pregnancy, Laci frequently complained of exhaustion.
Both Peterson and Laci splurged to decorate the nursery. Laci quit her paid job and made it clear that she wanted to work only in the home as a stay-at-home mom.
By all accounts, Laci was dominant in the Peterson household. Crier reports that a source described Laci “interrupting Scott when he was speaking and directing him to take out the trash in front of company.” Crier also writes that Laci’s stepfather, Ron Grantski, thought Peterson “did too much around the house” and feared that his wife “might expect the same from him.”
In general, a woman’s pregnancy can throw her partner into crisis. In her book, Crier cites a 2001 study conducted by doctors at the Maryland Department of Health and Medical Hygiene that found homicide to be the leading cause of death among pregnant women.
Psychiatrist Ablow observes that even for psychologically healthy men, “having a child can cause severe anxiety. Men feel they must say loudly and frequently how excited they are to become fathers, but in the privacy of my office, many also admit how frightened they are . . . A few even admit, in tears, that they wish something would ‘happen’ to the baby.”
Peterson never explained why he murdered Laci when he did. One possible reason could have been that although he found the idea of fathering a child and becoming a “family man” attractive in the abstract, he found it increasingly threatening as Laci’s pregnancy advanced.
Why so reviled?
As soon as Scott Peterson became a suspect, he became the target of public revulsion.
Anne Bird writes that shortly after Peterson’s arrest, she was in the grocery store when she saw two women looking at a National Enquirer article about her brother. One of them said, “I can’t believe that monster killed his wife and baby. He makes me sick.”
The other woman said, “He should be put straight to death. They should just skip the trial.”
The New York Post ran a cover story of Peterson in an orange jail jumpsuit with his hands bound entitled “Monster in Chains.”
When Bird visited Peterson in jail, the mention of his name led everyone in the room to immediately turn to stare at her.
With murder being the most common cause of death for pregnant women, why was Peterson so vilified?
Much of the explanation for this lies in Laci having gone missing rather than immediately being known as killed. This focused attention on the case for an extended period of time before her body was discovered. As a result, the public learned of Peterson’s behavior and was mystified by it. As Ablow notes, “His behavior seems outside the bounds of comprehension. How does a young man, with no seeming provocation (although it certainly existed in his own mind), commit the premeditated killing of his wife and unborn child? How could he then entertain his girlfriend with fanciful adventures or head to the golf course while those around him were enveloped in grief?”
Change of venue granted: Redwood City
Concerned about the possibly prejudicial effects of the publicity swirling around the case, Judge Al Girolami imposed a gag order on the trial participants on June 12, 2003.
In December 2003 and January 2004, the Peterson attorneys requested a change of venue. A FOXNews.com article reports, “Peterson’s lawyer argued that he had been demonized in the Modesto area, citing vandalism of his house, crowds yelling ‘Murderer!’ outside the jail and T-shirts sold with Peterson’s likeness and the motto: ‘Modesto, a killer place to live.’”
Judge Al Girolami granted the defense motion and moved the trial 90 miles to Redwood City in San Mateo County in the San Francisco Bay area. In giving this ruling, Girolami stated, “I’m satisfied we can get a fair and impartial jury in San Mateo.”
On February 2, 2004, Judge Alfred Delucchi barred cameras from the courtroom. A jury of six men and six women was seated by May 27, 2004.
The trial began on June 1. Mark Geragos headed up the defense. His co-counsel was Pat Harris. Stanislaus County prosecutors Rick DiStaso and Dave Harris appeared for the state.
DiStaso gave the prosecution’s opening statement in what Crier describes as a “low-key” style. He spent much of it reviewing Peterson’s behavior on December 24, 2002 and why it had raised red flags in the minds of the investigators. He said Peterson’s assertion that he had left home at 9:30 a.m. would be disproved because cell phone records would show he had been near his house at 10 a.m. He also claimed that Peterson had lied when he said he, along with Laci, had watched Martha Stewart that morning. He based this assertion of the report of Detective Al Brocchini, who had viewed the program in question and wrote that, contrary to Peterson’s recollection, there had been no mention of “meringue” in that show. This would prove a major embarrassment for both Brocchini and the prosecution because Peterson would be proven correct about the mention – but it would ultimately backfire against the defense.
The next morning, Geragos opened for the defense in an unabashedly flamboyant manner. He claimed he would show that his client was “stone cold innocent.” The lawyer freely admitted his client had fibbed and been promiscuous, calling Peterson a “cad” and his behavior “boorish.” However, he continued, “This is a murder case and there has to be evidence in a murder case.”
The defense counsel outlined major points the defense planned to make. They would show that witnesses saw Laci after the time police contended she had been killed. They would call an expert witness to testify that the pregnancy had been carried to term and that would make it impossible for Laci and Conner to have been killed by Peterson who was a subject of constant police scrutiny by the time Laci might have given birth.
“At the close of his opening statement, Geragos swooped in for the kill. Standing with a wide grin in front of two large, flat screen monitors located directly across from the jury box, the lawyer aired the Martha Stewart tape from December 24, 2002. There it was – footage of Stewart discussing meringue cookies with a guest on her Christmas Eve show. Either Brocchini had missed the reference when he reviewed the tape at headquarters that previous spring, or he had misrepresented the evidence during his investigation. Geragos’s decision to play the tape was the opening volley in an aggressive play to paint the investigation as sloppy and improper. And Geragos delighted in turning the knife, by rolling the tape a second time. ‘I played it twice, just in case the Modesto PD couldn’t hear it,’ he remarked sarcastically as the courtroom erupted in laughter,” Crier details in her book.
The point Geragos so gleefully made actually weakened part of the defense case as it narrowed the time frame in which Laci could have gone missing. The meringue mention occurred at 9:48 a.m. and their dog had been found dragging his leash at 10:18 a.m. Thus, the time Peterson could have been away from Laci – had he left her there alive – was only about 28 minutes. That gave only a small window of opportunity for her to have been abducted by someone else while walking the dog.
The prosecution called Peterson housekeeper Margarita Nava. She testified that she had cleaned the Peterson home on December 23, 2002. She also said that when she left the house, she left behind a single mop outside the house and rags inside a bucket that she had left on top of the washing machine. Her testimony meant that it had to be Peterson – or Laci – who was responsible for the two mops and bucket found outside the house and prosecutors hoped other testimony would narrow that down to Peterson in the minds of the jurors.
Laci’s mother, Sharon Rocha, testified that she was certain that if Laci had known of her husband’s romance with Amber Frey, Laci would have told her. On cross-examination, Geragos asked her if Laci had told her mother about Peterson’s affair with Janet Ilse and Rocha replied that she had not.
Called by the state, Rosemarie Rocha, the wife of Laci’s brother Brent, stated that Peterson had said he was “kind of hoping for infertility.” When cross-examined, she conceded that she did not inform police about this statement until after she knew about Peterson’s affair with Amber.
Karen Servas testified to finding the Petersons’ dog running loose and dragging his leash behind him at 10:18 a.m. How did she know the exact time? She said she had retraced her steps to the store and bank. Geragos challenged the accuracy of the timestamp on her store receipt. Later in the trial he showed that the store’s cash register was off by 10 minutes when his team checked it in 2004.
Dr. Tina Endraki, Laci’s gynecologist, testified to Laci’s due date of February 10, 2003. Medical records came in through her showing that Conner’s gestational age on December 23, Laci’s last office visit, had been 32 weeks.
Witnesses testified about the jewelry Laci was wearing on that Christmas Eve. Geragos got it into the record that a Croton wristwatch had been missing since her disappearance. Geragos entered into evidence an exhibit of a receipt for a similar Croton watched pawned in Modesto on December 31, the implication being that Laci had been wearing it when abducted. Another implication would be, if it were Laci’s watch, that Peterson had pawned it.
The prosecution called Peterson’s father, Lee Peterson, to the stand. “I’m proud to say Scott’s my son,” he asserted. When the prosecutor asked him about two phone conversations he had had with his son on December 24, 2002, the senior Peterson admitted that his son never mentioned the boat he had recently purchased or that morning’s fishing trip.
Pathologist Dr. Brian Peterson (no relation to Scott Peterson) took the stand to testify about the autopsies of Laci and Conner. Sharon Rocha left the court as he began testifying. As the grisly photographs were displayed to the court, several jurors were spotted wincing. Tears streamed down Peterson’s usually stoic face.
Dr. Peterson testified that Conner was still in utero when Laci died. He said that the uterus ruptured as Laci decomposed underwater and expelled Conner through the abdominal wall.
Under Geragos’s cross-examination, Dr. Peterson admitted originally finding that Conner was full-term and admitted that he could not rule out the possibility that Conner had drawn breath outside the womb.
It was 34 days into the trial, on August 10, 2004, when Amber Frey took the stand. She testified how Peterson had presented himself as single and later told her in early December that he had “lost” his wife.
The jury heard how, before Laci’s disappearance, that Peterson had spoken optimistically of a future with Frey and her daughter. They also heard how Peterson had told Frey that he wanted no children of his own. They got this information not only from Frey’s testimony but from the tape recorded conversations Frey had with Peterson after she began taping their conversations for authorities on December 31. They also learned how he had told Frey false stories about attending a party in Paris, France, while in reality he attended the candlelight vigil for Laci and Conner.
After the prosecutors finished questioning Frey, Judge Delucchi instructed the defense to “go ahead.”
Geragos said, “No questions, your Honor.”
Courtroom spectators gasped.
A smiling Geragos said, “Just kidding. Trying to lighten it up a little.”
The court burst into laughter.
Geragos brought out that Frey had consumed several drinks on her first date with Peterson. He also brought out that Peterson had said he would be traveling soon. When the defense attorney asked her if Peterson had ever said he loved her, she answered no.
When the defense began its case, it called Dr. Charles March. He testified that Conner had lived at least five days after Christmas Eve and perhaps into January. He said he based that conclusion on Laci’s failing to mention being pregnant at a friend’s baby shower on June 8, 2002. March believed it was only “realistic” to conclude that she had not taken a pregnancy test until the next day when she phoned her friend with the news. March testified that if June 9 was the first day her pregnancy could be detected, the conception date must have been May 26, 2002. This was six days later than that set by the state’s experts. What the defense was hoping to establish is that a later date of conception would give credence to the contention that Conner was older than prosecution witnesses asserted and thus buttress the contention that Laci had been abducted on Christmas Eve but not killed until a later date.
March did not hold up well on cross-examination. When prosecutor Dave Harris pressed him about date discrepancies in his report, March seemed to fold as he plaintively asked the prosecutor to “cut me some slack.”
The defense would call 13 other witnesses, including five police officers who testified they had received secondhand reports about Laci being seen after 10 a.m. on the morning of December 24. However, the defense did not put on the stand any of the people who had called the police.
The defense rested after six days of testimony that woefully failed to live up to Geragos’s initial promise to prove his client “stone cold innocent.”
Closing statements: “A 14-carat-gold asshole”
In his closing statement, Prosecutor DiStaso told the jury, “The defendant went fishing, and Laci Peterson washed ashore, Conner Peterson washed ashore. . .The only person that we know without any doubt was in the exact location where the bodies washed ashore is sitting right there. That alone is proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecutor speculated that Laci had been strangled or smothered to death, her body wrapped in a tarp and placed in the back of Peterson’s truck. DiStaso argued that Peterson wanted Laci and Conner dead because they impinged on his “freedom,” saying, “The reason he killed Laci Peterson was because Conner was on the way.”
Geragos reminded the jury that the trial was not a referendum on the defendant’s character. “I just want to go over to my client here and ask if you hate him?” Geragos asked. “We’ve heard four hours of ‘This guy is the biggest jerk to walk the face of the earth, the biggest liar to ever walk the face of the earth. . .a nd you should hate him, because if you hate him, you’ll convict him.” He went on to deride his client as a “14-carat-gold asshole” for his philandering. However, Geragos asserted that the Peterson marriage “was working” overall. He continued, “I think the stark reality is that this is a guy who literally got caught with his pants down, but he fully expected [Laci] to come home.”
Geragos urged jurors to make their decisions “based on the facts and evidence, not emotion.” He concluded by saying, “The fact of the matter is, beyond any reasonable doubt, Scott Peterson didn’t have anything to do with this. We ask you to return a verdict of not-guilty in this case.”
The prosecution had the final statement. Since Laci and Conner had washed up from the very area in which Peterson had claimed to have taken his Christmas Eve morning fishing trip, DiStaso argued, “There are only two possible things that happened here: Either he killed them and put the bodies in the bay, or someone else did it to frame him.” It would have been difficult to frame him in the period after Christmas Eve since police were in the area searching at the time.
The jury deliberated for slightly over seven hours before it came back with its verdicts: guilty of first-degree murder for killing Laci and guilty of second-degree murder for killing Conner.
Sharon and Brent Rocha wept. Jackie Peterson bowed her head. Scott Peterson showed no reaction.
Life or death?
At the penalty phase of the trial, which began on November 30, 2004 there were only two possible sentences: life without the possibility of parole or death. In arguing for death, prosecutor David Harris stated, “The circumstances of this case are like ripples on water. When the defendant dumped the bodies of his wife and unborn son into the bay, those ripples spread out, and touched many lives.”
Sharon Rocha was undoubtedly the most emotionally powerful witness the prosecution called during the penalty phase. She was asked how the most recent Mother’s Day had been different for her than previous experiences of that day and she answered, “I laid on the floor and I cried most of the day because [Laci] should have been there and she should have been a mother also and that was taken away from her.” Then Sharon looked directly at the impassive defendant and shouted, “She wanted to be a mother! Divorce is always an option, not murder!”
Pat Harris opened for the defense. “We don’t know who Scott Peterson is,” he said. “It will be our job to show you. When we show you the 30 years before this, I think you’ll agree that this is a life worth saving.”
The defense called Lee Peterson. How did he feel about his son? “I have great respect for him,” he stated. “I just love him very much.” He said he had been “frightened, depressed” since the verdict and said he could not “imagine anything worse” than his son receiving a death sentence.
Other family members testified on Peterson’s behalf, as did a high school coach, a Cal Poly professor, and his former boss at a restaurant where he had worked.
Jackie Peterson took the stand and said, “I beg you to consider how he helps people and he can do a lot of good things with his life.” She also said, “He’s always been nurturing and kind.”
The jury deliberated for close to eight and a half hours. When they recommended a death sentence, Peterson remained impassive.
Judge Delucchi followed the jury’s recommendation. According to a CNN Justice article, he sentenced Peterson to die by lethal injection and called the deaths “cruel, uncaring, heartless and callous.”
Peterson’s “isolated monotony” on death row
“Death Row Hell Awaits Scott Peterson” was the title of a People article about his future. Robert Jensen, who had served as a corrections counselor at San Quentin from 1992 to 1998, stated, “You need survival instincts to make it on death row. My gut reaction is he might not make it.”
Former Alameda County prosecutor James Anderson predicted that Peterson “will have to watch his back.” He added, “The only gang he could be in is the Aryan Brotherhood and even those guys wouldn’t like somebody who did in his pregnant wife and unborn child.”
Predictions that Peterson would be a target for his fellow inmates proved wrong. Later accounts, after he had actually spent some time on death row, show that he fits in well with the other men in that negatively exclusive club. According to People’s “Inside Story: Scott Peterson’s Life on Death Row,” by Vickie Bane, a lieutenant with the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin named Samuel Robinson says, “In Scott’s case, the perception [among the inmates] is that he killed his wife, and yeah she was pregnant, but he killed his wife. He hasn’t encountered the challenges others face who have killed kids individually.”
Peterson is locked in a 4-by-9 foot cell for 19 hours a day. Unlike many inmates who put a variety of pictures on their cell walls, Peterson has only one photograph on his. That picture, directly across from his bunk, is of himself and Laci, both of them smiling.
Bane writes that when Peterson is allowed out of his cell and into the yard for five hours each day, he spends the time “shooting hoops, doing pull-ups and playing cards with other inmates.”
Family and friends visit Peterson several times per month. He receives many letters, especially from women who have crushes on him. Those women often send him checks for his commissary account. Bane notes, “Peterson can spend $180 a month on items such as soda, candy, cookies, toothpaste and deodorant.”
A Modesto Bee article by Jeff Jardine entitled “Peterson spends his days in isolated monotony,” reports that officials on death row give condemned prisoners grades of A, B, and C “based on their behavior in captivity.” Jardine noted that Peterson has an A grade.
Jardine quotes death row officer Sgt. Rudy Luna as commenting, “He’s [Peterson] actually pretty well-behaved. He’s very polite. His cell’s clean. He follows the rules. He doesn’t cause any drama. He’s a very boring person as far as being an inmate.”
As are all prisoners sentenced to death in the United States, Peterson has a string of appeals that could well take another 20 years to run their course.
Ablow, Keith. Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson. St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 2005.
Bane, Vickie. “INSIDE STORY: Scott Peterson’s Life on Death Row.” People. 4/11/09.
Bird, Anne. Blood Brother: 33 Reasons My Brother Scott Peterson Is Guilty. ReganBooks. 2005.
“Body Identified as Laci Peterson; Scott Peterson Arrested in San Diego.” FOXNews.com. Published 4/19/03. Accessed 8/20/10.
Crier, Catherine with Thompson, Coles. A Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation. ReganBooks. 2005.
“Death Row Hell Awaits Scott Peterson.” People. 3/17/05.
“Detectives search near bay for missing pregnant woman.” CNN.com. Published 1/12/03. Accessed 8/20/10.
Frey, Amber. Witness: For the Prosecution of Scott Peterson. ReganBooks. 2005.
Hilden, Julie. “The Scott Peterson Trial: Can Prosecutors Win the Case? And If So, How?” FindLaw Legal Commentary. Published 7/20/04. Accessed 8/20/10.
Jardine, Jeff. “Peterson spends his days in isolated monotony.” Modesto Bee. 12/24/07.
“Judge Moves Peterson Trial to San Mateo County.” FOXNews.com. Published 1/20/04. Accessed 8/22/10.
“Key Dates in the Peterson trial.” CNN.com. Published 12/17/04. Accessed 8/20/10.
Montaldo, Charles. “Items Found in Scott Peterson’s Car.” About.Com: Crime/Punishment. Accessed 8/22/10.
“Peterson sentenced to death for wife’s slaying.” CNN Justice. http://articles.cnn.com/2005-03-16/justice/peterson.case_1_brent-rocha-dennis-rocha-scott-peterson?_s=PM:LAW Published 3/17/05. Accessed 9/6/10.
“The Peterson Case: How They Got Scott.” People. May 23, 2005.
“Scott Peterson is cold as fire, bb, hot as ice.” YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fB0tF563yCM.
Tresniowski, Alex. “A Deadly Mystery.” People. April 28, 2003.
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