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- May 05, 2003
- Vol. 59
- No. 17
Tears for Laci
After Months of Suspicion, Denials of Guilt, and Revelations of An Extramarital Affair, Scott Peterson Is Arrested for the Brutal Slaying of His Wife and Unborn Child
Silence may be a sensible option; Peterson, 30, certainly has much to answer for. A few hours after his arrest, authorities announced they had identified the bodies of a woman and child who had washed up near the Berkeley Marina in San Francisco Bay as those of Peterson's pregnant wife, Laci, 27, and their unborn child, who was to have been named Conner. That discovery, close to where Scott said he had gone fishing on Christmas Eve, the day Laci vanished, was only the crowning clue in a case that the authorities touted as virtually airtight. "I would call the odds slam dunk that he is going to be convicted," proclaimed California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. For Laci's family the sudden turn of events brought at least some relief after four months of uncertainty. "I love my daughter so much. I miss her every minute of every day," a weeping Sharon Rocha, Laci's mom, said at an emotional press conference on April 21. "My heart aches for her and Conner."
For months investigators had gone out of their way to insist publicly that Scott had not been ruled in or out as a suspect. But by the time the remains of Laci and the baby were found, authorities had Peterson, a fertilizer salesman, under near continuous surveillance, using wiretaps, vehicle tracking devices and teams of agents. Investigators indicated that they finally arrested him out of fear he might flee. Aside from his altered appearance, at the time he was picked up he was also reportedly carrying $10,000 in cash and an ID belonging to one of his brothers and was within 30 miles of the Mexican border.
There is much about this horrific crime that remains in the hands of forensics experts, and prosecutors are keeping a tight lid on the evidence against Peterson, who pleaded not guilty at his arraignment. It is not even clear whether they have an idea how Laci, who had worked as a substitute teacher, and the baby were murdered. The bodies were badly decomposed—authorities did not deny reports that Laci's body was missing the head—and were identified through DNA testing. As to how the baby came to be expelled from the womb: One possible, and grisly, explanation is the phenomenon of "coffin birth," in which the buildup of gases in the mother's decaying flesh forces a postmortem delivery.
Whatever the means, authorities allege that the murders were committed at the Petersons' home in Modesto sometime between the evening of Dec. 23 and Christmas Eve morning. As it happens, a neighbor later reported seeing Scott load something wrapped in a blue tarp into his boat, which was backed up into the driveway, on Christmas Eve day. When questioned, Scott told police he had been taking some backyard umbrellas to his warehouse for storage. The day after Laci's body was found, a black plastic sheet, 42 in. wide and nearly 20 ft. long, washed up in the same area, though investigators do not yet know if it is related to the crime.
Police have also evidently focused on whether concrete blocks were used to weigh down Laci's body. On Dec. 26 they seized Scott's boat, which had been purchased only three weeks before Laci's disappearance, and asked the couple who sold it to him to look the 14-ft. vessel over. The couple noted there was a powdery, cement-like residue that hadn't been there before. Peterson's mother, Jackie, has pointed out that Scott used a concrete anchor, which could account for the residue. All the same, during a search of the Peterson home on Feb. 18, police reportedly removed containers of cement along with 95 items of evidence. According to CNN, authorities have used sonar to pinpoint a spot in San Francisco Bay where the concrete weights may still be lying on the bottom—and will now seek to compare anything they find there with the samples linked to Scott.
Evidence aside, Scott's behavior itself had raised suspicions. There was, for instance, his account of how his wife went missing. He said he had bid Laci goodbye on the morning of Christmas Eve and driven 90 miles to the Berkeley Marina so that he could go fishing for sturgeon. When he returned later that day she was gone. But Jim Cook, a Modesto field representative for a wireless company who often fishes the waters of San Francisco Bay, points out that it would be unusual to go fishing for an enormous fish like sturgeon in such a small craft or to do so in the middle of the day, when early mornings are best. Says Cook: "Something doesn't add up." Including, to some, the day that Scott chose to go. "It was Christmas Eve and she was pregnant," says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has been an expert witness in many court proceedings. "Who leaves their pregnant wife alone to go fishing?"
There were also indications that Scott had been less than fully cooperative with police. While he sat for interviews with investigators, he neglected to mention a key detail: that he had been having an affair with another woman, a Fresno massage therapist named Amber Frey, 28, who came forward to cops on her own and went public with the news on Jan. 24. Demonstrating that he was, if nothing else, a cad, Scott insisted that his missing wife had found out about the affair and accepted it—a notion that infuriated Laci's family, who until then had voiced support for their son-in-law. "Had she known, she would have been devastated, and that wasn't obvious to her friends or family," Sharon told People. "There wasn't any reason to suspect that there were problems."
And there were other little things. Like the fact that witnesses saw him laughing at a vigil for Laci days after she vanished. Or the $250,000 life insurance policy he had taken out on his wife after she became pregnant. (Scott has said that both he and Laci had policies in the same amount for investment purposes.) Or the interview he gave to ABC's Diane Sawyer in January, in which he at times sounded almost nonchalant in discussing his wife. Or his selling Laci's Range Rover a month after the disappearance and buying himself a Dodge pickup. Or talking to a Realtor about selling their home. "Laci loved her home," says Sharon, 51, who was given back her daughter's car by a dealer. "She spent a lot of time working on her house, she enjoyed all that. And if someone did take her, where was she going to come home to if it was sold?"
To be sure, Scott's arrest did nothing to shake his own parents' belief in his innocence. As they see it, their son, who has no prior arrest record and no history of domestic trouble, is being railroaded by the media and law enforcement. "He's an innocent man," said his father, Lee, 63, the owner of a San Diego packing company. "All they have is some circumstantial evidence. I'm 100 percent sure of that or he would have been arrested before." Insisted Lee: "You never saw a more loving couple."
It was easy to believe that Laci and Scott did indeed have a fairy-tale marriage. She was the lovely former cheerleader, the life of every party; Scott was the handsome jock, a scratch golfer and all-around likable guy. Both grew up in California. Laci was the younger of two children raised outside Modesto by Sharon and Dennis Rocha, a dairy farmer (they divorced when Laci was 7); Scott's parents, Lee and Jackie, 59, who suffers from emphysema, raised him and six siblings in the San Diego area. Scott and Laci met in 1995, while both were undergraduates at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. "She was perfect for him," says Abba Imani, a Morro Bay restaurant owner who has known Scott for nearly 15 years. "Such a sweet girl."
Their 1998 wedding was held in the lush gardens of an Avila Beach resort in central California on a sunny summer day. It featured a string quartet, a grass carpet strewn with flower petals and a gazebo where the couple exchanged vows. Having majored in ornamental horticulture in college, Laci helped design the floral arrangements on the tables and chose the decorations for the cake. "She had this vision of what she wanted," says her mother. "In every single picture of them, they're both ecstatic."
At first the couple lived in San Luis Obispo, but they moved to Modesto to be closer to Laci's family after her grandmother died in 1999. They stayed with Laci's parents until they found a house to rent, and within months bought their own home for $177,000. Scott and Laci, who had only one ovary, tried for a year and a half to have a baby, with no luck. "She was a little anxious about it," says Sharon. "She thought she would have gotten pregnant much sooner. She checked every week to see if she was." After finally getting good news in the spring of 2002, Laci excitedly called all her friends and relatives by 7 the next morning. "It was her first baby, and she wanted to stay home for a while," recalls her sister, Amy, 21. "But eventually she was going to go back to work."
Twice a week Laci took prenatal yoga classes at the Village Yoga Center in Modesto. "She was really proactive in her pregnancy," says Debbie Wolski, co-owner of the center and Laci's yoga teacher. "She was always bright and shining and beautiful, with that smile and dimples. Everybody was waiting to see that baby because they knew it would be beautiful." Scott and Laci turned a room into a nursery and decorated it with a nautical motif, a nod to Scott's love of the water.
In late November 2002, when Laci was more than six months pregnant, Scott apparently met Amber Frey at a business party. A Los Angeles-born former body-building instructor who had, according to a friend, made some "bad choices in life" (including, perhaps, having some nude photographs taken, which later wound up in a tabloid), Frey began dating Scott. Unaware that he was married, she quickly became smitten with him, according to two of her friends. "She was very excited about him," says one friend. "They looked really happy together, like any other couple in love."
Amber's friends say Scott took the 90-minute drive from Modesto to Fresno, where Amber lived, at least once a week, and even occasionally picked up her 2-year-old daughter from daycare. Scott also accompanied Amber to one of her family gatherings. "She was introducing him to everyone," says her friend. "She was really holding out hope that he could be the guy." The same friend recalls Scott as "a really charming guy, very articulate, but a little too smooth. He kind of seemed too good to be true."
Or, as the police would have it, too evil to be true. As far as investigators have been able to tell, the last time Laci was known to be alive was around 8:30 on the evening of Dec. 23, when she spoke on the phone with her mother. "They were coming over to our house for dinner," says Sharon.-"I think she would have mentioned if he was going fishing." One witness has told police she saw someone fitting Laci's description walking in the neighborhood about 10 the next morning. But cops are not convinced that the woman in question was Laci, given the fact that there were other expectant moms who strolled in the area.
What is known is that Scott did go to the Berkeley Marina—a spot he had never fished before—because he was later able to produce dated receipts to prove it. Scott says he called Laci that day but never reached her. Later that day, neighbors found the Petersons' 8-year-old golden retriever mix, McKenzie, wandering the streets of their neighborhood, a leash still attached to his collar. When Scott came home around 5 p.m., he says, he found her purse and Range Rover but no Laci.
Searches began, and a volunteer center was set up in downtown Modesto. That was about the same time that things started getting a little tangled between Amber and Scott, who had told her he was not married. But Amber had some vague doubts about him. She also happened to have a client who was a private detective, who offered to run a check on Scott. It didn't take much digging. A day later the private eye came back and told her that he had seen Scott on TV as part of the coverage of Laci's disappearance. Her father, Ron, a general contractor, says the news stunned her. "She was very hurt," he says. "But she was very courageous." She quickly decided that she had to call the police and tell them about the relationship. "That shocked them to no end," says Ron. "They sent a police car down and gave her a lie-detector test."
Ron insists that his daughter has not had any contact with Peterson for several months. And in any case, for the foreseeable future Scott's social life will be sharply curtailed. He is being held without bail in the Stanislaus County jail, where authorities have restricted his contact with other inmates out of fear that he will be a target for attack. All told, he is only let out of his 6-ft.-by-9-ft. cell twice a week for exercise. "He has the look of somebody who is overwhelmed and clearly out of his element," says Kelly B. Huston, a spokesman for the county sheriff.
At his April 21 arraignment and facing two counts of murder—under California law Conner, who was six weeks shy of full term, is considered as much a victim as his mother—Peterson appeared to be close to tears. Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton has not formally announced whether he will seek the death penalty, but has indicated it is likely. Said the D.A.: "It's hard for me to realistically believe it is anything but a death-penalty case at this time." Laci's mom would like to believe that the killer is already being punished. "I can only hope that the sound of Laci's voice begging for her life, begging for the life of her unborn child," said Sharon Rocha, pointedly refusing to name the son-in-law she once loved, "is heard over and over again in the mind of that person every day for the rest of his life."
Lyndon Stambler, Johnny Dodd, Frank Swertlow and Ron Arias in Los Angeles and Melissa Schorr in Modesto
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Johnny Dodd,
- Frank Swertlow,
- Ron Arias,
- Melissa Schorr.
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