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On Aug. 21 the remains of Laci Peterson and the son she wanted to name Conner finally made it back to their hometown of Modesto, Calif. With the coroners and forensic scientists having completed examining them, the bodies were quietly returned for the burial they and their loved ones had been denied for months. In a statement released a week earlier, Laci's kin asked for privacy so that family and friends could mourn. "Please treat her in death respectfully," read the statement, "so that we as her family will be allowed to lay her and Conner to rest in dignity and peace."

Dignity they will always have. But as Scott Peterson's Sept. 9 preliminary hearing approaches, it's hard to imagine that Laci and Conner will find much peace. At the hearing, the prosecution will for the first time begin to lay out its case against Scott Peterson. And with that—and the vociferous defense rebuttals involving satanic rituals and adulterous affairs that are sure to follow—one of the most bewildering and transfixing murder cases in years will truly begin.

In June, Stanislaus County superior court judge Al Girolami slapped everyone involved in the Peterson affair with a gag order; since then, only bits of evidence have leaked out. Now, however, PEOPLE, after an investigation based on interviews with multiple sources and access to confidential documents and photos, can offer a preview, with new details, of at least some of the controversial issues on which the trial may hinge. Among the most contentious: If Laci was only 7½ months pregnant at the time of her disappearance, around Dec. 24, how is it that Conner's body was found with tape that may have been deliberately knotted around his neck? And what is to be made of the indications, however tentative, that somehow Conner could possibly have been born alive? If Laci was murdered on Dec. 23, why did several witnesses report seeing her alive on the morning of Dec. 24?

Ever since Scott Peterson's arrest on April 18, when state attorney general Bill Lockyer pronounced the case against Peterson a "slam dunk," the prosecution has seemed confident. Many outside legal experts believe Stanislaus County D.A. James Brazelton lacks a smoking gun to convict Peterson, 30, but feel he can build a powerful case based mainly on circumstantial evidence, most notably motive and opportunity. "I think what the prosecution has got are a lot of little bricks that they're going to use to build a big wall," says Stan Goldman, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who has taught several principals on both sides of the case, including deputy D.A. Joseph "Rick" Distaso. Such walls can be quite formidable. "Circumstantial cases can be very difficult to defend," says one veteran L.A. prosecutor. "The more circumstances you have to point to guilt, the more ridiculous the defense story has to become."

Although PEOPLE has not reviewed all of the evidence that may be relevant to the case, among the documents and photographs that correspondents have seen, and interviews they have done, there are certainly bombshells to be found. The question is whether they will pulverize Peterson's defense—or offer attorney Mark Geragos a chance to sow enough reasonable doubt to blow a breach in the prosecution's wall of guilt.

THE CRIME SCENE

From the start, prosecutors and their supporters emphasized the fact that the bodies of Laci and Conner had turned up in the same waters, San Francisco Bay, where Scott said he had taken his boat on Dec. 24. As a deputy district attorney in L.A. county who is not involved in the case drily observes, "What a coincidence that of all the places in California or the western United States the body just happens to wash ashore in the place he was fishing." But the actual location of the remains may pose some sticking points for the prosecution as well. Although Laci's body, which was found on April 14, was on the rocks, Conner's body, which was discovered a day earlier, was found roughly 15 feet from the shoreline, near footprints and some tire marks, raising the possibility at least that someone or something had deposited him there separately. What's more, it seems clear that the defense intends to argue that investigators did not properly secure the crime scene around Conner's remains, because no casts of the tire marks or footprints were ever made. An official with the Richmond police says, however, "That was just a big huge watery area, and there was nothing to take footprints of. It looked like the body was just washed up by the tide."

Of potentially far greater significance, however, is the condition of the two sets of remains. The photos viewed by PEOPLE of Laci's and Conner's bodies are horrific, but disturbing in very different ways. As reported initially, Laci's body was little more than a torso. She was found with shreds of what appeared to be light-colored maternity pants—Scott said on the morning she disappeared she was wearing black pants—which had gray duct tape wrapped around the outside of the crotch area, tape that some experts believe could have been used to bind her. Given the condition of the body, no cause of death could be determined.

Then there is Conner—and a host of bizarre circumstances. In contrast to his mother's remains, Conner's were remarkably well-preserved. Except for a laceration across his right shoulder and chest, his outer skin was more or less intact, with no sign of the umbilical cord or a placenta. But that is not to say his body was undisturbed. There is adhesive tape wrapped 1½ times around the baby's neck, with a knot two centimeters from the neck, then under the left arm and drawn across the chest to the right arm. One source speculates that the baby had been bagged and someone had wrapped the tape around the body. Next to the body investigators found what appeared to be the remnants of a plastic bag.

Nor is that all. According to a source, a detective said, "there is some evidence the child may have been born alive." If so, that could change the case dramatically. Suddenly the timing of the murders, which investigators have previously asserted took place sometime between Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, could be off by days or even weeks.

But just how plausible is that scenario? A source tells PEOPLE there is reason to believe that Conner's remains indicate a gestation period of 35 to 38 weeks, which would put him at about full term. The defense is reportedly trying to obtain a sonogram of Conner that Laci had on Dec. 23, during which the baby was estimated to be 31 weeks along, to compare with the body as it was found. But Jon Nordby, a director of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, who has his own company, Final Analysis Forensics, based in Tacoma, Wash., points out that sonograms don't offer a perfect measurement of a fetus's development. "I've seen them wrong by four weeks," says Nordby, who has himself worked with hundreds of sonograms during his career. "Theoretically they are more accurate toward the end of the pregnancy than the beginning, but it's going to be subject to interpretation." And rest assured, adds one outside prosecutor, "if the defense has an expert testify that the child lived for some period of time, I can guarantee that the prosecution will have one who says that's not credible based upon whatever theories their expert is using."

Leaving aside the question of timing, there is still the fact of the tape around his body, specifically the neck. PEOPLE approached several prominent forensic scientists who have no stake in the outcome of the case to ask what might be concluded from that circumstance and the differing state of decomposition between Laci's and Conner's remains. According to Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the chief medical examiner-coroner for California's Santa Clara County, the most straight-forward explanation is that Laci's decomposing body caused Conner to be forced out. "As the decomposition occurs, the abdominal wall breaks down and eventually the baby is expelled right through the abdominal wall," says Schmunk. "That would explain why Conner is less decomposed than Laci, because Conner was in a protected uterine environment for quite some time prior to being expelled." From that point, he continues, "the baby could have easily been entangled in the tape that was surrounding Laci."

But Nordby questions whether it could happen accidentally—that, for example, the tape could have been floating in the water and become wrapped around Conner as the result of the movement of tides or waves. "I would doubt very much that would be something you could attribute to a natural process," he says. The defense is sure to stress the fact that there appears to be a knot in the tape and that it is at the baby's neck, as opposed to the knee or some other comparatively innocuous location. "I would be puzzled by the fact that the mother would be in such an advanced state of decay and the baby would be more well-preserved and have that tape," agrees Nordby. "I would start to suspect that the two didn't go in the water together."

Armed with that information, Peterson's team, says a source, might try a just-how-depraved-do-you-think-my-client-is? defense. It is one thing for prosecutors to convince a jury that Scott Peterson, a confessed adulterer, murdered his pregnant wife. It might be harder to persuade them, however, that he murdered Laci, then removed his son from the womb and tormented his tiny body.

But it is also worth noting that in May, when some early reports about the condition of the baby leaked out, it was the prosecution that went to court to ask Judge Girolami to release the full autopsy report—suggesting they are not overly concerned that its contents will harm their case. (Judge Girolami denied the motion.)

OTHER PHYSICAL EVIDENCE

At this point it is an open question how much of it there is. Early on in the investigation, Brazelton boasted that the evidence was both circumstantial and direct and was "voluminous." In May Geragos insisted there really wasn't any. "They've come up with a forensic dry hole on every single item," he told PEOPLE then. According to one of PEOPLE's sources, despite earlier reports that blood and vomit were found in the Peterson home, no trace of either was discovered. Blood was found in Scott's Ford pickup, but it was matched to Scott, not Laci. A single hair was discovered, possibly on a pair of pliers, on Scott's boat. Tests were able to exclude Scott as the source, though Laci could not be excluded. According to one expert, however, that hair, even assuming it belonged to Laci, is an exceedingly slender thread on which to hang a case. "My God, that is nothing," says Brent Turvey, an independent forensic scientist and author. "The only evidence they could have that would make it a slam dunk case would be if they had her DNA on him in such a fashion that it represented transfer from a violent crime."

THE TIME LINE

So far investigators have refrained from offering a detailed account of the sequence of events surrounding Laci's disappearance. All they have stated is that there is no credible evidence that she was heard from or seen after 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 23, when she spoke with her mother, Sharon Rocha, on the phone. It seems clear, though, that the defense will seek to demonstrate that there is abundant evidence that someone other than Scott Peterson harmed Laci on the morning of Dec. 24. Peterson says he left on his fishing trip around 9:30 a.m. for the 90-mile drive to the Berkeley Marina. Vivian Mitchell, 78, who lives about nine blocks away from the Peterson home, says she saw a woman she believes was Laci go by walking her golden retriever McKenzie around 10. Mitchell recalls telling her husband, "There goes that lady with the beautiful smile."

At some point, the defense has contended, there was a robbery that morning at the home of Rudy and Susan Medina, who lived across the street from the Petersons. The timing and significance of the robbery have long been a matter of sharp dispute, with the defense insisting that the robbers could have also been involved in Laci's killing and the police viewing the incident as nothing but a red herring. After the robbery suspects were picked up on Jan. 2 and charged with staging the break-in at the Medinas'—during which a safe containing $50,000 in jewelry was carted off—the police determined it had happened during the day on Dec. 26.

But a TV anchor in Modesto insists it could not have happened on the 26th because he was parked with his news truck outside the Medina home starting early in the morning to cover what was then the breaking story of Laci's disappearance. Rudy Medina, who believes the robbery took place on the 24th, also remains perplexed by the fact that the robbers seemed to have other things on their minds. For example, he says, the thieves ignored expensive rings that had been left lying on the kitchen counter, a fact that he reported to authorities. "The police said my wife and I were watching too much CSI," recalls Rudy.

In any event, another witness reports seeing two men in a nearby park around 10:20 a.m. on Dec. 24 shouting to a woman in a white top and black pants—which matches the attire Scott later told police his wife had been wearing that morning—"Shut that f———dog up!" At about 10:30, one of the Petersons' neighbors, Karen Servas, saw McKenzie running loose, trailing a muddy leash, and brought him back to the Petersons' yard.

Police evidently continue to believe that the woman seen by the witnesses was not Laci. According to The Modesto Bee, investigators hypnotized a woman named Kristen Dempewolf, who was eight months pregnant on Dec. 24 and liked to walk her brown dog in the Petersons' neighborhood (a source says Dempewolf couldn't remember for sure whether she was walking her dog that day). Apparently police were trying to determine if she had been out for a stroll on the morning of Christmas Eve and could have been mistaken for Laci.

In the end, though, as in most cases, neither side may get much mileage from the testimony supplied by their respective witnesses. "In the hands of a good cross-examining lawyer," says the L.A. deputy district attorney, "eye-witnesses that come forward can be mistaken." Along the same lines, it appears that the defense and prosecution will also be sparring over dogs. Investigators evidently brought in seven tracking dogs to pick up Laci's scent. One source says the dogs "went in a multitude of directions," indicating there is no firm fix on how Laci left the house. But at least one of the handlers definitely concluded that Laci departed in a vehicle, not on foot.

SCOTT'S BEHAVIOR

There is no question that Peterson's conduct in the weeks after Laci disappeared raised doubts about his innocence. He deceived the police about his relationship with Fresno massage therapist Amber Frey, came across as less than grief-stricken in television appearances and looked like a man ready to flee when authorities picked him up not far from the Mexican border with an orange tint to his hair and $10,000 cash in his pocket. (Scott at first claimed his hair changed color after exposure to swimming pool chlorine; PEOPLE has since learned he had it professionally dyed in San Diego.)

The prosecution may never mention some of the peripheral issues, such as the $10,000, because they can tend to divert attention from the core facts. But Amber Frey, with whom Scott had an affair, is all but certain to make an appearance. If nothing else, she gives prosecutors a motive—as in, Scott wanted to be rid of Laci so he could take up with Amber. Rather than try to paint Scott as essentially a good guy who strayed, the defense seems prepared to offer a much more unflattering portrait, albeit one that they hope will actually help him. The basic theme is that Peterson was raised as a spoiled kid and grew up to be a self-centered jerk who didn't think adultery was any big deal. During his 5½-year marriage to Laci he supposedly cheated on his wife with several other women, including one affair soon after he was wed. He only dated Amber, who has a 2-year-old daughter, a handful of times, so how important could she have been to him? "He wanted to get rid of his wife and unborn child to hook up with Amber and her already born child?" asks one source in the Peterson camp.
"That doesn't make sense."

As the case goes forward—and virtually every legal expert believes that it is certain Peterson will be held over for trial, probably next summer—that is a refrain that both sides will undoubtedly hurl at each other again and again. "Any time there is a murder or any kind of intense, violent human event, there are lots of unexplained facts," says Barbara Babcock, a professor of criminal law at Stanford University. "Very few of them really amount to anything." And indeed there are signs that the defense and prosecution are nervous about the strength of their arguments. Several outside legal authorities maintain, for instance, that if Brazelton had clear and convincing proof of Peterson's guilt it would have come out by now.

By the same token, the defense's continuing talk about the possibility that Laci was the victim of a satanic cult is widely dismissed as utter nonsense and a sign of desperation, as are Geragos's efforts to have the preliminary hearing closed. Says Professor Babcock: "It's an indication that the defense is afraid the hearing will poison the jury."

And ultimately, of course, that is the real X-factor in this and every other case. For after all the experts have had their say, it is those 12 people who will have the last word. Says Nordby: "Juries are supposed to adjudicate these things, not scientists."

Bill Hewitt
Ron Arias, Vickie Bane, Lyndon Stambler and Johnny Dodd in California

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Arias,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Johnny Dodd.