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In the mountains near her Fresno, Calif., home last month, Amber Frey joined some of her church girlfriends for a weekend retreat. The women played bingo, attended Bible study, prayed and spent a lot of time just talking. To the other participants, Frey seemed surprisingly relaxed. Perhaps it was because there, in the cocoon of her church group, she knew nobody would mention the names that have come to haunt her over the past 10 months: Laci and Scott Peterson. "What happened to [Frey] could have happened to anyone," says close friend Angela Caglia, who was at the retreat. "She started to date someone she thought was special, and then this whole tragedy turned her life upside down."

The question now is whether it is Frey, 28, who will turn the Peterson case upside down. As the preliminary hearing in Modesto, Calif., moves into its third week, the Fresno massage therapist has clearly assumed a key role in the prosecution's case against Peterson, 31. Not only is she the Other Woman, who may provide a motive for Laci's murder, she is also an intimate witness to the defendant's state of mind. As such, her testimony could go a long way toward determining her former lover's fate. Meanwhile, her notoriety has already left her feeling hounded and exhausted. "This is what happens when you come forward," says her father, Ron Frey. "They beat the daylights out of you."

Daylight is exactly what the prosecution hopes Amber will shed on the events surrounding the murder of Laci and her unborn son, Conner. Though she has yet to take the stand in the preliminary hearing, some of her tale has been recounted, primarily by Det. Al Brocchini. In his testimony on Nov. 6, Brocchini described how he happened to be at the Modesto Police Department tip desk when a call came in from Frey on Dec. 30, less than a week after Laci had gone missing. He quickly went out to interview her, and she told him she was romantically involved with Peterson. (She had met him at World Sports Cafe in Fresno on Nov. 20 and had started seeing him soon thereafter.) But on Dec. 9, according to Brocchini, she had asked Peterson if he was married. He had responded with a lie that was as bald-faced as it was chilling. He said he had "lost his wife" and that "this would be his first holiday without" her.

Frey evidently accepted that sob story at face value. Friends say that at a Christmas party in Fresno she showed up with Peterson and ebulliently went around introducing her new beau. "Amber was very excited about him," says one of her friends, who wishes to remain anonymous. "They looked really happy together, like any other couple in love." It appears that Peterson shared her ardor. According to Brocchini, Frey told him that in the days after Laci's disappearance Peterson called her repeatedly, assuring her that they would soon be together. Peterson told Frey that "he was out of the country and would be able to be with her more exclusively after Jan. 25."

Frey's story wasn't the only development at the preliminary hearing. There was also the purchase of the boat that Peterson said he used for his Christmas Eve fishing expedition to San Francisco Bay, the same area where Laci's and Conner's bodies were later found. On the day Frey had confronted him about being married, Peterson plunked down $1,400 in cash for the 14-ft. craft, the timing of which, prosecutors seemed to be suggesting, was no coincidence. (But as the defense pointed out, Peterson had already told the owner that he wanted to buy the boat the day before the confrontation.)

Brocchini, an 18-year police veteran, told other stories of Peterson's behavior that had set off alarm bells in his mind: On Christmas Eve Brocchini found a .22-caliber semiautomatic handgun in the glove compartment of Peterson's Ford pickup. When the cop later asked if he could test for gunpowder residue on Peterson's hands, Peterson asked if "exhaust from an outboard motor" could cause a positive reading.

Indeed, Brocchini implied in his testimony that, for a fertilizer salesman, Peterson seemed to display an odd eagerness to anticipate the investigators' moves. One of the more dramatic moments came when the detective described the follow-up call he got from Peterson at 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Day. Peterson wanted to know if cops were planning to use cadaver dogs, which are specially trained to sniff out dead bodies, in their search for Laci, who at that point had barely been missing for a day. Brocchini was taken aback by the question. "I told him I hadn't considered her being dead yet," he testified. "I was kind of surprised."

Based on the preliminary hearing, the defense clearly intends to try to impugn Brocchini's credibility (see box, page 102). Depending on how damaging Frey's testimony proves to be, either at the preliminary hearing or a future trial, it is also possible that she will be subjected to similarly rough treatment. "If she ends up being a witness who is really pointing the finger at Scott, then I can guarantee you that [Peterson's lawyer Mark] Geragos will go for the jugular," says Laurie Levenson, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

If he does, Frey, no stranger to adversity, may prove surprisingly formidable. "She's a pretty tough little girl when she has to be," says her father. The youngest of three kids—sister Ava, 31, is a Shiatsu therapist, and brother Jason, 33, is a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff who served in Iraq with his Army Reserve unit and is now at Fort Bragg, N.C.—she grew up in the Fresno area. Her parents—Brenda, 51, a hospital supervisor, and Ron, 51, a general contractor—divorced when she was 5. At various times in her childhood she lived with each. Her dad partly ascribes his daughter's lifelong passion for fitness to the fact that when she was a teen, he had a woman who was a bodybuilder come to babysit.

After high school Frey clerked at a jewelry store and then worked at a child-care center while getting her two-year degree in child development from Fresno City College. She then studied massage therapy at a vocational school. Recently, she has worked at American Bodyworks, a physical therapy center in Fresno where she treats elderly people and athletes recovering from injuries, though she has lately been taking skin-care classes as well. Those who know her say Frey tends to be fairly reserved but not stiff or formal. "She's always been a fun girl," says Dean Hoffinger, a Fresno party promoter who dated Frey from 1999 to 2000 and has remained friendly with her. "Always into different things. Not prudish, kind of hippie-ish."

Her taste in men has hardly been unerring. Five years ago she met Josh Hart, a male stripper in Fresno. Recently married, Hart and his new wife had a child on the way but weren't living together full-time. Though Frey knew about Hart's complicated domestic arrangement, she decided to date him anyway. Soon they began living together. Hart, 28, now a motorcycle salesman in Southern California, remembers Frey as being very sweet—she threw him a surprise baby shower around the time his son was born—but also as someone who suffered from low self-esteem. "What kind of woman who was secure about herself would let some male stripper move in with her after a couple of weeks?" he asks. The relationship came to an ugly end in 1998, Hart says, after Frey accused him of physically abusing her and stealing money. Hart denies the charges and contends he later pled no contest to misdemeanor battery only to avoid the possibility of a long sentence.

Hart says that before their breakup he tried to coax Frey into becoming a stripper, but she wasn't interested. However, she did do a nude modeling session for a photographer in 1999, a decision she came to regret. Earlier this year, an agent and porn broker named David Hans Schmidt got his hands on the photos and published them on the Internet, prompting Frey to file a $6 million suit on the grounds that she did not give her permission. (Schmidt says he did nothing wrong and that the photographer has a signed release for the pictures.) In 2000, Frey had another relationship, one that yielded a daughter, born in February 2001. Frey refuses to identify the father, and his name doesn't appear on the birth certificate. Those who know Frey describe her as a devoted mom. "I see the interaction between her and her daughter," says close friend Cherish Cazares, her roommate during the church retreat. "Amber's daughter still comes first in her life."

As Dean Hoffinger describes her, Frey "liked drama and volatility in relationships—she always sort of went for men who were in some sort of turmoil." Yet ironically, he says, she herself had a sensitive side and a powerful nesting instinct. "She was very neat and tidy," says Hoffinger, so much so that she would come over and clean his apartment. She would also read him children's bedtime stories to lull him to sleep—"She has this incredible melodic voice," he says—and liked to write poetry and do landscape drawings. In the gym, though, she was all business. "She doesn't have an ounce of fat on her body," says Hoffinger. "She loved to eat healthy, and she liked to flex her muscles—she was incredibly strong."

Given that, it's not hard to see why Frey fell so hard for Peterson. Good-looking and well-spoken, he also seemed to have a nurturing side. "He'd drive down [from Modesto] and pick up her daughter at her daycare facility when Amber was working," says one of Frey's pals. "Amber really believed he was the real thing." Her father, Ron, says she was "devastated" when she discovered how Peterson had deceived her, but even in the weeks after Laci's disappearance—and despite her growing suspicions about Peterson—she continued to nurse feelings for him, with the pair sharing dozens of phone calls over a couple of months. "You don't get over something like what she thought they had in a split second," says the friend, "even if the guy is possibly a murderer." Friends say that Frey has never said she thinks Peterson is guilty, but it seems as if she is now prepared to consider the worst. Her father says that he never discusses Peterson with her. "We don't open those doors," he says, "and it makes it a lot better."

Frey has made no discernable effort to exploit her connection to the tragedy: no tearful sit-downs with Diane or Barbara or Katie, no selling her story to the highest bidder. She copes with her notoriety by attending the Northpark Community Church in Fresno and, says Ron Frey, "she doesn't read the newspaper, watch TV or pick up the phone." But the stress is plainly taking its toll. Her father says that at the beginning of the year she lost 5 or 6 lbs., notable for a woman who weighed 110 lbs. to begin with. The harassment from the media and others got so bad that she was forced to move to a more secure residence in the Fresno area. Friends say she would like to get out, but that the prospect of having her every move scrutinized forces her to stay indoors. Party promoter Hoffinger says he has invited her to several events, but she has declined them all. "I have to always be in disguise," he quotes her as saying. "It's just overwhelming."

She is, not surprisingly, not dating. "I don't think she's sworn off guys," says her father. "But I don't think she's jumping up and down looking for Mr. Right." Having gotten a close-up view of Scott Peterson, regardless of his guilt or innocence, she now at least knows what Mr. Wrong looks like.

BILL HEWITT
Lyndon Stambler, Ron Arias and Vickie Bane in Modesto and Johnny Dodd in Fresno

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