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Every morning at 3:45, portable generators power up, and huge klieg lights switch on in the darkness outside a modest colonial home in Bolingbrook, Ill. It is the racket of TV crews coming to life and engulfing Drew Peterson. "I'm getting some sleep, but then it wakes me up," he says. "It constantly reminds me of this grim shadow over my head."

Drew Peterson knows what people are saying about him. He knows there are many who believe he murdered his third wife, Kathleen Savio—whose 2004 drowning was ruled an accident—and that he had something to do with the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy, the pretty mother of their two young children who has been missing since Oct. 28. He knows that as a suspect in Stacy's disappearance, he could be arrested at any time. Yet Peterson, 53, who gave PEOPLE a wide-ranging, two-hour interview Nov. 18, says he can handle the pressure because he knows one other thing: He is innocent. Did he kill Kathleen Savio? "No," he insists. Does he know where Stacy is? "I don't." Does he think she is alive? "I hope so," he says. "I miss her."

Peterson seemed composed and relaxed during the interview, despite facing the possibility that his wife may be dead and his ex-wife may have been brutally murdered. He teared up only once, when discussing the day Stacy disappeared, but otherwise showed little emotion. His claims that he did nothing wrong, however, cannot stop the investigation that is starting to tighten around him. While the search continues for Stacy, 23—and her loved ones continue to insist she would never walk out on her children Lacy, 2, and Anthony, 4—authorities have impanelled a grand jury to reexamine the Kathleen Savio case. On Nov. 13 investigators exhumed her body to perform another autopsy. Test results won't be available for several weeks, but Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow has already said the case files alone suggest Savio's death was a homicide staged to look like an accident. "We always knew what happened to Kathleen was not an accident," says her brother Henry Savio, 49. "And we knew it was going to happen again."

From Peterson's own words to PEOPLE, and the record of his four troubled marriages, a portrait of the ex-police sergeant emerges—confident and charismatic but also controlling and sometimes abusive; drawn to vulnerable women and eager to buy them things to make them feel secure, but just as quick to intimidate them to get his own way. The eldest of three children, his father was a strict ex-Marine, and his mother a diligent housewife. "My dad would get up to go to the bathroom in the morning, and my mom would have the bed made," says Peterson. "I expected all of my wives to be like my mom, meticulous housekeepers, and they weren't." Peterson was 20 when he married his high school sweetheart Carol Brown, then 17; when she had a miscarriage, Peterson was "very supportive," Brown, 50, told the Chicago Tribune. But after six years and two sons together, she discovered he cheated on her, and they divorced in 1980. "I take full responsibility for that," Peterson says. "Carol was a good woman and I was unfaithful."

Two years later he met Vicki Connolly in a bar; they married six months later and raised each other's children from their previous marriages. "When it was good, it was wonderful, it was great," Connolly, 48, told the Tribune. "But when it was bad, it was really bad." She accused Peterson of playing "mind games" and claimed he bugged their house so he could keep tabs on her even while he was having an affair. Peterson admits he "sought romance in other places" but denies he ever bugged the house. "Vicki was a loving, warm person," he says, "until things started deteriorating."

After they divorced in 1992, Peterson met Kathleen Savio on a blind date. "He seemed wonderful," recalls Savio's sister Anna Marie Doman. "He was Mr. Romance, the nice, upstanding young cop." Savio's other sister Susan Doman says, "in the beginning their marriage was great. Kathleen had things like she never had: a beautiful home, fur coats, everything. She felt like a princess." Peterson calls their early years "very romantic. We had a lot of fun together and I thought she was beautiful. I loved being next to her."

But after she gave birth to their two sons, claims Peterson, "she became repeatedly violent." Records show 18 calls to the police from their home, and in 2002 Kathleen obtained an order of protection, claiming in court papers that Peterson "restrained me, held me down, knocked me into a walls, come after me ... ripped my necklace off, left marks on my body."

Peterson says he made some of the 18 calls to police himself, and that in the other cases, "she would say I was violent after chasing me around the house, swinging at me. I never laid a finger on her." Peterson also says Savio's abusive childhood caused the erratic behavior he blames for the failure of their marriage. "I didn't want to divorce her; I wanted to help her," he contends. "We tried five marriage counselors. But she refused to accept that the problem was her, ever."

Savio's brother Henry denies his sister was somehow broken by her childhood; he says they grew up in a close-knit family that was not abusive and that Kathleen was a proud woman determined not to let Drew intimidate her. Toward the end of their marriage, Kathleen "found out Drew was having an affair with a 17-year-old," says her sister Susan. "Someone anonymously sent her a letter saying she was the laughingstock of the police department." Peterson admits he was still married when he started seeing Stacy, then working as a hotel desk clerk. "I asked her, 'Why don't we go out?'" he recalls. "I thought she was older than she was. I said, 'Do you mind that I'm 47?' She said, 'Not at all. I'm 17.' I was shocked. But I was a lonely old man."

Peterson's affair with Stacy ended his marriage to Savio, and their divorce became official in 2003. In March 2004 Peterson became alarmed after not hearing from Savio for more than a day, he says. "I was coming home from work around 9:30 p.m. when Drew stopped me," says Peterson's former neighbor and good friend Steve Carcerano, 39. "He said, 'I've been trying to drop off the kids and Kathy's not answering. I need to get into the house.'" After a locksmith opened the door, Carcerano and his neighbor Mary went into the house while Peterson waited in the foyer. "I walked by the bathroom, and I noticed what I thought was an exercise ball in the tub," says Carcerano. "Then I looked down and saw it was Kathy. Mary came in and started screaming 'Oh my god!' and then Drew came running upstairs."

Peterson's reaction? "He checked her pulse, and he was trembling and said, 'What am I going to tell the children?'" says Carcerano. "He was emotional, distraught." Despite puzzling questions—why was there no water in the tub? why was Savio's body so bruised?—a coroner's jury quickly ruled her death an accidental drowning. "The investigation was very fast; it was 1-2-3," says Savio's sister Susan. "But my sister always told everyone that he would kill her and make it look like an accident."

Michael Baden, the prominent forensic pathologist obtained by Savio's family to perform its own autopsy on Nov. 16, says her death was clearly not accidental. "Kathleen had a bloody head, a bleeding laceration on the top of the head and about 10 other blunt-force bruises on the body," says Baden. "This was a woman who was beaten up and drowned. That's a homicide." Peterson shrugs off Baden's conclusions. "He was giving statements before he even examined the body," he says.

Like Kathleen, Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy, "had a tragic and poor beginning," he says. "I had this uncontrollable need to protect her." When Stacy was young, two of her siblings died suddenly, one in a fire and another of SIDS; when she was in her early teens, her mother —who had walked out on the family before—disappeared for good. "I always knew why she married Drew: she needed security," says her longtime friend Cheryl Weiser. "She may have loved him, but she also needed someone to take care of her."

At first, says Peterson, he pampered his young wife. "If Stacy wanted anything, she got it," he claims. "Breast implants, a tummy tuck, Lasik, braces, hair removal, everything." Their relationship changed, he says, after Stacy's sister Tina died of cancer in 2006. Stacy started taking "mood-altering medication," he says, "and began having big mood swings. It became an emotional roller coaster. She'd be snapping at the kids one minute and loving them the next, just like with me." Stacy's sister Cassandra Cales, 22, says Stacy was taking antidepressants, but that "she was on the drugs because of him and the way he treated her. She was trying to stay together for the kids. She didn't want what happened to us, with our mom, to happen to those kids."

Friends and relatives interviewed by PEOPLE say Stacy had told Peterson that she wanted a divorce. On top of caring for her two children, she was attending nursing classes two days a week because "she was planning to leave Drew," says her friend Cheryl. "She said, 'I need to take care of myself.'" Peterson insists Stacy's demands to divorce him weren't genuine, and he even says she would only talk about divorce when she was premenstrual. "That was a reality," he says. "If she was PMSing, hungry or tired, her emotions were high."

On Oct. 26 Stacy called her friend Pamela Bosco and "said she was looking to rent my rental property; she said she was looking to move out with her children," says Bosco, who is now the official spokeswoman for Stacy's family. "She said her husband was acting a little unusual." The next night, Stacy's sister Cassandra dropped by for a visit; that was the last time anyone other than Peterson is known to have had any contact with Stacy. Peterson says he got off work at 4 a.m. on Oct. 28 and got in bed beside his wife; around 9 a.m. he spoke briefly with her after their children jumped in their bed. "I went back to sleep," says Peterson, "and when I woke up, she was gone."

Peterson's friend Ric Mims says he talked with Peterson after Stacy disappeared. "He said Stacy had met someone else she wanted to be with," says Mims. "He thought she was seeing about four or five different guys. I said, 'That's karma, man, because you've cheated on all your other wives.'"

On Nov. 9 police officially named Peterson a suspect in his wife's disappearance and labeled it a "possible homicide." Peterson, who last week retired after 29 years with the Bolingbrook Police Department, says, "I believe the state's attorney and the cops will be under scrutiny if they don't arrest me, so I'm prepared for it." For the moment, he has custody of his four youngest children—the two teenage boys he had with Savio, and little Lacy and Anthony—and is caring for them in his home with the help of his brother Paul. His focus, he says, is on shielding his kids—and himself—from the media scrutiny that now defines their lives. "We're under a magnifying glass," he says. "I'm not a perfect man by any means, but nobody is. And you're only seeing my dirty laundry. You don't see all the positive things I've done."

Meanwhile the search for Stacy continues. On Nov. 17 some 130 volunteers spent five hours combing the woods near her home in Bolingbrook. That same day around 100 people marched the few blocks from the two-story home where Kathleen Savio once lived to Stacy's house. The skies darkened, and a cold rain came, and the marchers shivered as they clutched small candles and held up signs in their solemn vigil. "I'm just praying Stacy will be found, and that somehow she'll be alive," says her friend Cheryl. "There's always that hope and that's my prayer. But we don't always get what we want."

  • Contributors:
  • Steven Gray/Bolingbrook,
  • Wendy Grossman/Bolingbrook,
  • Crystal Yednak/Bolingbrook,
  • Jeff Truesdell/Orlando.