In a case that became a real-life soap opera for millions of Americans, Scott Peterson was found guilty today of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Laci, who was eight months pregnant with their first child when she vanished on Christmas Eve 2002 from her home in Modesto.
Peterson, 32, was found guilty of special circumstances in murdering his wife and dumping her body into the San Francisco Bay, making him eligible for the death penalty. He was also found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of the couple's unborn son, who was to be named Conner.
After a week and a half of hostile deliberations that saw the judge dismiss two jurors on consecutive days, the jury walked into the courtroom in San Mateo County after lunch with impassive faces.
As the court clerk read the verdicts, Peterson stared straight ahead while family and friends gasped and sobbed. He then looked at each of the jurors as they were polled to confirm their decision.
Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, cried as relatives huddled around her. Scott Peterson's mother, Jackie, sitting on the other side of the courtroom, stared at the floor in disbelief. As bailiffs led her down a stairwell to the courthouse grounds, she could hear several hundred people gathered outside erupt in cheers at news of the verdict.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors, as well as family members and friends, left without saying a word to more than 100 television and newspaper journalists from all over the world who had formed a gauntlet in the hallway.
Judge Alfred A. Delucchi admonished the jury that a gag order was still in effect in the 51/2 month trial, which will continue with a penalty phase to begin on Nov. 22.
"Because of this verdict, you will be subject of much scrutiny," he said, thanking them for their diligence. "You've been a very good jury."
The jury will decide on whether Peterson should be sentenced to life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection. Second-degree murder is punishable by at least 15 years to life in prison.
After the jury foreman had been excused Wednesday, the jury deliberated about eight hours before reaching its verdicts today.
The 2-year-old case, which became nightly fodder for nationwide cable TV talk shows, struck a particular chord with women, some of whom made special trips from the Midwest and East to visit Modesto and drive by the green house on Covena Avenue where Laci Peterson had decorated a nursery for the son she had expected.
Women and men who followed every twist and turn explained the same fascination: She was pregnant and so pretty, and he went out and had an affair. Why didn't he just divorce her and pay child support?
Only a monster, one man said, could kill his wife on the eve of her giving birth to his son.
That the tragedy took place against a backdrop of middle America — housing tracts and big-box stores amid miles of vineyards and almond orchards — made it resonate all the more.
Laci Peterson had grown up on a dairy outside Modesto, where her father's family, the Rochas, had been milking cows for half a century. Modesto, which is 90 miles west of San Francisco, was a town caught between its farming past and suburban future.
Laci Peterson seemed at ease in both worlds. If dragging the main wasn't nearly the scene it had been when filmmaker George Lucas grew up there — a hot-rod culture captured in his film "American Graffiti" — Modesto still felt provincial. At the edge of town across the railroad tracks, the big archway still reads: "Modesto: Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health."
Laci Peterson, a feisty child with flashing brown eyes and a perfect smile, became a cheerleader at Downey High School. When college beckoned, she did what a lot of youths in the San Joaquin Valley do. She headed over the mountain to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, far enough away to feel liberated, but not too far in case she got homesick. It was there, after receiving an award as the outstanding freshman in ornamental horticulture, that she met Scott Peterson.
He was the youngest of seven children, a jock but not in the rugged sort of way. The son of a San Diego businessman who owned a crate and packing company, he grew up on the golf course. For a time, Scott Peterson entertained dreams of going pro like Phil Mickelson, his teammate at the University of San Diego High School. But as Scott's relationship with Laci grew more serious, he began to focus on a business path. After graduation, boosted by a loan from his father, he and Laci opened a sports bar, The Shack, in San Luis Obispo.
Their marriage appeared perfect to Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, who had gone through a messy divorce from her husband, Dennis Rocha. As Laci Peterson made plans for a family, she felt the pull of Modesto again. Scott Peterson left the bar business and agreed to the move. They bought a three-bedroom, two-bath house for $177,000 in an upscale neighborhood near La Loma Park.
He got a job as a fertilizer salesman, and she worked as a substitute teacher. Family and friends said she poured most of her energies into being the perfect housewife. She loved to cook and entertain, and couldn't get enough of Martha Stewart. The only hint of suburban rebellion was the small sunflower tattooed on one ankle.
The news that Laci Peterson was pregnant seemed to make her glow, her mother and younger sister said. As Christmas 2002 approached, the invitations to the baby shower were already in the mail.
Most mornings, Laci Peterson took their golden retriever for a walk in the park. On the morning of Dec. 24, 2002, the dog was loose in the front yard with its collar and leash.
Laci Peterson, four weeks shy of giving birth, had disappeared.
By his own account, Scott Peterson had left the house at 9:30 a.m. that day and driven to a marina in Berkeley. He said he wanted to go fishing in his new 14-foot aluminum boat. He returned home late that afternoon and promptly called his mother-in-law, telling her that his wife was missing.
In the days that followed, Modesto rallied to find Laci Peterson. Just a year earlier, the town had been convulsed by the murder of Chandra Levy, the local girl who went to Washington, D.C., to be an intern and had a relationship with local Rep. Gary Condit. Unlike Levy, who disappeared 3,000 miles away, the Peterson mystery was right on their doorsteps.
On foot and horseback, grim-faced dairymen, many sharing the Rochas' Portuguese heritage, combed the neighborhoods and farm fields. Family and friends set up a command center at a downtown hotel and passed out 25,000 fliers to scores of volunteers. Truckers sprinkled the fliers on their north and south routes. On shop windows and utility poles as far away as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Mexico, there was Laci Peterson with her gleaming smile.
It didn't take long for the whispers to grow. Scott Peterson, while joining the search for his wife, was caught laughing and uttering sentiments that didn't seem to fit the portrait of a worried husband at wits end.
Laci Peterson's mother stood by him, telling reporters that he loved his wife too much. But her father, a small, powerfully built man dressed in Wrangler jeans and roper boots, began to wonder. "I hope it's not him," Dennis Rocha said. "How can I explain that?"
The nation had become increasingly obsessed with a series of dramas and tragedies involving the famous and powerful. In the manner of "Nicole and O.J.," "Monica and Bill," "Chandra and Gary," the everyday Petersons, "Laci and Scott," became the tabloid media's new fixation.
Many of the same of celebrity lawyers, former federal prosecutors and talk-show hosts took aim on cable TV. In a bizarre twist, some of those pundits then assumed the role of main players.
Lawyer Mark Geragos, who had gone on "Larry King Live" to excoriate Scott Peterson more than once, emerged soon after as his lead attorney. Lawyer Gloria Allred, Geragos' TV nemesis who had represented the family of Nicole Brown Simpson, then entered the case.
Scott Peterson, it turned out, had been hiding a lover just down Highway 99 in Fresno. Amber Frey, a massage therapist, chose Allred to bring her out of the shadows.
Allred portrayed the 28-year-old Frey as a victim of Scott Peterson's double life. She was an evangelical Christian and hard-working single mother who had no idea that he was married. But as the media began digging into Frey's past, another picture emerged. Frey had had an earlier affair with a male stripper whose wife was seven months pregnant.
Modesto police wanted the public to know that they were tracking down 175 high-risk parolees and sex offenders who lived nearby. In truth, they were focusing almost exclusively on Scott Peterson, listening to his phone conversations with Frey, who was operating the tape machine, and piecing together a strong circumstantial case.
Then in the spring of 2003, nearly four months after her disappearance, the bodies of Laci Peterson and her son, his umbilical cord still attached, washed up on a rocky shore in San Francisco Bay. A woman walking her dog had found the remains a few miles from where Scott Peterson had told police he had been fishing.
By now, he had traded in his Land Rover for a truck and was spending more time in San Diego playing golf. What he didn't know was that detectives had hidden a radio transponder on the truck and were tracking his every move. As lab technicians made positive identifications of the leg bones and muscle tissue, the police hurried to arrest him.
Scott Peterson had the look of a man on the run, with bleached hair and a matching goatee. He was carrying $15,000 in cash and a load of camping gear when he was arrested.
As the trial moved from Modesto to Redwood City because of pre-trial publicity, the media hordes followed, creating a five-month spectacle in the heart of this waterfront community of 80,000. Each morning between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., more than 100 people clutching coffee cups and newspapers gathered in front of the San Mateo County Courthouse, hoping to be among the 27 to win a rattle ticket that would give them a seat at the trial.
Inside the courtroom, Peterson's, father, Lee, and mother, Jackie, who breathed with the help of plastic tubes connected to a canister of oxygen, took the same seat a few feet behind their son, who dressed impeccably in tailored suits and bold ties, but otherwise wore an indifferent face. On the opposite side, a few feet behind the prosecutors, sat Laci's mother and stepfather, Ron Grantski, and a handful of other relatives.
From summer to winter, more than 183 witnesses and 48,000 pages of investigative reports and other documents were trotted out before the jury. But it was Peterson's own recorded voice, in his conversations with Frey, that seemed to define the trial. In the days after Laci's disappearance, as he was still attempting to flatter and romance Frey, Peterson's approach was full of syrup. As Frey began to pepper him, at the cops' insistence, with more pointed questions about his double life, he began to sound defensive, needy and whiney.
The job of mopping up the mess that Scott Peterson had made of his life fell to Geragos, fresh from his defense of Winona Ryder, the actress and shoplifter. Tall, tan and beefy, he strode purposely into court each day exuding all the confidence and power of a popular television personality, then wrapped an arm around Scott Peterson's shoulder and set him at ease with humorous asides whispered into his ear.
A few feet away sat prosecutor Rick Distaso, an athletic former military lawyer from Modesto. He was several inches shorter, with a studious expression and small-town manner that suggested an indifference to high-profile legal jousting. Indeed, throughout the five-month trial, Distaso quietly droned on and on, steadily building a case in an unemotional tone.
Refereeing the case was Judge Delucchi, a short, balding, owlish man with an easy smile.
The trouble started in November 2002, Distaso said, when Scott Peterson met Frey at a bar, slept with her the first night and then started scheming to get out from under the burdens of a lousy job and a dull marriage, all complicated by a baby on the way.
In early December 2002, Scott Peterson displayed a sudden interest in saltwater fishing, Distaso said. He researched tides and currents in the bay. He bought the aluminum boat, fishing lures and a two-day fishing license. He also fashioned at least five concrete anchors.
All the while, he was continuing his affair with Frey, wining and dining her, and filling her ears with promises of an exciting life together.
Distaso said Scott Peterson strangled or smothered his eight-months pregnant wife either on the night of Dec. 23, 2002, or as she dressed the following morning. Then he wrapped her body in a blue tarp and put the 153-pound corpse in the back of his truck, covering it with the family's backyard patio umbrellas, Distaso said.
Scott Peterson drove to San Francisco Bay and loaded the body into his boat and motored out to sea, Distaso said. A strand of Laci's dark brown hair got caught in his yellow-handled needle-nose pliers. Peterson attached concrete anchors to his wife's body to sink it, Distaso said, and then he dumped the corpse overboard.
"Who'd suspect him?" Distaso asked rhetorically in court. "Everybody thinks he's the perfect husband, the perfect gentleman."
No one was more surprised than Scott Peterson when news reports about his wife's disappearance riveted the nation. Yet, even as the public mourned for his wife and held candlelight vigils in her memory, Scott Peterson was making hundreds of romantic calls to Frey.
In some of those calls, he claimed to be cavorting beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris with friends named Pascual and Francois. In others, he talked about Europe's beautiful churches and complained that he had fallen and hurt himself while jogging on cobblestones in Paris. All the while, he had never left the San Joaquin Valley.
The case "exploded in his face," Distaso said, in January 2003, when Frey announced at a news conference that she had been his lover.
The fact that the bodies of Laci Peterson and her fetus had washed up in the area where Scott Peterson had gone fishing that day was alone enough to convict him, Distaso argued.
Geragos countered that Laci Peterson was most likely kidnapped by strangers — perhaps members of a satanic cult or homeless people at the park. They threw her into the bay to frame his client, he said. Geragos' theory appeared to fall flat; he never brought to the stand a lineup of promised witnesses who were going to buttress it.
Geragos' key witness, Dr. Charles March, proved less than compelling. March had been touted as a fertility expert who would show that Laci Peterson's son had died sometime after Dec. 24. Such evidence, Geragos said, would clear his client of wrongdoing because he had been under constant surveillance from that time on.
On the stand, however, March conceded that he may have been mistaken in saying Conner Peterson was born alive on or around Dec. 29. Geragos abruptly ended his six-day case after calling 14 witnesses. Scott Peterson was never called to testify.
In his closing arguments, Geragos urged jurors to stick to the evidence and not prejudge Scott Peterson even though he "cheated on Laci and feels like a 14-carat [expletive] for doing it."
In his closing remarks, however, Distaso surprised many in the audience by giving a passionate, forceful and coherent argument that some trial court analysts compared to a fiery church sermon.
The prosecution's case lasted 19 weeks, called 174 witnesses, and featured hundreds of tape-recorded telephone conversations between Peterson and Frey, who became a star witness for the prosecution.
Frey's attorney, Gloria Allred, said today outside the courthouse after the verdicts were announced: "I think this is justice."
Times staff writer Lee Romney and correspondent Robert Hollis contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times