Four months after his pregnant wife disappeared from their Modesto home and days after her skeletal remains washed ashore in San Francisco Bay, federal and local authorities Friday arrested husband Scott Peterson near a La Jolla golf course. Peterson, 30, has yet to be formally charged with the deaths of his 27-year-old wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner, whose remains also turned up beside the bay this week.
The fertilizer salesman is expected to be arraigned early next week in the double homicide, on charges that could lead to the death penalty, Stanislaus County Dist. Atty. Jim Brazelton said at a news conference Friday evening in Modesto.
Authorities issued an arrest warrant for Peterson late Thursday, a day before investigators had positively identified the badly decomposed remains. Modesto police, the California Highway Patrol and federal agents had been watching the husband for months, using wiretaps, vehicle tracking devices and direct surveillance. They said Friday that they feared Peterson might flee, perhaps to Mexico.
“We started to worry,” California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said in an interview on CNN’s Larry King Live.
“He was aware of surveillance teams, was waving at them and being, you know, kind of a smart aleck, and so they finally decided that they ought to just pull him in.”
Peterson’s arrest followed an around-the-clock effort to identify the remains of an adult woman and a full-term fetus that were found about a mile apart on Monday and Sunday, respectively, on the rocky shoreline of San Francisco Bay near Richmond.
Although police had declined since the woman’s Christmas Eve disappearance to name Peterson as a suspect, the husband had fallen under increasing scrutiny, particularly since admitting an extramarital affair.
The investigation had been stymied, however, by the lack of the victim’s body.
By Friday afternoon, authorities said that DNA testing had proved what they suspected.
“There is no question in our minds that the unidentified female is Laci Peterson. The unidentified fetus is the biological child of Laci Peterson and Scott Peterson,” Lockyer announced at a news conference televised nationwide from the state DNA lab in Richmond.
“We are scientifically convinced that the match is one in billions.”
Criminalists used DNA samples from Laci Peterson, her parents’ cheeks and samples of Scott Peterson’s blood -- comparing them with samples taken from the leg bones of the corpses.
Peterson, who had dropped from public view in Modesto in recent days and sought refuge at his mother’s home near San Diego, was pulled over by special agents with the U.S. Department of Justice and the CHP as he drove past Torrey Pines Golf Course shortly before noon.
Detectives were driving him back to Modesto, where he was expected to be jailed overnight.
“He will be charged with capital murder,” said Brazelton, the district attorney for Modesto.
Under California law, the killing of a mother that leads to the death of an unborn child can be ruled a double homicide, a special circumstance that could qualify Peterson for the death penalty if he is convicted.
But that “doesn’t mean we’ll be seeking it automatically,” Brazelton said.
Peterson should not be freed, pending his trial, he said. “Bail?” Brazelton said. “Why give him bail?”
Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant when she was last seen on Christmas Eve, walking the family dog. She has been the focus of an intensive search ever since.
Suspicion of the husband increased when he traded in his wife’s car for a new pickup and, later, when he admitted the extramarital affair.
The other woman said she became involved with Scott Peterson only because she did not know he was married.
Photos of the broadly grinning mother-to-be have been posted around California and beyond and shown on television across the nation.
On the front entrance to the Modesto Police Department, officers had posted a sign with Laci Peterson’s photo on it, advertising a $500,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said the sizable reward failed to produce a witness or serious clues, leading him and others to believe that the only person who knew where she was, was her killer.
“Had anyone known where she was, we would have heard about it,” Wasden said.
Still, he said he hoped the department would be proved wrong when it decided to call the search for Laci Peterson a homicide investigation. “I would have loved to have egg on my face,” Wasden said.
The case had seemingly gone dormant until this week. On Monday, a passerby discovered the skeletal remains of a woman along the rocky shoreline of Point Isabel Regional Park on San Francisco Bay. A day earlier, another passerby found the remains of a fetus that had also washed ashore.
The bodies were discovered about one mile apart.
The Petersons lived in a Modesto bungalow about 90 miles from the bay.
Attention had been drawn to the bay’s chilly waters when Scott Peterson told authorities that he was fishing at the Berkeley Marina on the day his wife disappeared. The marina is about two miles from where the adult remains were found.
Mourners have constructed a makeshift shrine of candles, flowers, stuffed animals and Easter baskets on the front lawn of the Petersons’ modest home.
A vigil of more than three dozen people tended candles and spoke of the day’s developments Friday.
“She had options,” said one mourner, Lorie Barber, 35. “He didn’t give her any options. I hope he rots. Who is he to play God?”
Family members said through a spokeswoman Friday evening that they did not intend to comment on the case over the weekend, but would speak on Monday.
Police Chief Wasden informed Laci Peterson’s family of her husband’s arrest moments before announcing the developments to a crowd of more than 100 reporters and news photographers. “They were devastated,” Wasden said.
After the news conference, family spokeswoman Kim Petersen, who is not related, said the question of what had happened to Laci had haunted family members from the start.
“The waiting this week has been horrific,” she said.
Friday’s developments, however, did not necessarily provide relief, Petersen said, adding, “I don’t know if relief is the right word. They have answers.”
A cousin of the victim, Candace Rocha, told a television interviewer: “Hopefully, justice will be done. I just hope he pays for what he did to her and the baby.”
Some legal observers have suggested that the deterioration of the bodies will make it difficult to determine a cause of death and to prosecute the case.
But Lockyer said Friday he thinks Peterson’s prosecution will be a “slam dunk.”
The suspect’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Laci Peterson timeline
Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant, disappeared Dec. 24. Her body and that of her fetus have been identified.
Dec. 24, 2002
Laci Peterson, 27, a substitute teacher who is eight months pregnant, disappears while walking her dog. Her husband, Scott, says he last saw her at 9:30 a.m. when he left to go fishing alone in Berkeley.
Jan. 4, 2003
Divers search area where husband says he was fishing, but police do not name him as a suspect.
Missing woman’s family confirms reports that Scott Peterson was having an affair.
Due date for the Petersons’ child.
Two-day search of Peterson home produces nothing to clear or implicate Scott Peterson, police say.
Modesto police announce case is being investigated as a homicide.
Remains of a fetus are found in Richmond, on the shores of San Francisco Bay, about 100 miles from Modesto.
A woman’s remains are found about one mile farther south, and about two miles from the marina where Scott Peterson said he was fishing Dec. 24.
Police announce the arrest of Scott Peterson in San Diego County.
Times staff writers Christine Hanley and Anna Gorman contributed to this report.