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Judge Finds Cause for Peterson Trial

Times Staff Writer

This farm town where Laci Peterson grew up and vanished last Christmas Eve took the news in stride Tuesday that her husband, Scott, would stand trial on charges of murdering his wife and unborn son.

Even as 11 days of testimony in the preliminary hearing was picked apart and hyped on cable TV shows nationwide, folks here in Peterson’s hometown and the surrounding agricultural valley said they had known all along it would come to this:

A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge found that prosecutors had showed probable cause that Scott Peterson had killed 27-year-old Laci, who was nine months pregnant, and had dumped her body in San Francisco Bay.

Peterson will be arraigned Dec. 3 on two counts of first-degree murder -- charges that could bring the death penalty.

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“No great surprise,” said Doreen Nagle, a Visalia resident who writes a newspaper column on parenthood and found herself glued to 24-hour cable TV talk shows throughout much of the past year. “How much evidence do you need? I mean, the handwriting was on the wall with an arrow pointed at his head.”

Police detectives have never unearthed a murder weapon or been able to say with certainty how Peterson was killed. By the time her remains and those of her baby washed ashore in April -- about three miles from where her husband said he had gone fishing the day she disappeared -- it was too late for forensic pathologists to glean much.

Her head, neck, forearms, most of one leg and many of her internal organs were missing. But Dr. Brian Peterson testified Monday that her womb, after months in the turbulent waters, had remained attached to her midsection.

The case presented against Peterson relied on a chain of circumstances that prosecutors believe add up to murder. Yes, he seemed excited about the prospect of his first child. But he was also immersed in an affair with a Fresno massage therapist Amber Frey, who, in the weeks before Laci’s disappearance, had discovered that Scott Peterson was lying about being single.

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Peterson and Frey, according to testimony from a county investigator, spoke as often as 16 times a day between Nov. 19, 2002, and Feb. 19, 2003. The day Laci vanished, cell phone records show, Peterson left Modesto about 11 a.m. and called from the Berkeley Marina after 2 p.m.

Laci’s sister, Amy Rocha, told police she had been surprised to learn that Peterson went fishing out of town the day before Christmas. She testified that he had told her he was going to play golf.

Laci’s family said they were also surprised to learn that Scott had recently purchased a 14-foot aluminum outboard -- a boat not exactly suited for the rough waters of the San Francisco Bay. After returning from his fishing trip that afternoon, testimony showed, Peterson called his mother-in-law, Sharon Rocha, to say that Laci was “missing.”

“He didn’t say she wasn’t home or he couldn’t find her,” Rocha testified. “He said ‘missing.’ ”

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Authorities theorize that Laci was killed in her Modesto home Dec. 23 or 24, wrapped in a bundle and then placed in the fishing boat. Peterson hitched the boat to the back of his truck, they believe, and ferried the body to the marina.

Modesto police testified that when Peterson was interviewed the night of the disappearance, he was unable to say what kind of fish he had been looking to catch. He also denied having an affair. And yet the only piece of physical evidence presented in the preliminary hearing to bolster the theory was a six-inch strand of hair. It had been found in a pair of pliers on the boat, and DNA testing showed it could have come from Laci.

Not all local people are certain of his guilt.

“This morning, I was ironing my slacks, and I found a long hair, and I have no idea where it came from,” said Ramon Magdaleno, a Modesto paralegal. “It made me think of Scott Peterson. So far, the evidence is all circumstantial.”

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“The fishing part didn’t bother me because I go sailing every Christmas Day. But the rest of it did,” said Thomas Heinz, retired Navy veteran new to Modesto.

But Jody Norling thinks differently. “I think he’s probably guilty,” said the newcomer to Modesto. “There are too many circumstances that line up. The fishing; he’s not too upset; his eyes are cold. Him going to San Diego, dyeing his hair, all the cash on him -- that’s not what someone does when their wife dies.”

The Peterson case, for reasons that still confound people here, moved beyond the San Joaquin Valley to inhabit a place where the tabloid media feast nonstop. The same celebrity lawyers and former federal prosecutors and talk show hosts who used to bellow about President Clinton and former congressman Gary Condit have become overnight experts on Peterson the deceased and Peterson the prosecuted.

Why the national spotlight has remained fixed on Laci and not one of this valley’s countless other victims is no longer a question they ask here. She was pretty and vivacious, a high school cheerleader who had become a substitute teacher, just a few weeks shy of having her first child. She couldn’t get enough of Martha Stewart. She was preparing to set the table for a Christmas Day brunch when, according to her husband, she took the golden retriever out for a walk and was never seen again.

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The husband, a fertilizer salesman who couldn’t seem to decide on a hairstyle or hair color, seemed too cool for comfort. As the missing-person posters were affixed to shop windows and utility poles around town and throughout the state, Scott Peterson was spotted smiling and laughing.

But even as others began to wonder, Sharon Rocha stood by her son-in-law for weeks after the disappearance. “Laci and Scott were too much in love for it to be him,” she told reporters. “You should have seen the two of them together.”

Laci’s family left the courtroom Tuesday without any comment. Scott Peterson’s mother, Jackie, said she was looking forward to the trial to clear her son’s name.

Mark Geragos, the Los Angeles defense attorney who represented Winona Ryder on shoplifting charges before taking the Peterson case, said the judge’s gag order prevented him from saying much. But he too indicated he wasn’t surprised by the outcome because prosecutors have to meet only a low threshold of proof.

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Times special correspondent Don A. Wright contributed to this report.


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