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Peterson Found Guilty of Killing Pregnant Wife

Times Staff Writers

In a case that became a real-life soap opera for millions of Americans, Scott Peterson was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder with special circumstances in the death of his wife, Laci, who was eight months pregnant with their first child when she vanished on Christmas Eve 2002 from their home in Modesto.

Peterson was also convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his unborn son. The two verdicts could result in his being sentenced to death, something that will be determined in a separate penalty phase.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 14, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Peterson verdict -- An article Saturday in Section A about the murder conviction of Scott Peterson said Modesto was 90 miles west of San Francisco. Modesto is about 80 miles southeast of San Francisco.

After a week and a half of hostile deliberations that saw the judge dismiss two jurors on consecutive days, the six-woman, six-man jury walked into the San Mateo County Courthouse after lunch with impassive faces.

As the court clerk read the verdict, Peterson, 32, 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.

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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 staircase to the courthouse grounds, she could hear several hundred people outside erupt in cheers at news of the verdict.

Judge Alfred A. Delucchi had admonished attorneys and jurors that a gag order was still in effect in the 5 1/2 -month trial, whose penalty phase is scheduled to begin Nov. 22.

“Because of this verdict, you will be subject of much scrutiny,” he said, thanking the jury for its diligence. After a foreman had been excused Wednesday, the jury deliberated about eight hours before reaching its verdict. “You’ve been a very good jury.”

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 where Laci Peterson had decorated a nursery for a son the couple had planned to name Conner.

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 have killed his wife and dumped her body into San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve, weeks before the birth of 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, 90 miles west of San Francisco, was a town caught between its farming past and suburban future.

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Laci, a feisty child with flashing brown eyes and a perfect smile, became a cheerleader at Downey High School. When college beckoned, she headed over the mountain to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It was there that she met Scott Peterson.

He was the youngest of seven children, 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 University of San Diego High School. But as his relationship with Laci Peterson grew more serious, he began to focus on a business path. After graduation, boosted by a loan from his father, he and Laci Peterson opened a sports bar, the Shack, in San Luis Obispo.

As Laci Peterson made plans for a family, she felt the pull of Modesto again. Scott Peterson left the bar business. 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. She loved to cook and entertain, and couldn’t get enough of Martha Stewart. The only hint of suburban rebellion was a small sunflower tattoo on one ankle.

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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 this morning, Dec. 24, 2002, the dog was loose in the frontyard 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.

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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 fell in love with local Rep. Gary Condit. Unlike Levy, who disappeared 3,000 miles away, the Peterson mystery was right there at home.

On foot and on horseback, grim-faced dairymen, many sharing the Rochas’ Portuguese heritage, combed 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. 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 begin. 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 husband at wit’s 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, began to wonder. “I hope it’s not him,” Dennis Rocha said.

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The nation had become increasingly obsessed with a series of dramas and tragedies. “Laci and Scott” became the tabloid media’s new fixation.

Modesto police wanted the public to know that they were tracking down 175 high-risk parolees and sex offenders. In truth, they were focusing almost exclusively on Scott Peterson, listening to phone conversations taped by his lover, Amber Frey, a 28-year-old massage therapist who lived in Fresno, 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, umbilical cord still attached, washed up on the San Francisco Bay shoreline. 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 was spending more and more time in San Diego playing golf. What he didn’t know was that detectives had hidden a radio transponder on his truck and were tracking his every move. As lab technicians made identifications of the leg bones and muscle tissue, the police hurried to arrest him.

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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.

Mark Geragos emerged as the lead attorney for Scott Peterson. Frey hired attorney Gloria Allred to represent her.

As the trial moved from Modesto to Redwood City because of pretrial publicity, the media hordes followed, creating a spectacle in the heart of this otherwise mundane waterfront community of 80,000.

From summer to winter, more than 180 witnesses and 43,000 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 began to sound defensive, needy and whiny.

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The job of mopping up the mess that Scott Peterson had made of his life fell to Geragos. Tall, tan and beefy, he strode purposefully into court each day exuding confidence and power.

A few feet away sat prosecutor Rick Distaso, an athletic former military lawyer from Modesto. Throughout the trial, Distaso quietly droned on and on, steadily building a case in an unemotional tone.

Overseeing the case was 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, a dull marriage and a baby on the way.

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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 pregnant wife either 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, 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.

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“Who’d suspect him?” Distaso asked rhetorically in court. “Everybody thinks he’s the perfect husband.”

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, 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. 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.

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The fact that the bodies of Laci and her fetus had washed up in the precise 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. 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 mystery witnesses who were going to buttress it.

Geragos’ key witness, Dr. Charles 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 because he had been under constant surveillance from that time on.

On the stand, however, March conceded that he may have been mistaken. Geragos abruptly ended his six-day case after calling 14 witnesses. Scott Peterson never testified.

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Outside the courtroom Friday, a frenzied crowd gathered to hear news of the verdict.

Andy McCay, a pharmaceutical salesman who stopped his route when he heard a verdict was near, drove 45 minutes to Redwood City with a homemade sign that read: “Finally, Peace and Justice for Laci and Conner.”

A 9-year-old girl held up the front page of a local tabloid that read “Guilty” and wondered if reporters wanted to interview her. A hospice nurse tried to explain why so many people with busy lives found the Petersons a necessary distraction.

“Face it,” she said. “Sexy sells, and it’s a sexy case.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

By the numbers

Every stage of the Scott Peterson murder case has been highly publicized since his wife, Laci, was reported missing on Christmas Eve 2002 in Modesto. Some statistics:

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43,000: Pages of discovery

More than 10,000: Tips to police

1,600: Potential jurors questioned

800: Credentialed members of the media

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579: Days that Scott Peterson has been jailed

More than 300: Officers working on the case

298: Prosecution exhibits

193: Purported Laci Peterson sightings after she vanished

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174: Prosecution witnesses

115: Audiotapes

90: Agencies assisting the Modesto Police Department

74: Videotapes

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44: Permanently assigned media seats in the courtroom

41: Reasons that police believed the bodies would be found in San Francisco Bay

30: Public seats in the courtroom

26: States where Laci Peterson reportedly was seen

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21: Bailiffs guarding sequestered jurors

14: Defense witnesses

5 1/2 : Months since opening statements began

4: Defense appeals for a mistrial

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3: Months for jury selection

3: Jurors dismissed

3: Alternate jurors left

2: Defense appeals for dismissal of the charges

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Source: Associated Press

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Times staff writer Lee Romney and correspondent Robert Hollis contributed to this report.


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