When Peter Theriault went missing in 1998, his family assumed he was dead even before they heard about the blood in his garage in Irvine. This was a man who called his mother every Sunday, was to retire in two years and loved his chocolate Labrador, Boss, like a child -- the kind of man who wouldn't have run away.
Like his family, an Orange County Superior Court jury looked to Theriault's reliability rather than the modest amount of physical evidence when they convicted girlfriend Judy Valot on Wednesday of second-degree murder.
Prosecutors believe Valot shot Theriault, 51, to death on Dec. 2, 1998, after she became fixated on a mistaken belief that he was having an affair with a 19-year-old co-worker. His body has not been found, but officials think he was buried near Blythe. Valot was arrested a week later after detectives noticed inconsistencies in her story, including a five-day delay in reporting him missing.
The verdict follows an overturned conviction and a deadlocked jury in two previous trials.
"I'm just so relieved that this is the end, that we won't have to go through this torture again," said Betsy Schlect, 52, Theriault's sister. "I feel confident that this time it will stick."
After Judge Richard F. Toohey's clerk read the verdict, Valot swiveled in her seat and stared at each juror.
Outside the Santa Ana courtroom, jurors hugged Theriault's family and peppered prosecutor Matt Murphy with questions -- chief among them, why the case had gone on for seven years. Several were stunned to learn they were the third jury to hear the case.
The lack of a body didn't cause conflict during deliberations, jurors said. It was Valot's conflicting statements to detectives after her boyfriend went missing, along with Theriault's two loaded guns that were found at Valot's mobile home in Blythe, that led to her conviction, they said.
"The web of lies she spun just backfired on her," said juror Mike Acosta, 65, of Huntington Beach, a retired school administrator. "We had a victim who was nonconfrontational, dependable, responsible, and a woman in his life who was very unstable."
Jurors said they took a holistic view of the largely circumstantial evidence -- considering the pieces together -- and a negative view of Valot.
"She was a person who seemed vulnerable to doing something dark or treacherous," said Jenny Geddes, 49, a Naval Reserve chaplain who lives in Santa Ana.
Sentencing was set July 22.
"My client is very upset," said Deputy Public Defender Alan Crivaro. "She still professes her innocence, but the jury has spoken."
In 2000, Valot was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. The verdict was overturned because a juror opposed to the verdict was replaced during deliberations. A second trial ended last August after that jury deadlocked.
There was little change in the evidence presented during the second and third trials, Crivaro said. In both, he did not call witnesses on his client's behalf.
Valot and Theriault met while working at a Ford maintenance plant in the city of Commerce, she driving forklifts and he repairing machinery. Theriault was set to retire in 2000, and had eyed a five-acre plot of hilltop land near his two sisters and mother in Kelso, Wash.
He had started dating Valot after they discovered a mutual love of golf and motorcycles, and within a year had moved in together. His family said the relationship soured due to her unfounded jealousy. More than a dozen of Theriault's relatives came to Santa Ana to hear the verdict, spending the day-and-a-half wait reminiscing about him and his devotion to his mother and his dog.
Relatives said they were relieved that Valot would go to prison. "If you could hurt somebody like Pete, who was the best person in the whole world," said cousin Barbara Grogan, "she could hurt anyone. She needs to stay there."