News of slaying overdue for family

Times Staff Writer

Surrounded by shade trees at the Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery, Kathleen Savio's grave is marked by a modest marble tombstone inscribed "Always In Our Hearts."

Four years after her death was ruled an accidental drowning, officials this week said an autopsy on her exhumed body had determined she was killed.

Savio's family has always suspected Drew Peterson -- whose divorce from Savio, 40, was just weeks from being finalized when she died -- of killing her. In October, his fourth wife, then-23-year-old Stacy Ann Peterson, went missing, and their claims were taken more seriously. Authorities reopened Savio's case days later.

Peterson, 54, a former police sergeant for Bolingbrook, Ill., near Chicago, has denied involvement. He has been named a suspect in Stacy Ann Peterson's disappearance but not in Savio's death.

Evidence indicated that the circumstances of Savio's death were staged to hide a homicide, said the state's attorney for Will County, James Glasgow.

"We have been investigating this as a murder since reopening the case in November of last year," Glasgow said in a statement Thursday. "We now have a scientific basis to formally and publicly classify it as such."

Neither Peterson nor his attorney, Joel A. Brodsky, could be reached for comment.

In March 2004, Savio was found dead in a bathtub with a 1-inch gash to the back of her head.

An autopsy at the time found she had drowned, probably having slipped and hurt her head in the slow-draining tub. The more recent autopsy was conducted Nov. 13.

News that her death has been ruled a homicide is long overdue, Savio's family says.

Niece Melissa Doman told reporters Friday that relatives believed Savio had long feared for her life. In 2002, she filed for a temporary protection order, alleging that her husband physically abused her. Drew Peterson had been having an affair with "a minor," Savio wrote in a letter to the state's attorney's office, adding that she feared her husband might try to kill her.

Stacy Ann was 17 when she met Peterson.

The autopsy results are "a positive to move forward," Doman said. "I'm not surprised by the results. What I was surprised about was 3 1/2 years ago, when I was told my aunt had drowned."

Authorities declined to release a copy of the more recent autopsy findings.

But a statement by Glasgow's office said that the forensic pathologist who performed that autopsy, Dr. Larry W. Blum, examined toxicology test results and tissue samples from three autopsies: his own, the original autopsy, and a third performed on Savio's family's behalf by another doctor in November.

In the end, Blum found that "compelling evidence exists to support the conclusions that the cause of death of Kathleen S. Savio was drowning and further, that the manner of death was homicide."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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