The cop wanted her car keys. Kelli Peters handed them over. She told herself she had nothing to fear, that all he’d find inside her PT Cruiser was beach sand, dog hair, maybe one of her daughter’s toys.
They were outside Plaza Vista School in Irvine, where she had watched her daughter go from kindergarten to fifth grade, where any minute now the girl would be getting out of class to look for her. Parents had entrusted their own kids to Peters for years; she was the school’s PTA president and the heart of its after-school program.
Now she watched as her ruin seemed to unfold before her. Watched as the cop emerged from her car holding a Ziploc bag of marijuana, 17 grams worth, plus a ceramic pot pipe, plus two smaller EZY Dose Pill Pouch baggies, one with 11 Percocet pills, another with 29 Vicodin. It was enough to send her to jail, and more than enough to destroy her name.
Her legs buckled and she was on her knees, shaking violently and sobbing and insisting the drugs were not hers.
The cop, a 22-year veteran, had found drugs on many people, in many settings. When caught, they always lied.
Peters had been doing what she always did on a Wednesday afternoon, trying to stay on top of a hundred small emergencies.
She was 49, with short blond hair and a slightly bohemian air. As the volunteer director of the Afterschool Classroom Enrichment program at Plaza Vista, she was a constant presence on campus, whirling down the halls in flip-flops and bright sundresses, a peace-sign pendant hanging from her neck.
If she had time between tasks, she might slip into the cartooning class to watch her 10-year-old daughter, Sydnie, as she drew. Her daughter had been her excuse to quit a high-pressure job in the mortgage industry peddling loans, which she had come to associate with the burn of acid reflux.
No matter how frenetic the pace became at school, the worst day was better than that, and often afternoons ended with a rush of kids throwing their arms around her. At 5 feet tall, she watched many of them outgrow her.
Peters had spent her childhood in horse country at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. She tossed pizzas, turned a wrench in a skate shop, flew to Hawaii on impulse and stayed for two years. She mixed mai tais at a Newport Beach rib joint. She waited tables at a rock-n-roll-themed pasta house. A married lawyer — one of the regulars — grew infatuated with her and showed up at her house one night. He went away, but a sense of vulnerability lingered.
In her mid-30s she married Bill, a towering, soft-spoken blues musician and restaurateur who made her feel calm. She spent years trying to get pregnant, and when it happened her priorities narrowed.
“I became afraid of spontaneity and surprises,” she said. “I just wanted to be safe.”
In Irvine, she found a master-planned city where bars and liquor stores, pawnshops and homeless shelters had been methodically purged, where neighborhoods were regulated by noise ordinances, lawn-length requirements and mailbox-uniformity rules. For its size, Irvine consistently ranked as America’s safest city. It was 66 square miles, with big fake lakes, 54 parks, 219,000 people, and 62,912 trees. Anxiety about crime was poured into the very curve of the streets and the layout of the parks, all conceived on drawing boards to deter lawbreaking.
For all that outsiders mocked Irvine as a place of sterile uniformity, she had become comfortable in its embrace. She had been beguiled by the reputation of the schools, which boasted a 97% college-admission rate.
The muted beige strip malls teemed with tutoring centers. If neighboring Newport Beach had more conspicuous flourishes of wealth, like mega-yachts and ocean-cliff mansions, the status competition in Irvine — where so many of the big houses looked pretty much alike — centered on education.
Plaza Vista was a year-round public school in a coveted neighborhood, and after six years she knew the layout as well as her own kitchen. The trim campus buildings, painted to harmonize with the neighborhood earth tones, suggested a medical office-park; out back were an organic garden, a climbing wall and a well-kept athletic field fringed by big peach-colored homes.
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Around campus, she was the mom everyone knew. She had a natural rapport with children. She could double them over with her impression of Applejack, the plucky country gal from the “My Little Pony” TV series. She would wait with them until their parents came to pick them up from the after-school program, but she couldn’t bring herself to enforce the dollar-a-minute late fines.
The school had given her a desk at the front office, which provided an up-close view of countless parental melodramas. The moms who wanted the 7th-grade math teacher fired because their kids got Bs. Or the mom who demanded a network of giant umbrellas and awnings to shield her kids from the playground sun.
Smile, Peters had learned. Be polite.
That afternoon — Feb. 16, 2011 — the karate teacher had texted her to say he was stuck in traffic, and would she please watch the class till he arrived? She was in the multi-purpose room, leading a cluster of tiny martial artists through their warm-up exercises, when a school administrator came in to find her. A policeman was at the front desk, asking for her by name.
She ran down the hall, seized by panic. She thought it must be about her husband, who was now working as a traveling wine salesman. He was on the road all the time, and she thought he’d been in an accident, maybe killed.
Officer Charles Shaver tried to calm her down. He was not here about her husband.
On a normal shift, Shaver could expect to handle barking-dog calls, noisy-neighbor calls, shoplifters and car burglaries, maybe a car wreck or two. He was a sniper on the Irvine Police SWAT team, armed with cutting-edge equipment that was the envy of other departments, but had never needed to pull the trigger. He was 40, a former NCIS investigator with the Marines.
He had been seven hours into an unmemorable shift when, at 1:15 p.m., a man called police to report a dangerous driver in a school parking lot.
“I was calling because, uh, my daughter’s a student at Plaza Vista Elementary School,” said the caller. “And uh, I’m concerned one of the parent volunteers there may be under, uh, under the influence or, uh, using drugs. I was, I just had to go over to the school and, uh, I was, I saw a car driving very erratically.”
The caller said he had seen drugs in the car. He knew the name of the driver — Kelli. He knew the type of car — a PT Cruiser. He even knew the license plate, and what was written on the frame — “Only 4 the Groovy.”
People were drifting in and out of the school with their kids, watching, as the policeman led Peters into the parking lot. His patrol car was blocking her PT Cruiser.
He told her about the caller’s claim that she had been driving erratically around 1:15 p.m.
That’s impossible, she said. She had parked her car and was inside the school by then.
Did she have anything in her car she shouldn’t have?
Could he search her car?
The drugs were easy to find. They were sticking out of the pouch behind the driver’s seat.
He put them on his hood, and she begged him to put them somewhere else. Her daughter might see. Anyone might see.
Someone must have planted them, she said. Sometimes, she left her car unlocked.
Shaver put the drugs in his trunk and led Peters back inside the school to a conference room. He peered into her pupils and checked her pulse. He made her touch her nose. He made her walk and turn. He made her close her eyes, tilt her head up and count silently to 30. She passed all the tests.
At some point her daughter arrived, as did her husband. She did not know what to tell them.
Shaver could have arrested Peters. Possessing pot on school grounds was a misdemeanor. Possessing narcotics like Vicodin and Percocet without a prescription was a felony. She could do time.
He could take her to the station, clock out by the end of his shift and be home in time for dinner. Instead, he kept asking questions.
He was patient and alert to detail, qualities ingrained in a sharpshooter trained to lie atop a building for hours, studying a window through a rifle scope.
He interviewed school administrators, who confirmed what Peters had said. She had arrived at the school office around 12:40. This meant the caller, who claimed to have just seen her at 1:15 p.m., had waited 35 minutes to report her, a gap that puzzled Shaver.
He tried to reach the number the caller had given. It was fake.
Shaver asked Peters if he could search her apartment. She agreed, reluctantly. If someone could plant drugs in her car, why couldn’t they do the same at her apartment?
She drove her PT Cruiser to her apartment about a block away, while Shaver and another officer followed. The apartment had a Jimi Hendrix print above the living room couch, and her daughter’s art hung on many of the walls.
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They had lived here since moving to Irvine, more than a decade back. They had found themselves consistently outbid in their attempt to buy a home. Money had been tight since she quit her job. She ran a small business called “Only 4 the Groovy,” painting tie-dyed jeans, but it didn’t pay the bills.
Now they were permanent renters, a condition she didn’t much mind, though she noticed how embarrassed neighbors became when acknowledging they were apartment dwellers, not owners. “This is only temporary,” they insisted. In affluent Irvine, your relation to the real estate you inhabited was one of the invisible class lines.
She watched as Shaver searched the kitchen cabinets, the bedrooms, the drawers, the couches, the patio. He was looking not just for drugs and drug paraphernalia, but for baggies that said EZY Dose Pill Pouch. He found nothing to link her to the drugs in her car.
By now, the case had lost its open-and-shut feel. In Shaver’s experience, no one left a bag of pot halfway out of a seat pouch, as if begging for it to be discovered. People typically hid their drugs in the glove box, or under the car seat. And for some reason — he didn’t know why — pot smokers didn’t typically keep their pipes inside the stash bag itself.
Peters was convinced she would be spending the night in jail. But after he had finished searching the apartment, Shaver told her that he was not going to take her in. The forensics team would be coming with the long Q-tips to take cheek swabs from her and her daughter, to take their prints and to scour the Cruiser for evidence.
If her DNA turned up on the drugs, she could still be charged.
The next morning, Shaver sat in the police chief’s conference room surrounded by department brass and detectives, walking them through a case that had quickly seized the interest of the command staff.
It seemed a much stranger scenario than a suburban mom with a pot-and-pill habit.
He had asked Kelli Peters:
If the drugs aren’t yours, how did they get in your car?
“I have an enemy,” she said.
Chapter 2 | Read it from the beginning
The lawyers lived in a big house with a three-car garage and a Mediterranean clay-tile roof, on a block of flawless lawns and facades of repeating peach. The couple had three young children, a cat named Emerald and a closetful of board games. On their nightstand were photos of their wedding in Sonoma wine country.
Kent and Jill Easter were in their 30s, and wore their elite educations on their license plates: Stanford and UCLA Law School for him, Berkeley Law for her. Experts in corporate and securities law, they had met at a Palo Alto law firm.
She had quit her practice to become a stay-at-home mom in Irvine, and by appearance her daily routine was unexceptional: play dates at the community pool, sushi with girlfriends, hair salons, Starbucks, yoga. He was logging 60-hour workweeks as a partner in one of Orange County’s biggest law firms, with a 14th-floor office overlooking Newport Beach.
The story Kelli Peters told police about them, in February 2011, was a strange one. She was scared, and her voice kept cracking. A year earlier, the Easters had campaigned unsuccessfully to oust her from the school where she ran the after-school program. The ordeal had shaken her, but she thought it was over.
Now, after a phone tip led police to a stash of drugs in her car, she thought of the Easters. She thought, “They got me.”
It had started over something so small.
Feb. 17, 2010, had been a Wednesday, which meant it was one of the busiest afternoons of the week at Plaza Vista elementary in Irvine.
A tennis class had just ended on the playground behind the main administrative building, and Peters — volunteer director of the Afterschool Classroom Enrichment program, called ACE — had the task of rounding up the kids.
She would lead them into the building through the back door and hand them off to parents waiting on the sidewalk in front of the school.
The Easters’ 6-year-old son had been left outside briefly, waiting at the locked back door for someone to let him in. The man who ran the tennis class had found him and walked him to the front desk.
Jill Easter thought her son seemed upset and demanded to know what had happened.
Peters explained that the boy had been slow to line up, that he tended to take his time, so this wasn’t unusual. She said she hadn’t noticed he was missing when she scooped up the others.
“I apologized over and over,” Peters wrote in her account to school officials. “I gave him a hug and I thought she looked like she was OK with everything.”
Easter was not OK. She seemed fixated on the tennis coach, by Peters’ account, and wondered whether he had touched her son. Wasn’t it strange that the coach had brought him to the front? “I kept saying no, it’s not strange, a lot of my instructors bring the kids up,” Peters wrote.
The conversation made Peters uncomfortable, and she wanted to end it. “She made a comment as I walked away that she wondered how I could sleep at night with the way I treat people. I went inside and started crying I was so upset,” Peters wrote. “But the weird thing was she never changed her facial expression. It was always the same weird smile.”
The day after the confrontation, Jill Easter complained that her son had been “crying hysterically” after being locked out of the school building for 19 minutes. She wanted Peters gone.
“She told me that she blames my son because he is slow and he often gets left behind because it’s hard to wait for him,” Jill Easter wrote to school officials. “For the record, my son is very intelligent, mature and athletic and has successfully participated in many ACE classes. He is receiving good grades and has earned many awards this year. He is not mentally or physically slow by any standard.”
The district ACE director, in her own reports on the incident, wrote that she’d interviewed the coach, as well as the Easters, and concluded that “nothing happened” to the boy, who had been left outside for “closer to 5-8 minutes.”
What, then, could account for Jill Easter’s ire? It seemed to boil down to a single word, misheard as an insult. The director wrote that Easter thought Peters had called her son “intellectually slow, not pokey slow.”
Peters adored the Easters’ son. She knew him as a quiet kid, smart, prone to daydream, a participant in the school arts program that she had worked hard to keep alive. He would race up to her, proud of his drawings. “I thought he was amazing,” she said.
Peters’ friends suggested that maybe the boy’s attachment to her played some role in engendering the mother’s rancor. Peters did not know. “Maybe he’d go home and say, ‘Ms. Kelli, Ms. Kelli, Ms. Kelli,’” she said.
School principal Heather Phillips talked to Jill Easter by phone, the week after the incident. Easter said that she “didn’t want other children to be hurt,” Phillips wrote. “She mentioned that both she and her husband are attorneys.”
Phillips had learned that Easter was approaching parents on campus to rail against Peters. This could be construed as harassment, the principal told Easter. The school had a rule about civility.
“She stated that what she is doing isn’t harassment, that she is fully within her rights and that she is going to continue until Kelli is gone,” Phillips wrote. “She also stated that she might be making a sticker or sign for her car stating what Kelli had done.”
Peters, who had volunteered for years without controversy, was badly shaken. She worried how the attention might affect the school.
If you want me to leave, she told the principal, I will.
Of course not, the principal replied.
Jill Easter demanded that the Irvine police look into it. They did. There had been no crime.
She requested a restraining order, claiming that Peters was “harassing and stalking myself and my 6-year-old son,” and had threatened to kill her. The court threw it out.
Then came the civil suit, filed by Kent Easter, claiming his son had been the victim of “false imprisonment” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” He had suffered “extreme and severe mental anguish,” the suit claimed. “The acts of Defendant PETERS alleged above were willful, wanton, malicious, and oppressive, and justify the awarding of exemplary and punitive damages.”
The Easters dropped the suit. As a result of their complaints, the school required a head count before children were released from the after-school program. And the Easters got a refund on their ACE tuition. Otherwise, the power couple lost. The school stood by its longtime volunteer, and in early 2011 she was elected president of the PTA.
Peters struck Det. Mark Andreozzi as genuinely scared. Alerted by a mysterious caller, police had searched her car in the school parking lot on Feb. 16, 2011, and found a stash of marijuana, a ceramic pipe and painkillers in baggies labeled EZY Dose Pill Pouch.
Peters told police something she recalled Jill Easter saying during their original confrontation: “I will get you.”
The drugs had appeared nearly a year to the day since that incident — the third Wednesday of February — and Peters did not think the timing was coincidental.
Still, she could not be positive the Easters were behind the drugs in her car. She told police there was another possibility — a 43-year-old dad who lived across the street from the school and had a reputation for bizarre behavior.
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Police knew him well. They had responded to complaints about him wandering onto campus without permission, ranting at school staff, heckling the crossing guard, and videotaping the crosswalk as kids moved through it. At least once, he showed up in a Batman costume, masked and caped, to pick up his son.
He made parents nervous; Peters had felt sorry for him. But now she recalled how he’d wanted her PTA job, how he’d even asked her for copies of the bylaws. Maybe he had studied them, and knew that drug possession would disqualify her from her position.
Cops have an informal phrase for such people, who do not quite meet the requirements of a 51-50, the code for an involuntary psychiatric hold. They are 51-49½, vexing but hard to do anything about.
At the Irvine Police Department, some cops thought, “It has to be him.” He seemed a likelier culprit than two lawyers they had never heard of.
Andreozzi was a former highway patrolman who had worked narcotics for years. He wore plain clothes, a beard and a half-Mohawk. As the lead detective on the case, he had been given carte blanche. Safety and schools were the twin pillars of Irvine’s pride.
He couldn’t rule Peters out for drug possession just because she came off as sympathetic. He checked her record. It was clean. He asked about her at the school. “Everyone loves her,” the principal said.
Andreozzi played the call that had summoned police to the school on Feb. 16, 2011. When the dispatcher asked for his name, the caller had said, “VJ Chandrasckhr” and spelled it out. The caller claimed to have a daughter at Plaza Vista, but the school had nobody by that name.
Andreozzi listened to the call again and again. He noticed that the caller stuttered nervously, and volunteered more information than a typical caller did, as if following a script.
Andreozzi noticed, too, that while the caller started off speaking in standard American English, he inexplicably acquired an Indian accent midway through the conversation — a faint, halfhearted one — as if suddenly deciding the name he’d given required it.
Some of Andreozzi’s colleagues believed it was Peters’ PTA rival, trying to disguise his voice.
They traced the call. It had been placed from a wall-mounted phone in the ground-floor business office at the Island Hotel, an elegant high-rise resort in Newport Beach.
Det. Matt McLaughlin went to the hotel basement to study surveillance footage. On the screen, people moved in and out of the lobby. He was looking for the PTA rival, a 5-foot-8 Asian man in his early 40s. There was no sign of him.
There was, however, a tall, lanky figure he did not recognize — a man in a dark suit who walked calmly toward the business center just before the call.
“It looks like Kent Easter,” the school principal said, when shown the footage.
Andreozzi’s team began following the Easters, learning their habits.
They learned that Kent Easter’s office was just a few hundred feet from the Island Hotel.
They discovered that the couple’s home on Santa Eulalia street in Irvine was about a mile from Peters’ apartment.
They discovered that Kent Easter carried a BlackBerry, his wife an iPhone, and that between 2:37 a.m. and 4:21 a.m. on Feb. 16, 2011 — early on the day the drugs turned up in Peters’ car — the phones had exchanged 15 texts.
The iPhone had been pinging off the cellphone tower nearest the Easters’ home. The BlackBerry was pinging off a different tower, the one near Peters’ apartment complex, where her PT Cruiser had been parked in the outdoor lot.
The lot had a code-activated gate, but was easy to infiltrate for anyone patient enough to follow another car in.
Every time Kelli Peters talked to police, she had a powerful guilty feeling. She was sure they would discover every bad and semi-bad thing she had ever done.
Like how she became frustrated with Irvine’s interminable stoplights and did not adhere religiously to the posted speeds. Like how she had once hurled her company-issued smartphone out her car window, on the day she quit the mortgage business in disgust. She was sure they’d stumble onto something.
Peters found a therapist. She described how police had discovered the drugs in her car, and how she had insisted over and over that they weren’t hers. How police had not arrested her but still might, any day.
The therapist looked incredulous and said, “How did you get out of that? Nobody gets out of that.”
It occurred to Peters that her own therapist might not believe her. She wondered how many other people, even her friends, harbored doubts. She thought, “Would I believe me?”
They had worked quietly for weeks, watching the Easters, learning their habits, and now the detectives were prepared to move. Early on the morning of March 4, 2011, a small army of Irvine police — nearly two dozen — gathered at the station to rehearse the plan. They would serve search warrants simultaneously at Kent Easter’s Newport Beach office and at the couple’s home.
Andreozzi and his team had debated how to get Kent Easter to talk. They had to get him alone, away from his colleagues. They would be foolish to underestimate his intelligence. But they thought that a man accustomed to winning with his brain might be undone by his faith in its powers.
So they would come on gently, playing dumb. Their edge was asymmetrical knowledge; he didn’t know what they knew. The team followed Easter’s Toyota Camry hybrid as he drove to work in Newport Beach. The vanity plate read UCLAJD1 in a Stanford University frame.
Easter had just pulled into the garage, into his reserved parking spot, when Andreozzi climbed out of his car and hailed him, and was joined moments later by another plainclothesman.
Their questions were vague: Was he aware of anything that had happened recently at Plaza Vista elementary?
At first Easter seemed happy to talk. He had a problem last year, he said. His son had been locked out of the school, and a school volunteer had berated him for being slow. He and his wife had filed complaints, but then moved on.
“We didn’t want to press the issue,” Easter said. “Bygones be bygones.”
They mentioned the name Kelli Peters. Easter said he had never met her, didn’t even know what she looked like.
As the questions grew more pointed, Andreozzi watched Easter cross his arms. He no longer seemed happy to see the detectives.
“Are you recording this, by the way?” Easter asked.
“Yeah,” Andreozzi said.
Had he heard of anything happening to Peters lately? Had she been in trouble?
Now Andreozzi’s partner, Det. Wayne Brannon, said, “Got any idea what the heck we’re talking about?”
Brannon told Easter he had been following him. He had seen him coming out of the dry cleaners.
“You gotta ask yourself, as an educated man, why in the heck would I be following you around? ’Cause that’s all I do. I work in criminal investigations. All I do is follow people around. I learn their little habits,” Brannon said. “You gotta start asking yourself, ‘Why are we standing in front of you, talking to you?’”
“I definitely am.”
They told him to think back, about 2½ weeks ago. Was there any reason he would have been out in the small hours of the morning?
Now and then he ran out for diapers, Easter said, but odds are he was home.
Easter now looked very nervous, and when he was nervous he did what the caller had done. He began to stutter.
“I want you to use that big brain of yours, mouth closed, listen,” Brannon told him. “At some point during this conversation you’re going to have to make a big-boy decision, and that’s gonna be on you.”
In the age of computers and technology and cell phones, Brannon said, “Big Brother’s always watching. We’re absolutely not the smartest guys in the shed, OK? But we can follow the dots from one to the next to the next.”
They knew, he said, that Easter’s phone had been pinging in the middle of the night near Peters’ apartment. And if there was DNA on the drugs in Peters’ car, they would find it.
Brannon said, “I would hope and pray for your sake that there’s a big light going off, big bells going off. Knowing what I just told you, is there anything that you would like to add to your statement to me, whether retracting or adding anything to your statement?”
“I would like to get a lawyer.”
“That’s the big-boy answer.”
The search warrant crackled as Andreozzi pulled it out of his back pocket. In the center console of Easter’s car were some diet pills. They were in a miniature plastic baggie. The label said EZY Dose Pill Pouch.
Chapter 3 | Read it from the beginning
Jill Easter wasn’t talking. She bounced a basketball in the driveway with her 3-year-old daughter as Irvine police moved methodically through her house, snapping photos and jotting notes.
Inside, detectives found what seemed the well-appointed home of ordinary suburban parents. A garage cluttered with exercise equipment. Rooms with kids’ sports trophies, an airplane mobile, a canopy bed decorated with Disney princesses.
In the master bedroom they found a copy of Easter’s self-published novel, “Holding House,” written under the pen name Ava Bjork. It had just come out. She smiled glamorously from the back cover, with styled blond hair and arresting blue eyes. Like its author, the female protagonist was a Berkeley-educated lawyer who had found work at a Bay Area firm.
She was “a patient woman with a formidable intelligence,” the novel explained, alluring to men but unlucky in love. To cope with life’s stresses, she mixed wine with Xanax. When wronged, the heroine burned for revenge and applied her patient, formidable intelligence to the task of exacting it.
While Jill Easter waited unhappily for police to complete their search, a second team of Irvine cops had converged on a target a few miles away. This was her husband’s 14th-floor law office, in a building overlooking Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
It was March 4, 2011. Detectives were looking for evidence that the Easters had planted marijuana and painkillers in a neighbor’s car about two weeks earlier, the bizarre endgame of a year-old grudge that began at an Irvine elementary school.
Police couldn’t just go into Kent Easter’s office and rifle through his files; they were full of confidential information about his clients.
For the search, they relied on Paul Jensen, a personal injury lawyer who also served as an unpaid special master for the courts. He would take what looked relevant and leave the rest.
That morning, when Jensen showed up at the Irvine Police Department for the operational briefing, he counted a throng of cops — maybe 15 or 20 — and thought it seemed like overkill. They were ready for Pablo Escobar. “Kent Easter is a lawyer,” he thought. “He’s not a Mafioso.”
But now, as he went through Easter’s papers, Jensen was happy the police were there in force, standing guard at the door. Some of the law firm’s employees were raising a clamor, confronting the cops. Why are you here? What gives you the right? This is Newport Beach, not Irvine! Only after a cop threatened someone with arrest did things quiet down.
Neither of the Easters was arrested that day. The evidence seized included the couple’s smartphones. Detectives believed their contents might clinch the case.
But the phones were soon locked up inside the chambers of an Orange County judge, where they would languish as legal arguments raged.
Easter’s firm wanted his BlackBerry back because it held sensitive client information. The Easters’ criminal defense attorneys wanted evidence on both phones kept from police, citing attorney-client and spousal privileges. It was complicated enough to bring a case against two attorneys, even more so when they were married to each other.
At times the case approached the threshold of farce — a mashup of Benny Hill, David Lynch and “Desperate Housewives.”
Into the story, on the very morning the search warrants were served, stumbled a strapping off-duty firefighter — Jill Easter’s married paramour.
Detectives were sitting in an unmarked car, waiting to approach the Easter house, when the firefighter came strolling up the block and spotted them. He took off, holding a phone to his ear.
Jill Easter emerged from her house in a negligee, by detectives’ account, then noticed the cops herself, and hurried back inside.
Police stopped the firefighter as he pulled away in his pickup. His name was Glen Gomez. He drove an engine for a Los Angeles Fire Department station house, 50 miles north. He said he was in town to visit “a beautiful Swedish girl, her name is Jill.”
Their affair had been going on for 2½ years. They arranged trysts, swapped explicit photos and traded exuberantly pornographic texts, court records would show. She called him her “sex ninja,” “Papi” and “Mr. Delicious.” He called her his “sex goddess,” “baby girl” and “Mrs. Delicious.”
Gomez’s phone records showed he hadn’t been near the scene of the drug-planting, but detectives hoped to enlist his help.
They were tight-lipped with details, but told him that he was in the middle of something very serious, something that could hurt both his family and his career.
They kept saying, “She’ll ruin you.” He kept saying, “I love her.”
Would he wear a wire? police asked.
On March 23, nearly three weeks after the warrants were served, he agreed. He wanted to show he had nothing to hide, and seemed to have a second motive: curiosity.
He met her in a park down the block from her house. She brought her two youngest children. She told them her male friend was the park ranger. She told them to go play. There was a playground with a sandbox, swings, slide and seesaw.
As investigators listened in, Gomez, who had been given a loose script, told her cops had been asking him questions. He wanted to know what it was all about.
She was in some kind of trouble, she said, but wouldn’t give him details.
“I really can’t afford to have this type of investigation because my husband could lose his job,” she said.
“I’m going to tell them the truth. I mean, it’s not a crime to have a beautiful girlfriend,” Gomez said. He said he thought they should keep their distance, for a while. “As much as I care for you and love you, it’s probably not a smart thing for us to be, like, talking right now, because of what’s going on and stuff.”
He pressed her. “I just hope that you are who I think you are,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure you are. I’m 99.999% positive. But when I have a detective calling me it makes you wonder a little bit, that’s all.”
Easter accused him of abandoning her. “I thought that if I ever had some trouble in my life or sadness that I would have someone to stand beside me, and I don’t,” she said. “It’s a hard lesson to learn.”
She continued to scold him. “I don’t even know what I need,” she said. “I need someone like you see in the movies to come in and help.”
He persisted. Why were cops asking him questions?
“Do you think I know?” she replied. “I’m waiting for someone to help me. I’m losing everything here. I don’t know.”
“Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong, then you should be fine.”
Her tone was growing angrier and angrier. “I’m not going to be fine, do you understand me? Don’t just put your head in the sand! This is the moment, this is when I needed someone and you turned your back on me! And I will not survive this!”
Soon after the conversation in the park, the firefighter told police, they broke up and she went “crazy.” She showed up at his Long Beach home and told his wife about the affair, brandishing emails and photos.
She detailed the affair in a letter to the dance studio where his wife worked, Gomez told police. It was “cleverly written in the third person,” according to a police report, “as if it was a close friend of Jill’s who was writing it.”
Irvine Police Det. Mark Andreozzi called Kelli Peters in late March 2011, more than a month after the drugs were discovered in her car outside Plaza Vista elementary, the school where she’d volunteered for years.
He couldn’t tell her much, but he wanted to reassure her: The department now had strong evidence that the drugs had been planted, as she’d insisted all along.
He didn’t reveal what the crime lab had just reported: Jill Easter’s DNA was on the pot pipe and the Vicodin pills, though not on the Percocet. And Kent Easter’s DNA was on all three.
Police insisted that Peters keep quiet even about the little she did know. Anything she said could derail the investigation. If word got back to the Easters, they might find some way to stop it cold. Now and then police told her, “You have no idea how much we want to get them.”
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Months went by, and they were nowhere close to making arrests. Jill Easter had hired Paul Meyer, an Orange County defense lawyer so formidable that judges turned to him when they were in trouble. Kent Easter had enlisted Thomas Bienert Jr., a former federal prosecutor with expertise in white-collar crime.
Detectives knew that just around the time of the drug-planting, Kent Easter’s BlackBerry had been pinging off a tower near the crime scene, and that it had exchanged 15 texts with his wife’s iPhone during those predawn hours.
So far, however, defense arguments had thwarted police from examining whatever incriminating messages the phones might contain.
Sitting in a windowless office, Jensen, the volunteer special master, combed through 20,000 emails on the BlackBerry, weeding out the thousands that seemed to fall under attorney-client and attorney work-product privilege.
What he was not qualified to do, he told the judge, was to screen the phones for spousal privilege, and with this chore still undone in late October 2011 — more than eight months after the crime — he insisted he was done with the case. He had a practice to run. “I never in a million years thought it would be like this,” Jensen said later. “I put in a Herculean amount of work.”
The district attorney’s office did further screening, and in November detectives got a stash of “non-privileged” Easter texts. To their chagrin, the most anticipated ones — the 15 predawn texts — had been erased before the phones were seized.
At the Irvine Police Department, the frustration was climbing. The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lynda Fernandez, seemed stuck in a holding pattern as the court weighed whether to release more evidence.
A year passed. The police investigation, including the embarrassing search of his office, had not harmed Kent Easter’s career. His firm named him an equity partner, cutting him into a share of the profits.
For Kelli Peters, it was a time of self-consciousness and dread. In the mornings, she searched her car carefully for drugs. At Plaza Vista elementary, where she still had a desk in the front office, people were always bringing her cakes and telling her she was in their prayers. Now and then she saw Jill Easter arrive, looking rushed, to pick up her son. Peters felt a chill and looked away.
Her daughter, Sydnie, who turned 11 that year, refused to sleep alone, fearing she would be abducted. At recess, Peters would find her sitting alone or wandering the yard, talking to herself. At the school’s insistence, Peters sent her to the school therapist and came to regret it, because it meant Sydnie was being pulled out of class and made to feel even more like a spectacle.
Peters bought her a sketchbook to carry at school, and her daughter hid behind it, drawing superheroes and ponies. Peters asked other moms to please encourage their kids to play with her, but this made her daughter feel pitied, and eventually she was begging to leave the school.
Anxiety pervaded every hour. When Peters came home, she hurried to her door, afraid someone might be hiding in the hallway. Her husband would return from work to find her crying.
Peters slept fitfully, haunted by dreams in which Jill Easter was slashing her throat. In her waking hours she found her hands pulling her scarf protectively around her neck. She discovered a bald spot on her scalp. She got off Facebook. She snapped when people forgot to lock the doors.
At the big artificial lake where she took her dogs, and where she had watched generations of Canada geese grow up, she now feared to walk alone. She made sure friends were with her, one on each side.
Her famously safe, master-planned city now seemed alive with hidden menace. As she walked among Irvine’s tidy houses, she became fixated on how vulnerable they all seemed, with windows to climb through and sliding-glass doors to break into. It made her grateful to live in an apartment, with one door in and out.
Often, her family would catch Kelli Peters talking to herself. She would be in the kitchen reliving her encounter with police at the school, pleading, explaining.
Please put the drugs away, she would mutter. I don’t want people to see them...
I have an enemy... Her name is Jill Easter...
I have an enemy...
Some of the detectives were reading Jill Easter’s self-published novel, searching for psychological clues.
She was adept at fashioning characters consumed by a primal need for payback.
The plot of “Holding House” followed a Berkeley-educated heroine, Libby, and her Berkeley-educated friends, as they launch a “foolproof” crime: Kidnap a well-heeled target and hide out in Panama to await a wired ransom.
All goes awry, and Libby is spurned by her narcissistic lover and criminal confederate, the “chiseled and effortlessly handsome” Joe. She finds herself “churning over her one new mission in life — to make Joe pay for abandoning her.”
She drains his bank account. She sets him up for a visa violation. She makes an anonymous call to cops. As they close in, he leaps to his death. Guilt consumes her.
It was possible to read Easter’s novel as a cautionary tale about the self-immolating temptations of vengeance, the wisdom of avoiding beautiful narcissists, or the inevitable doom of “foolproof” criminal plots.
These were not the themes emphasized in marketing the book, as police learned when they discovered her online promotional page, which instead touted the seductions of lawbreaking:
“Ever dream about the perfect crime? It’s in this book! As you read, you’ll be wondering why no one has thought of it before. It’s shockingly simple, twisted and 100% possible. Once you read about it, you’ll be tempted to pull it off!”
Chapter 4 | Read it from the beginning
The Orange County D.A.’s Special Prosecutions unit dealt with crimes of particular sensitivity — high-profile cases involving doctors and cops, lawyers and politicians.
Christopher Duff, a career prosecutor in his early 40s, joined the team in the spring of 2012. Among the files that landed on his desk was a bizarre caper involving a pair of married Irvine attorneys suspected of planting drugs in a neighbor’s car.
Duff was struck by how thoroughly the Irvine police had investigated a crime in which the victim had suffered no physical harm. They had put 20 detectives on the case against Kent and Jill Easter at one time or another, and the lead investigator had spent six months on it exclusively.
Duff considered the possibilities. In so many places, he thought, it would have gone differently. If the attempted frame-up had happened in one of the gang neighborhoods of Los Angeles where he used to prosecute shootings, rather than in a rich, placid city in Orange County ... if the cop who found the stash of drugs in Kelli Peters’ car had been a rookie, rather than a sharp-eyed veteran … if she had been slightly less believable ...
It was easy to picture. Peters, the PTA president at her daughter’s elementary school, would have left the campus in the back of a patrol car, a piercing sight for the teachers who loved her and relied on her, for the parents who had entrusted their kids to her for years. It would have stolen not just her freedom but her name.
When Duff met Peters, she seemed raw-nerved and brittle, the kind of person who would be traumatized by a trip through jail. “It would have broken Kelli Peters,” he said. “I just know it.”
He also knew jurors would find Peters sympathetic. She was never far from tears when she talked about the Easters’ plot to destroy her, and the ways it had shaken her sense of security.
Duff was inheriting a case that had languished for more than a year, to the vocal frustration of Irvine cops. Duff’s office had battled in court for access to the Easters’ smartphones, whose contents were shielded by attorney privileges. What seemed to fuel the Easters’ sense of superiority — their status as lawyers — was now protecting them from the consequences of their crime, Duff thought.
Looking over the evidence, the prosecutor decided he had enough. He had their DNA on the pot pipe and painkillers planted in their victim’s car. He had motive and opportunity. He had incriminating smartphone pings. He had convicted killers on less.
The Easters expected a warning.
If charges were ever filed, their lawyers told them, the D.A.’s office had assured them of advance notice.
This would allow the Easters to surrender at an appointed time, with bail already arranged, and they could be in and out of booking quickly. They would avoid the pinch of handcuffs, a luxury available to people with money and good lawyers.
But Irvine police showed little inclination to minimize the Easters’ discomfort, and Duff said he was unaware of any surrender agreement.
In June 2012, police moved secretly under his direction. They obtained arrest warrants, careful not to record them in the public court computers.
Kent Easter had just dropped off two of his children at a tennis camp when the patrol car pulled him over near a busy intersection in Irvine. He was heading to work, to the Newport Beach office tower with his master-of-the-universe view on the 14th floor. He was in a suit, an equity partner, a high-dollar litigator. He had a deposition that day, and boxes of legal papers in the trunk.
Police called a tow truck for his Toyota Camry, handcuffed him and drove him to the county jail in Santa Ana. He was standing in the intake courtyard when he saw his wife, who had been arrested at their house, arrive in a squad car.
The Easters were being charged with conspiring to plant drugs in Peters’ car, the twisted culmination of a yearlong vendetta against the school volunteer. They were quickly out on bail, but their mug shots were all over the news.
No one had been killed, but something about the crime — the power and pettiness of the defendants, combined with the harmlessness of their victim — engendered a depth of indignation few cases matched. “Pure wickedness,” said one online commentator. “One of the most malicious things I’ve ever heard,” said another.
Orange County had long been dogged by images of rich and plastic people, the stereotypes fueled by the “Real Housewives” franchise with its rotating cast of socialites, their lives a whirl of feuds, shopping trips, personal trainers, lovers, plastic surgeons.
Now the Easters became symbols of this status-obsessed milieu at its most deranged, with an inexplicable crime that seemed to throb weirdly at the nexus of suburban psychosis and class privilege.
And it had happened in Irvine, no less — the county’s model, master-planned city — inviting people to contemplate the ugliness that seethed behind closed doors in places that overpromised order and niceness and green.
Kent Easter was told to clear out his law office at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. A human resources representative escorted him out of the Newport Beach building with his boxes, the detritus of a $400,000-a-year job.
It seemed inconceivable that he’d ever work for a firm again — none could risk the publicity — but he might salvage a semblance of a career.
As the months passed, however, Duff won felony indictments against the Easters and showed no willingness to let them plead to misdemeanors, which might have allowed them to remain lawyers. This had far sharper urgency for Kent Easter, the family breadwinner, than for Jill Easter, whose license had been inactive for years.
DNA from both Easters had turned up on the planted drugs, but the weight of the evidence was stronger against husband than against wife. It was Kent who had been captured on tape making a phony call to police, implicating Peters. And it was Kent’s BlackBerry that had been pinging near Peters’ car when the drugs were planted.
But it was Jill Easter who took the blame for planting the drugs, in a declaration filed with the court and quickly sealed.
It was not a confession in the normal sense. It could not be used against her. It was offered for a narrow purpose — as part of an ingenious defense motion to try the Easters separately.
Her admission of guilt provided a strong legal basis for doing so.
Kent Easter would naturally wish to put her on the stand in his own defense, but couldn’t legally do so if they were put on trial together. He could if the trials were severed.
Superior Court Judge John Conley listened to the defense argument, and to the prosecutor’s impassioned opposition.
If the judge decided to split the trials, it was easy to envision calamity for the state’s case. The defense would push to have Jill Easter tried first, jurors wouldn’t hear her confession, and the relatively thin evidence against her — coupled with the skill of her attorney, Paul Meyer — would give her a plausible chance at acquittal.
Then she would take the stand at her husband’s trial, immune from the threat of jail. If she could testify credibly that she had planted the drugs, he would go free too. Game over.
It was a far-seeing strategy, equal parts cold logic and derring-do, but it had a flaw. First, the judge had to find Jill Easter’s confession believable. He seemed to have doubts.
Motion denied. The Easters would have to stand trial together.
By fall 2013, Duff was making final preparations for trial, papering his home and office with yellow Post-it notes on which he would scribble ideas at all hours. Then his telephone rang. It was Meyer. Jill Easter would agree to plead guilty to a felony count of false imprisonment by fraud or deceit.
This would spare her the humiliation of sitting through a trial and would also allow her to testify for the husband on whom she still depended financially.
The sentence — to begin after his trial — was 120 days in county jail. She would serve less than half, plus 100 hours at a Costa Mesa soup kitchen. She was promptly disbarred. Her Boalt Hall law degree was now useless.
The Central Justice Center in Santa Ana was a sad wreck of a building, with overcrowded elevators, graffiti-scratched bathrooms and walls covered with fading portraits of former judges, retired or dead.
Into this setting, in November 2013, strode Kent Easter and his imposing defense team. It was headed by Thomas Bienert Jr., once Orange County’s top federal prosecutor. Two years earlier, Best Lawyers magazine had named him the county’s “White-Collar Lawyer of the Year.” In polish and pedigree, Bienert seemed more a creature of the federal courthouse down the block, a palace of domed ceilings, cherry wood paneling and honey-hued travertine.
From the witness stand, Kelli Peters faced jurors and recounted her experience, shaking with tears. She described being detained by police when they found drugs in her car at Plaza Vista School.
When Bienert questioned Officer Charles Shaver about that day, the defense attorney sought to minimize her ordeal. She wasn’t handcuffed, was she? No. Put in the squad car? No. Booked? No.
Duff counterattacked. To demonstrate how Peters had pleaded with Shaver not to arrest her, the prosecutor threw himself to his knees in front of the jury box, hands aloft beseechingly.
“She fell to her knees crying, begging you, ‘please, please, please.’ Correct?”
“Yes,” Shaver said.
Having failed to fend off arrest, job loss, indictment and trial, Kent Easter had one gambit left.
The successful litigator who had blazed through Stanford in three years would present himself as an emasculated patsy. His wife had berated him, deceived him, bludgeoned him with guilt.
“While Kent is a very good human being, he didn’t have a backbone when it came to his wife,” Bienert told jurors. “She wore the pants in the family. She pushed him around.”
How this might explain away the evidence against him wouldn’t be clear until the defendant himself took the stand.
Tall, composed, and well-groomed, Easter looked confident as he raised his right hand. He swore to tell the truth. Finally, he said, he would get the chance to explain.
Chapter 5 | Read it from the beginning
It was my wife, Kent Easter told jurors.
She had become obsessed with destroying the PTA mom, he said. She had planted the pot and painkillers in Kelli Peters’ car. She had lured him into her criminal scheme. She was the reason he sat here today, his life a shambles, on trial for a felony.
Easter had taken the witness stand in his own defense, casting himself as a figure instantly familiar to aficionados of 1940s crime dramas: the hapless cuckold and sap, undone by a femme fatale and her noirish machinations.
It was a pitiable tale, but he was a hard man to warm up to. He had an air of bloodless detachment that came across as arrogance.
He had been a busy man, he explained, logging 200 billable hours a month for his big Newport Beach law firm, trying to appease a hectoring spouse who was never satisfied.
He knew that his wife, Jill, had been unfaithful to him, off and on, for years. “I felt that my job was to be a husband, to stay married,” Easter testified. “Nobody in our family had ever gotten divorced.”
As a glimpse into the toxic power dynamic of the marriage — as a window into his wife’s obsessiveness — Easter’s team presented Defense Exhibit L. It was an email she sent him in March 2010, he said, interrupting his workday.
The subject line: “Need to get serious.” The theme: how to crush the lowly school volunteer who, she insisted, had deliberately locked their 6-year-old son out of his elementary school a month before.
The email was a litany of demands. She wanted Kelli Peters’ background checked. She wanted her arrested. She wanted her slapped with a restraining order. She wanted to sue Peters, the school, the school district, the school board, the public-schools foundation. She wanted action by tomorrow.
The email ended in bold capitals:
There were 68 exclamation points, for anyone who cared to count.
“She thought I had let her down, that I had failed,” Easter said. “I hadn’t pushed hard enough on this.”
As her obsession with Peters intensified, he tried to be the reasonable one, the moderating force. He had not known of her scheme to frame Peters, he insisted.
In telling this story, Kent Easter had to explain away a big problem: It was his BlackBerry that had been pinging near Peters’ PT Cruiser in the predawn hours when the drugs were planted in a pouch behind the driver’s seat. His wife’s iPhone had been pinging at their Irvine home, a mile away.
Kent Easter was ready with an explanation: We swapped phones.
He had been at home, sleeping fitfully, sore from recent surgery. She had left her iPhone in their bedroom to charge and had taken his BlackBerry. He thought she was downstairs, tending to their sick daughter. Unbeknownst to him, she had slipped out to plant the drugs.
He was at work later that day, he said, when she called him to say she’d seen Peters popping pills and driving like a “madwoman” at Plaza Vista elementary in Irvine. She insisted that he call police, and he reluctantly agreed, afraid she would again belittle him as a failure.
To disguise himself, he gave police the first name that popped into his head, which happened to be “VJ Chandrasckhr,” based on an Indian neighbor. He had then tried his untrained best to mimic the man’s accent.
“It’s incredibly uncomfortable to sit here and listen to something so ridiculous,” Easter said after the call was played in court. “I feel stupid for having believed her and put my entire career and children in jeopardy.”
To flesh out its portrayal of Jill Easter as an overbearing shrew with a talent for weaponizing guilt, the defense played a tape of her haranguing her former lover, a married Los Angeles city firefighter who had been wired up by police. She accused him of abandoning her as police zeroed in on her and her husband as suspects.
“Don’t just put your head in the sand! This is the moment, this is when I needed someone and you turned your back on me!” she had cried. “And I will not survive this!”
It was a tone Kent Easter said he had heard before.
“That’s the voice that I hear when I saw the ‘need to get serious’ email,” he said. “That’s the voice that plays in my mind. I mean, that’s when she is upset about something and wants something.”
Now it was Christopher Duff’s turn to ask Easter a few questions, an opportunity the prosecutor relished.
Some prosecutors employed an aw-shucks persona, and some excelled at righteous indignation. Duff specialized in biting sarcasm. He had a stage-actor’s gift for outsize facial expressions, so jurors could read varieties of incredulity on his face from across the room.
The prosecutor stood in front of Kent Easter. He wanted to know why he remained married to Jill Easter, and in fact had been living with her until a month and a half earlier. How was this possible, considering all the ways she had betrayed him?
“Sir, this is the mother of my three children,” Easter said. “And my wife.”
Turning to the night of the drug-planting, Duff asked why Jill Easter would leave him her iPhone, whose passcode he claimed to possess, considering how easily he might have seen her trove of salacious exchanges with her latest lover.
“I mean, she has ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ on her cellphone, correct?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Duff was close enough to see that Easter, who had remained composed under his own attorney’s friendly questioning, seemed increasingly nervous. Easter said it just didn’t occur to him to look for her texts. “I had no idea they were in there, so I wouldn’t have known to look there or not,” Easter said.
“You knew your wife had already had one affair. You were concerned that she was out that night having another affair. And you had the one piece of evidence in your hand that could show you right then and there, correct?”
Duff now mocked the story of the smartphone swap. If his wife had really been sneaking around Peters’ apartment complex in possession of his BlackBerry, wouldn’t she have worried about it going off unexpectedly?
“And all of a sudden ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ starts playing on your ringtone?” Duff said.
“That was not my ringtone,” Easter said.
Everyone was waiting for Jill Easter to walk into the room.
She represented Kent Easter’s best chance at acquittal, thought Irvine Det. Mark Andreozzi, who sat beside the prosecutor.
The villain of her husband’s narrative, she had already pleaded guilty to her part in the crime. If she went to the witness stand and took the blame for everything — if she backed up his story and managed to come off as semi-credible — jurors might have reasonable doubt.
Duff expected the defense to call her. He was looking forward to the cross.
Instead, the defense rested.
They think they don’t need her, Duff thought. They think they’ve won.
The defense’s closing argument dwelled at length on Kent Easter’s cuckolding and Jill Easter’s supposed stratagems. It was a tale as superheated with intrigue and double-crosses as a pulp-fiction plot — lust, concocted alibis and frame-ups within frame-ups like Russian nesting dolls.
Her husband was her meal ticket, said defense attorney Thomas Bienert Jr., but the firefighter had her heart. On the very night she planted the drugs, the defense contended, she had found time to disappear for a tryst, which she recalled in a text to her lover the next morning: “Good morning you glorious man I am still swimming in romance.”
Bienert portrayed her as an imaginative schemer. Hadn’t she written a novel about “the perfect crime”? If the plot to frame the PTA mom unraveled, he said, Jill Easter had made sure that her husband’s DNA would be on the planted drugs so that he would take the fall. Her calculation even extended to devising an alibi video featuring herself and her sick daughter, with a time stamp meant to show she was home at the time of the crime, the defense argued.
“If somebody was going to go down for this, it had to be Kent, not her,” Bienert said. “He was expendable.”
The charge was one count of false imprisonment by fraud or deceit. The jury could not reach a verdict. Eleven wanted to convict. One woman felt sorry for Kent Easter.
Again a jury was selected, again Kelli Peters cried, again Kent Easter told his lamentable story. And once more, 10 months after the first trial, people watched and waited for Jill Easter’s entrance. She had finished her two-month jail term. This time, the defense called her into the courtroom. But there was a complication. She pointed to her ears, claiming hearing loss. She wanted more than a sign-language interpreter. She wanted a screen on which to read lawyers’ questions in real time.
At the prosecutor’s table, they believed this a ruse to throw off the cross-examination. It would be harder to trap her. She’d get extra seconds to process questions. The judge said she would have to make do with an interpreter like everyone else. The defense huddled, reconsidering the wisdom of putting her on the stand, and sent her home.
For Duff, there remained the challenge of trying to explain why the Easters wanted to ruin Kelli Peters in the first place. The provocation had seemed irrationally small. A school volunteer, Peters had inadvertently left the Easters’ 6-year-old son in the back recess yard for a few minutes one afternoon. Peters explained that the boy had been slow to line up after tennis class, which Jill Easter seemed to perceive as an insult to his intelligence.
“There’s a whole show, ‘Orange County Housewives,’ where all the housewives are crazy,” Duff told jurors in his closing statement. “This is the 21st century, where everyone thinks their son should be the star quarterback, star shortstop, batting first, whatever it is. Whatever happened, whatever their son said, got these two very upset and it escalated.”
As he had at the first trial, Duff emphasized that the Easters remained married. “How uncomfortable is it at the dinner table?” Duff asked. “‘Jill, can you pass me the mashed potatoes, please?’ ‘Yeah, OK.’ ‘Don’t frame me while you’re passing the mashed potatoes, please, though.’ Really? They’re still together.”
The most dramatic moments of the second trial came during Duff’s final remarks to jurors. He noted that the location of cellphones is knowable in three ways — when they ping against the nearest tower during calls, when texts are exchanged, and when automatic “data checks” monitor the devices’ health.
Until now, the data-check records — though put into evidence — had barely been mentioned. Irvine detectives had missed their significance during their investigation, as had Duff during the first trial. Preparing for this trial, however, Duff had pored over them carefully and discovered what he thought might destroy Kent Easter’s alibi for good.
It had long been established, from the text pings, that Jill Easter’s iPhone had been at the Easter home on the night in question.
For at least part of that night, however, the data checks indicated that her phone had also been near Peters’ apartment. It had been pinging off the local tower intermittently from midnight to 8 a.m.
The Easters had executed the plot together while a babysitter watched their kids, the prosecutor argued. One had planted the drugs while the other acted as the lookout.
Even if the Easters had swapped phones, the records put Kent Easter at the scene.
“Guess where her cellphone is?” Duff said. “By the victim’s house. Oops.”
This seemed to catch the defense flat-footed. Because he had already finished his closing argument, it was too late for Bienert to try to convince jurors this was junk science. After the jury left the room, he railed against the prosecutor. He said he had been sandbagged.
Duff replied that Easter’s team had had the phone records for years.
Either the defense had not looked at the records, Duff said, “or was hoping that I didn’t look at the records.”
Judge Thomas Goethals saw no reason Duff couldn’t save a good argument for the end.
“It seems to me Mr. Duff made a strategic decision,” he said.
The jury needed only two hours to decide. Guilty as charged.
Then came another surprise for the defense. The judge ordered Kent Easter taken into custody. Easter hadn’t expected this. He had made no arrangements for his three kids, for his bills. The judge gave him a day to arrange his affairs, “out of concern for nothing but your children.”
When he told his wife the news that day, Easter said later in court papers, she told him he should kill himself so she could collect on a $500,000 life-insurance policy, and when he refused she made other desperate suggestions — an escape to Belize with the kids, or her own suicide.
He stayed up that night comforting her as he closed down his practice, he added, and the next morning he found the search term “how to kill yourself” on her iPad.
Easter had already been in jail for five weeks when he stood before Goethals for sentencing in October 2014. He faced up to three years in state prison. Goethals made no secret of his contempt for Easter, but noted that the prisons were full.
“In a perfect world, I would send you to prison largely as a statement of disgust for what you and your wife did,” Goethals said. Instead, he sentenced him to 180 days in county jail, of which he would serve half, plus 100 hours of community service and three years’ probation.
Easter did his time without the luxury of anonymity. Inmates recognized him from TV, and some thought he ought to be taken down. One day, he said, two of them knocked him down and bloodied his nose. He cleaned floors and toilets, and read “Game of Thrones” paperbacks.
More than once, inmates asked him for legal advice. Some of them he liked. He had been an ardent Republican with little sympathy for lawbreakers, but now he pondered the colossal waste of time and talent exacted by the system.
He had filed for divorce just before his second trial, and he was still serving his time when Jill Easter petitioned for custody of their three kids. Their dueling court filings provided as close a glimpse of their relationship as outsiders were ever likely to get.
She wrote of his “instability and irrational behavior” and described him as an angry workaholic and heavy drinker, prone to mood swings, who would isolate himself from his family by locking himself in the bathroom.
She said he blamed his drinking on his difficult relationship with his Catholic parents, who had rejected her as a non-Catholic. She said he had threatened to take the kids if she didn’t plead guilty to the drug-planting.
“I am trapped in an endless cycle of lashing out at you — even after using you as a human shield,” he wrote to her from jail, according to her court filings. “I am sick.…”
Released from jail in December 2014, he complained in his own court papers that she wouldn’t let him talk to their kids, wouldn’t give him updates on the family cat and wouldn’t give him the airway machine he needed for his sleep apnea.
The criminal case had exacerbated their fights, he said in the filing, and she once pepper-sprayed his face in a rage. Helpless to stop her affairs, he said he needed a DNA test to prove his daughter was his.
He said she used the word “Orange” when she wanted him to stop talking about a subject, like finances, that made her too anxious. After her release from jail, he said, she became depressed, took anti-anxiety medication and binged on Netflix for days.
Later, after they agreed to joint custody, he retracted his pepper-spray accusation.
“Moreover, Jill Easter has never been violent towards me or physically harmed me in any way,” he wrote. “She was only ever loving and caring.”
Duff, the prosecutor, thought justice had been served. But after two criminal trials, there remained an irreducible mystery at the heart of it — what had prompted the Easters to go to such astonishing lengths over a slight so small. “The story that hasn’t been told is why these people did it,” Duff said. “Everyone asks me, and I have no answer.”
Rob Marcereau, an attorney whose Foothill Ranch law office was decorated with images of vintage motorbikes, shark fins and bright green U.S. currency, wanted answers himself. He represented Kelli Peters in her civil suit against the Easters.
He had waited patiently through the criminal trials, waited for Kent Easter to serve his time, waited for his crack at the man and his wallet. And now, in a December 2015 deposition, he faced Easter across a table.
Easter was now a convicted felon, disgraced, on probation, his law license suspended, his disbarment pending. Still the law threatened to exact a further price — monetary damages for Peters’ emotional distress — and still he would not surrender an inch of ground or a ray of clarity.
“At some point in 2010 or 2011, did you and your wife hatch a plan to plant drugs in Kelli Peters’ car and have her arrested?” asked Marcereau.
“I have testified at length about this in two proceedings, and my testimony is what it is,” Kent Easter said.
Marcereau persisted: “I’m entitled to an answer.”
Easter said: “I’ve answered that twice in criminal court.”
“That means nothing,” Marcereau said. “I need an answer, sir, or else I’ll move to compel. I’ll seek sanctions.”
“OK. You can do that. I’ve answered it.”
“You haven’t answered it, sir.”
Easter insisted he didn’t know who planted the drugs.
“Did your wife ever tell you that she did it?”
“I can’t answer that question due to spousal confidential communication.”
Marcereau went at it again. “Sir, did you knowingly participate in a scheme with your wife to frame Kelli Peters?”
“No.” He felt sorry for Kelli Peters, Easter said, but he had been through some terrible experiences himself. “I don’t feel that she should have been as upset as she has been.”
Marcereau asked, “So you think what you’ve gone through is worse than what you and your wife put Mrs. Peters through?”
“I know that.”
Marcereau asked, “Don’t you think you’d feel better if you just said, ‘You know what? I did it. I screwed up. I regret it. I’m sorry’? Wouldn’t that feel good just to say that?”
“Is this a therapy session or a deposition?”
“I would love to get some candor out of you after all of this,” Marcereau said. “Can’t you just admit what you did?”
This article appeared in print and online on Sept. 2, 2016.
Chapter 6 | Read it from the beginning
A tall, lanky man sat alone on a bench outside Courtroom 62. He was absorbed in the yellow legal pad balanced on his lap, silently mouthing what he had written there.
He was recognizable to many of the attorneys who passed through this third-floor wing of the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana. By now he was accustomed to the stares of curiosity and contempt. The white-shoe rainmakers in the $1,000 suits, the personal-injury guys hustling a living on slip-and-falls, the overworked public defenders — they knew his mug shot from the news.
Until recently Kent Easter had been one of them, a member of the tribe in good standing, a sworn Officer of the Court. He sat atop the roiling, competitive heap of Orange County’s 17,000 practicing lawyers — a $400,000-a-year civil litigator, an equity partner in one of the county’s biggest firms.
His career had been a trajectory of prestige schools and status gigs, from Stanford to UCLA Law to a big Silicon Valley firm, and finally to a 14th-floor office in a Newport Beach tower overlooking the Pacific.
This was before the arrests and the trials and the cameras, before his pedigree became a cudgel with which to flog him, before strangers were writing him letters urging him to kill himself. Now he sat alone in the din of the courthouse hallway wearing ill-fitting pants and a homely purple sweater.
It was February 2016. His lips moved as he studied his legal pad. He was rehearsing a plea for mercy — his closing argument to jurors weighing his financial fate. Absent was the top-dollar legal talent that had flanked him through two criminal trials. Finally, representing himself, he would face his fellow Orange County citizens alone. He would paint a picture of his almost total ruin and beg them not to make it complete.
To Rob Marcereau, the attorney representing the plaintiff and her family, Kent Easter brought back memories of the William Macy character in “Fargo” — a man flailing to extricate himself from the web of his own doomed criminal scheme, losing more with each entangling lie. Here, as compensation for emotional distress, Kelli Peters wanted millions from him.
Some of Marcereau’s lawyer buddies had told him the case was a long-shot. Peters had suffered no physical injury and had kept her role as a school volunteer. But the more Easter tried to duck what he had done, Marcereau thought, the more the jurors would hate him.
Easter sat alone at the defense table, without his co-defendant and ex-wife, Jill. When Marcereau chatted with him during court breaks, he found him oddly affable — low-key, disarmingly polite, with a sense of humor — and had to remind himself he was the enemy.
“Kent Easter and his wife, Jill Easter, plotted and planned and schemed to destroy the life of Kelli Peters for a full year,” Marcereau told jurors in his opening remarks. He detailed their futile campaign to oust her from her volunteer job at Plaza Vista elementary, and their ill-fated plot to disgrace her by planting drugs in her car.
When his turn came, Easter told jurors that Peters’ tale of suffering was full of “exaggerations and embellishments.” He said he took responsibility for what happened to her, though he did so only in the vaguest terms. And he added: “The fact that something very bad was done to a person does not give them a winning Powerball number.”
Marcereau put Easter on the stand. Had he conspired with his wife to plant drugs in Peters’ car?
“Very stupidly and very unfortunately, yes,” Easter replied.
Marcereau pressed for specifics.
“Which one of you, you or your wife, actually planted the drugs in Mrs. Peters’ car? Or was it both?”
“It was my wife.”
That was in keeping with his failed defense during his criminal trials, in which he had cast her as the culprit.
She had not testified at those trials, and no one knew what she might say. When Easter put on his case now and called her to the stand — with a sign-language interpreter on hand for her claimed hearing loss — he did not seem angry at the woman he claimed had ruined him.
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Instead, his tone seemed almost wistful, his gaze tender. She was now calling herself Ava Everheart, and so he began, “Good afternoon, Ms. Everheart.”
He began by acknowledging the damage he’d done to her name.
“I probably could have treated you a little better, couldn’t I have?” he said.
“Despite all of that you have still been kind to me and haven’t sought revenge, right?”
“I have known you since you were young. I don’t know if you remember those days.”
She was living with her parents in Newport Beach. Her father was an astrophysicist and inventor, but she did not mention this. She insisted she was not a child of privilege. She had worked three jobs to put herself through school.
She surveyed the courtroom and said, “I think I am the person that went to the best law school in this room, to be honest with you, and I am proud of that. Doesn’t mean I am spoiled, or a bad person.”
But now her reputation was ruined, she complained. She had done nearly two months in jail. She was disbarred, her law degree from Berkeley’s Boalt Hall useless. “I lost everything. I mean everything,” she said. “I am not a school terrorizer, as I have read about myself.”
She wanted to dispel a misconception about her self-published crime thriller, “Holding House,” which Marcereau had invoked to illustrate her preoccupation with “the perfect crime.”
“The point of the book is these people think they have the perfect crime, and then it gets really messed up,” she said. “So the point is there is no perfect crime. You can’t think of one in your head because you will always be fooled, and that is the point of the book.”
Marcereau did not see much value in a lengthy cross-examination. He thought she had already buried herself.
“Ma’am, on Feb. 16, 2011, you planted illegal drugs in Kelli Peters’ car, true?”
“I pled guilty to that.”
“Did you do it?”
“That is what I thought. No more questions.”
It was time for Kent Easter to call his most important witness, and so he uttered one of the most melancholy sentences jurors would hear: “At this time I would just be calling myself.”
He took the stand, wearing one of the unassuming sweaters that had seemed his sole wardrobe through the trial.
He turned to the jury box and explained that he was, at 41, a broken man. A UCLA Law grad who was sharing an apartment with his parents. His savings eviscerated by a quarter-million dollars in legal fees. Barred even from driving for Uber or Lyft because of his felony conviction. Relying on acquaintances to throw him a little work. And still the sole breadwinner for his three kids, aged 8, 10 and 12.
“All this education that I had is now completely useless to me, by and large,” he said. “I have no expectation that I will be a lawyer ever again.”
Marcereau was convinced Easter was hiding money, somewhere. Soon after his arrest, he pointed out, Easter had transferred ownership of his Irvine house to his father-in-law.
He told jurors not to be deceived. “You know, I think he has a good act. He comes in here wearing the same sweater three days in a row,” Marcereau said. “He probably has a dozen tailored suits at home, and yet he is in here wearing the same sweater trying to tell you that he is poor. Don’t believe it.”
For Kelli Peters, the run-in with the Easters amounted to “the worst experience of her life,” Marcereau said. Her daughter Sydnie, who was 10 when the Easters tried to frame her mother, had refused to sleep alone for fear “the Easter monster” would abduct her, Marcereau said. She had grown isolated from her friends and had finally asked to change schools.
Even now, Kent Easter was still waffling on what he did, while his ex-wife showed “not an ounce of remorse,” Marcereau said. He turned again to the crime novel. He reminded jurors that a promotional spot had appeared on YouTube, right around the time drugs were planted. It had featured a dramatic voice-over by Kent Easter: “If you knew how to commit a perfect crime, would you do it?”
“Kelli Peters is cowering in her house, crying with her daughter and her husband, scared out of her mind, worried she is going to be thrown in jail for God knows how long, and Kent and Jill Easter are toasting to the perfect crime,” Marcereau said. “‘We did it, honey.’ Clink. The perfect crime.”
Kent Easter sat in the hallway during the lunch break, clutching the legal pad on which he had scratched out his closing argument.
“I should never have hurt Kelli Peters,” he told jurors when they returned. Still, he said, everybody had stood by her. The school had supported her. A policeman had detained her but had not arrested her, handcuffed her, pulled a gun on her, locked her in his squad car or taken her to jail. The “polite and professional” cop had not even raised his voice.
Now came the abject plea for mercy. “I’m simply a parent of a young family that is broke,” Easter said. “So I really come here already having lost everything I have except for my family, and I submit there is no further point to additional punishment.”
His words were plaintive, but his tone nearly robotic. It was as if he were talking about someone else, a character named Kent Easter that he did not particularly love.
Nor did jurors, who returned with a verdict of $5.7 million. He sat alone, looking stunned.
To celebrate the verdict, Kelli Peters’ friends threw her a party. They had bought a heart-shaped pinata and decorated it with blown-up copies of the Easters’ mug shots.
Someone gave Peters a stick. She held it tentatively, embarrassed, and administered some half-hearted thwacks. Her daughter, now 15, took the stick. The girl whose childhood had been blighted by the ordeal told her mother to step back. Some of the people in the room were laughing, and some of the same people were already beginning to cry.
She swung the stick full-force. Paydays and 100 Grand bars tumbled through the gash.
Four months after the verdict Easter was back in court, this time in a handsome dark suit, telling the trial judge, Michael Brenner, that the damages were excessive, that Peters’ attorney had failed to show he had means to pay. “The case law is clear on this,” he argued, rattling off legal citations.
Brenner thought the damages were just about right, the jury’s reasoning sound. It was easy to imagine how they figured it, he said. They saw two “top of the heap” lawyers — “a couple of real legal smarties, sophisticated people” — who had used their legal acumen in an attempt to destroy a woman who lived in a little apartment, and who had quit her job to volunteer at her daughter’s school.
The judge noted that Kent Easter could reapply for his law license after a five-year suspension.
Musing on his half-century in the law, the judge called this “the most incomprehensible case I’ve ever seen,” and said: “I can’t figure out why you and your ex-wife did what you did.”
The judge worked a rubber band with his fingers, gazing quizzically down at Kent Easter. He was struck by Easter’s “flat affect” during trial, and reminded him that he’d never taken unambiguous responsibility for planting the drugs.
“Your position on this is always very vague,” the judge said. “The jury could easily think, ‘You know, Mr. Easter has a plan and what he’s gonna do is keep it just as vague as he can.’”
He came right out and asked what everyone wanted to know: “Who dreamed up this idea?”
The judge let the question hang there, while Kent Easter, sitting nearly motionless, said nothing.
“It’s just nuts,” the judge continued, twisting the rubber band. “They’re not exactly master criminals out of Boalt Hall and UCLA.”
More than five years after the drug-planting, the upheavals ripple outward still. Kent Easter has filed for bankruptcy and appealed the civil verdict, so finding a way to get Kelli Peters her money has spawned another legal battle.
In that effort, Peters’ lawyers recently sued Jill Easter’s father, 74-year-old Paul Bjorkholm, a retired scientist for EG&G Astrophysics who owns a $2-million Newport Beach home.
Summoned to answer their questions, Bjorkholm sat uneasily across from the lawyers amid the clamor of the busy third-floor cafeteria at the Santa Ana courthouse.
The lawyers grilled him about what happened in the summer of 2012, when — weeks after the Easters were arrested — they gave him their Irvine home.
The house was sold, and the $171,000 proceeds were split between Jill and Kent Easter, in trusts Bjorkholm had agreed to oversee.
That money rightfully belongs to Peters, the lawyers maintain. They are also asking for punitive damages against Bjorkholm, contending that because he participated in the home’s fraudulent transfer, they may lay claim to his own assets.
During the questioning, Bjorkholm said he had been reluctant when Kent Easter asked him to become trustee so soon after the arrests. Nevertheless, he’d agreed to do it.
“At the time you were asked to do this, you were concerned that it might appear to be a fraud?” Marcereau asked.
“No, other people might think so,” Bjorkholm said. “You’re badgering me pretty hard, and I’m not happy with that.”
Marcereau pressed for an answer. “Why did it seem odd to you?”
Kent Easter was sitting beside his former father-in-law, and now he did as a lawyer would. He interjected: “Objection, asked and answered.”
Marcereau said, “You’re not his attorney. You’re not a lawyer.”
Easter said, “I’m a party here. You’re taking a record.”
Marcereau’s co-counsel, Roger Friedman, told Easter he could stay if he kept quiet, but threatened to get a court order if he interfered.
As if Easter needed reminding, he added, “You’re not an attorney.”
Ask Kent Easter about it today, and he answers in urbane, unfailingly polite tones that his criminal defense was a pack of lies and distortions, that he demonized his wife, that he pressured her into pleading guilty in the hope he might go free. Nor was he her dupe. “She was made out to be a cartoonish villainess,” he says. “This master-planner ice queen from ‘Gone Girl’ — it makes this great archetype. She writes these crime novels and planned this whole thing. But it’s just absolutely not true.”
For his trials, he says, he “embellished” one of the defense exhibits without his attorney’s knowledge — the hectoring email in which his wife demanded that he “get serious” about destroying Peters. He says the all-caps last line, with its 68 exclamation points, was his work, not hers. “To beef things up,” he says.
It’s hard to keep track of his shifting stories. In criminal court, he denied conspiring to plant the drugs and said his wife had done it alone. In civil court, he said he conspired with her but that she had done the actual planting. Today, he says, “She was not out there that night,” but will not supply details. He worries about perjury charges for changing his story. He points to the county jail and says, “I don’t want to go back over there.” He acknowledges that the crime “was really not thought out very well,” and adds: “I didn’t expect that half the Irvine Police Department would be working on this.”
He speaks of his ex-wife as if he still loves her. When he met her at their Silicon Valley firm in the mid-1990s, she was not like other women he met, laser-focused on a legal career. She was a hiker, a student of history, the owner of a pet bunny. She turned out to be a great mother who used flashcards with their kids and got them reading by age 5.
“All the best moments in my life have been with her,” he says. “All the worst moments have been with her too.”
He is scratching out a living, he says, doing odd law-related jobs and freelance writing.
Some time ago, he says, he met a woman and developed a romantic interest in her. He asked her out. They made plans. Then came the cancellation he half-expected, expressed in four words:
“I just Googled you.”
One day this spring, Kelli Peters drove to Hollywood to tape a segment of the “Dr. Phil” show. She hoped to promote a book she was co-writing called “I’ll Get You! Drugs, Lies, and the Terrorizing of a PTA Mom.”
She brought a mock-up of the cover, featuring herself in the cross-hairs of a rifle scope beneath Jill Easter’s glaring mug-shot eyes.
Dr. Phil obliged by holding it aloft, which she hoped would bump up the advance sales. She needed the money. Her husband had leukemia and was out of work, and the Easters had not paid a penny of the civil judgment.
Entering the publicity circuit exacted a price, however. The producers had taped an interview with Jill Easter and filmed Peters as she watched, fighting nausea.
Easter was unrepentant. She accused Peters of having mistreated her son, leaving him “crying” and “dirty.” Easter portrayed the presence of her genetic material on the planted drugs as innocent, mere “transfer DNA” — an explanation that elicited little more than ridicule.
It was not clear why Easter agreed to the interview; she came off so badly that the host asked, at one point, “What’s wrong with this woman?”
For Peters, it is a relief, now that the Easters have left the neighborhood, even if — last she heard — they are just one city over, in Newport Beach.
She walks her dogs along Irvine’s trim streets and watches geese on the banks of the big, artificial lakes. She smiles at the same people she has been passing for years. She asks about their families, and pets.
It is friendly but dull. She misses beach cities. Maybe when her daughter graduates from high school, she says, she’ll find a more exciting place.
Now and then, she runs into a member of the Police Department, the agency that saw through the lies and put 20 detectives on the case and saved her. They greet her like a friend, but act a little surprised to see her. Why hasn’t she left town, considering all the bad memories?
“I feel safe here,” she says.
This article appeared online on Sept. 3, 2016 and in print Sept. 4.
How this series was reported
Times staff writer Christopher Goffard reviewed thousands of pages of records, including police reports, court exhibits, transcripts of the grand jury proceeding that led to the indictments of Kent and Jill Easter and transcripts of Kent Easter’s two criminal trials.
Goffard also examined testimony in the civil trial resulting from Kelli Peters’ lawsuit and court records of the Easters’ divorce.
In addition, he conducted numerous interviews with Peters, Kent Easter, prosecutor Christopher Duff and members of the Irvine Police Department, including Officer Charles Shaver and Mark Andreozzi, the lead detective on the case. Jill Easter declined to be interviewed.