Murder, Media and Mistakes in Modesto
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Laci Denise Peterson
Driving through Modesto, police Detective Al Brocchini searched for answers. His first day of notes on the case of missing person, Laci Peterson, had themselves disappeared.
Brocchini got all the way to the
police station, accompanied by the missing young woman's husband, Scott,
before it hit him -- he had left his investigation notes at Scott Peterson's
As frenzied media reports quickly transformed Brocchini's California case into a national obsession, the basic information in his notes surfaced in newspapers across the country, along with stories of other mistakes, mishaps and mis-steps by the Modesto Police Department.
The Scott Peterson Investigation
murder, media and mistakes
Scott Peterson told police he returned from a December 24, 2002 fishing trip to the San Francisco Bay and found his pregnant wife missing. Peterson co-operated with authorities who had very few answers for the media's daily questions. No family or friends told police they suspected Peterson was lying until a month into the investigation, when an extra-marital affair was exposed involving a woman named Amber Frey.
Amber Frey press conference
With every week that went by, new and damning rumors leaked into the national inquiry, but the shaky Modesto investigation uncovered no solid evidence against the 31-year-old -- or anyone else.
Then in April, Laci Peterson's body and that of unborn son, Conner Peterson, were finally located. They were found several miles from the San Francisco Bay where Peterson told authorities he went fishing.
The search for Laci came to a
shocking and tragic end. Now, in a charge of double murder, prosecutors are
seeking the death penalty against Scott Peterson.
the defendant is found
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Man or Monster?
Until Proven Otherwise
January 10, 2004
The jury won't be asked to decide if Scott Peterson did it, but if the State has proven he did it.
Mr. Peterson is presumed innocent. The media obsessed Modesto investigators are not afforded that legal luxury. The bleach smells, the luminol results, the Amber photo op and several other sneak previews, turned out to be red herrings from the men in blue.
I've been a front row fan of murder and mayhem for longer than I care to mention, and I have ALWAYS sided with the prosecution. This is the first case -- ever -- where I'm forced to say: NOT PROVEN.
Police stopped looking before any direct proof against Peterson was found, and despite fishing up a lot of circumstantial clues, critical facts about Laci Peterson's homicide remain hidden. Without knowing how, where, when or why she was killed, it's reasonable to have doubts about who did it.
A Slam Dunk in the court of Public Opinion
After Scott Peterson's arrest, the prosecution team talked a good game, announcing they had a "slam-dunk" -- but nothing shown at the preliminary hearing even came close to backing up such bravado.
Yes, I realize prosecutors have produced a witness list longer than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but as the saying goes: "Sometimes too much is not enough." The mere suggestion of 400 witnesses -- some who've been hypnotized -- can make a jury very, very sleepy.
I'm also aware the State is claiming they've got something up their sleeve and have elected to wait and surprise us at trial. But let's face it -- they've not been exactly camera-shy up to this point. Besides, I highly doubt much information could be hidden by Modesto Leak Enforcement -- even if they wanted to.
Prosecutors have no motive, no weapon and no witnesses, and since both murders are being tried at the same time -- they've no hope for a second bite at the apple.
The case as it stands now is more like a true romance than a true crime novel. Scrunched up rugs and upside-down mops are proof that, despite press releases to the contrary, the Modesto murder will be modest indeed.
In two months we've gone from a "slam-dunk" to a long shot, and unless prosecutors truly are hiding the ball, two months from now we may be looking at a foul-out.
the Stanislaus County District Attorney
that appointed Deputy D.A. Rick Distaso
and David Harris to the Peterson case.
"Peterson's demeanor was different
than any I've ever seen in many years in this business . . . A lot of the
things that he did or was reported to have done did not appear to be consistent
with someone who had just lost their wife and soon-to-be son."
"If you go to Modesto you see in every store, every
corner, there's posters for her everywhere. We've
been working on that for 26 days. We simply have to
expand the geographical area. So we'll do it here, we'll
do it in San Diego next weekend and we'll continue to
expand until we find her."
-- Peterson, January 19, 2003
A wonderful old Yiddish saying posits: "God made man because he loves stories."
A search for the truth is a daunting jaunt in the simplest of situations ("Hi. How are you?") -- so tracking down the truth of a murder can be a horribly complex and vexing expedition, fraught with pitfalls.
Namely. . .
Pitfall #1 -- Deciding what to pack for the hunting trip. This is critical. Take too much -- you bog yourself down. Take too little -- you've caught yourself short. Also, it must be remembered that whatever things a prosecutor does decide to pack, can and probably will be used against him.
Pitfall #2 -- Mission creep. Choose one path and stay the course. Every case will have a few bizarre, inexplicable, contrary details. The plain, simple truth is rarely plain and never simple. Still, the focus must remain tightly limited. This means it will also be limiting. The truth hunter should expect to find, and quickly discount, tid-bits of information that, while possibly true, do not support the larger fact pattern. Of course, ignoring inconvenient facts is easier done than said.
Pitfall #3 -- Causing the effect. The famed "uncertainty principle" is mathematical proof of an obvious phenomenon. It suggests that to examine an object you must get close to it, but by getting close to it, you change it -- and the closer you get to the object, the more you will change it -- so that ultimately, all you're really examining is yourself.
An investigation of a murder will inevitably end up being an investigation of the investigation. (Hi Jon. Hi Patsy. How are you?) Recently it was reported that, while being followed by police, Scott Peterson drove erratically, visited the crime scene, and exhibited other odd behaviors. But would Peterson have done those things if the police weren't following him? And searching the bay? And bugging his phone calls?
As the great Aretha Franklin once asked, "Who's zoomin' who?"
Pitfall #4 -- Defective Search Engine. If you want to discover the truth -- consider EVERYTHING to be false. Now ask -- what evidence is solid and provably true, and what evidence is shaky and requires reinforcement from other shaky evidence to stand? Hasty conclusions based on lousy hunches, lead to theories that -- like a house of cards -- fall completely apart at the slightest gaffe. All the legalities and formalities may be in place, but a trial isn't a search for ANY truth, it's a search for THE truth. Assumptions and guesses -- even if they're right -- will be exposed as reasonable doubt from the prosecutors.
Do not try the case if you cannot get a win, cause if at first you don't succeed -- you cannot try again.
"If not you...
By all accounts, Laci Peterson
was an exceptional person -- bubbly, bright, talented, and stable. Laci did
not have a single enemy. Weeks away from having her first baby, she was healthy
and happy. Clearly, she did not commit suicide or voluntarily wander off
for some kind of misadventure.
Laci Peterson was murdered, and if statistics about similar deaths are any guide, she was murdered by Scott Peterson. Even without a record of domestic violence or abuse -- more often than not, when a woman inexplicably turns up missing or dead, her husband or boyfriend is responsible.
The Peterson case engendered intense media attention, but sadly, every day in America, 4 or more women die at the hands of their significant other. Interest in Laci's disappearance was no doubt propelled by it's similarity to the events surrounding another Modesto mother-to-be who strangely went missing -- Chandra Levy.
As with Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy had everything to live for, and no known enemies. Attention quickly shifted to the man she'd been secretly dating -- congressman Gary Condit. He was never charged with Chandra Levy's murder, but left office under a cloud when, lacking evidence against any suspects, the police and the public demanded of Condit:
"If not you...
That question went unanswered,
and the matter of Chandra Levy -- like a third of all suspicious female homicides
-- remains a mystery.
The eerie similarities of the accused remind us that sexual indiscretions and lies about such affairs, have no correlation to a man's likelihood of being a killer.
Eerie similarities about the victims point to another truth: Overall, stranger rapes, bizarre serial slayings, kidnappings and freak accidents account for just as many female deaths as murders by an intimate.
eyed for link to missing student
January 18, 2003
"Investigators are not
looking at Scott Peterson in connection with the disappearance of
Smart. After consulting with investigators working on the Laci Peterson
case, we have determined there is no basis to shift the focus of investigation
in the Smart case."
if not you...?
Las Vegas Police Lt. Tom
Monahan said he told Modesto authorities there was nothing to suggest
Monroe was a serial killer and "not a shred of evidence" linking
him to the murder of Laci Peterson.
Monroe, a resident of Alameda, was arrested in Fresno after a woman's torso was recovered from a fishing pond near Las Vegas. Lt. Monahan was certain that 29-year-old Perry Monroe had no connection to Laci Peterson or Evelyn Hernandez, another young, pregnant woman who went missing in May 2002 and turned up dead in the bay.
Officer Monahan dismissed the possibility of a serial killer.
"That's all circumstance and not a shred of evidence."
"Well, I don't want
to buy into the theory that they're the same killer. And in fact, in the
Hernandez case, which I can't comment on because it's a San Francisco case,
there's a logical suspect in that case."
-- former talk show guest, Jim Hammer
Twenty television satellite
tower trucks lined neighborhood streets while helicopters flew overhead
and a dozen news crews camped out front.
Suspicious Christmas Fishing Trip
Near Midnight on December 25, 2002,
Detective Al Brocchini trolls about in three murky areas:
the mop . . .
PETERSON: Uh, she was gonna finish cleaning up. Like I said, she was moppin the kitchen floor, uh, take the dog for a walk and then she was going to the store to buy things for Christmas morning breakfast tomorrow and that was gonna be an involved preparation. So that was prepping the breakfast, and she was gonna make gingerbread cookies for tonight.
BROCCHINI: What was she mopping?
PETERSON: The tile in the entry area... She had me put uh, the bucket by the front door for her.
BROCCHINI: So she asked you to put the mop bucket by the front door?
PETERSON: Yeah, shes you know, eight months pregnant, uh, cant pick up anything, so I filled it up for her, put it in, uh, I think thats the central place.
the victim's clothes . . .
BROCCHINI: So when you left, do you remember what she was wearin?
PETERSON: Uh, black pants -- a white long-sleeve top.
BROCCHINI: The kind that buttons or...
PETERSON: No, just like a long-sleeve T-shirt kinda thing, but you know, didnt say anything on it or . . .
BROCCHINI: A jacket or shoes?
BROCCHINI: No shoes?
PETERSON: hmm-um (no).
BROCCHINI: Did you notice what jack-- her jacket was there, cause if she went, like if she went walk... walking at 10 oclock or 9:30 . . .
PETERSON: She usually steals my stuff.
BROCCHINI: She uses your stuff?
PETERSON: Yeah, because you know... instead of maternity stuff, so I dont really know.
BROCCHINI: How bout shoes, does she have a certain kinda shoes she walks in, or . . .
PETERSON: Yeah, usually a white pair of tennis shoes.
the timeline . . .
BROCCHINI: Okay, so if you got to the -- bout five minutes to one, you got your boat in, how long do you think you stayed in the water?
PETERSON: Uh, felt like an hour and a half or so, but like I said . . . See, if I was getting home at . . . I dont know, an hour and a half, I guess, probably be accurate.
BROCCHINI: Ah, did you have a map for that area, or --
BROCCHINI: What, you just wing it?
PETERSON: Um hum (Yes).
BROCCHINI: So you just, when you got in your boat you took off, did you go very far, or ---
PETERSON: No, I mean probably a couple miles. I went north, uh, found a -- like a -- like a little island kinda deal there.
BROCCHINI: Um hum.
PETERSON: Uh, island, uh had a buncha trash on it. I remember a big sign that said no landing, looked like some broken piers around it. I just assumed it would be a decent, you know, shallow area...
BROCCHINI: Did you troll?
PETERSON: Little bit. I mean a lot of the reason I went was just to get that boat in the water to see, you know...
Coming hours after the 9-1-1 call, this interview must have made Scott Peterson aware he was a suspect. He was certainly acting like one -- readily supplying detailed answers to questions which go to his credibility. Many of those details are fishy and one is a major catch: Laci Peterson was found wearing beige pants, not black pants. Significantly, she was seen on December 23rd wearing beige pants.
It's possible Scott Peterson was answering as truthfully as he could -- under such circumstances. Perhaps his wife changed clothes after he last saw her. But his general attitude is suspicious. True or not, Peterson seems too eager to offer up answers.
Twice during the interview he agrees to take a "polygraph" test. No polygraph examination was ever scheduled, but the day after his wife was reported missing, it seems Scott Peterson had already failed his first lie-detector test.
". . . I do know what she had on. She was wearing,
like, a black-colored top with cream either flowers or
polka dots on it. It was a maternity shirt. And like,
cream-colored pants, a black coat, cream scarf."
Peterson neighbor, KAREN SERVAS
H O O P D R E A M S
cement circles in Peterson's warehouse
"Take care, your worship,
over there are not giants but windmills."
-- Miguel de Cervantes
"When prosecutors or defense lawyers decide to try a case in the media, the only possible assumption is that they assume the media coverage will influence the jury. Its wrong for the media to be willing partners in this game; it corrupts the whole concept of a fair trial.
Its even more wrong for members of the media to use events like this to build circulation or audience share. If its the murder of the week or Janet Jacksons right breast, report the damned story and get on with it."
-- Dan Garvey, retired journalism professor at Cal State Long Beach
Officer Bertalotto and DA Brazelton
MAN OR MONSTER?
Prosecutors quietly dropped their
slam dunk case against Kobe Bryant.
Bush Campaign TV ad:
"Leadership means choosing priorities. While campaigning, John Kerry has missed over two-thirds of all votes ... Yet Kerry found time to vote against the Laci Peterson law that protects pregnant women from violence. Kerry has his priorities. Are they yours?"
"I guess I was impressed that there wasn't much grief."
-- -- Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino about a chat with Peterson
The SEEDS of
summer of 1994
Scott Peterson met Laci Rocha through a friend while working at a small restaurant in Morro Bay called The Pacific Cafe. Their first date was a deep-sea fishing trip. Laci got sick.
Scott and Laci dated for two years and married in 1997. After running their own restaurant, they moved to Modesto to be closer to Laci's parents.
As I see every person come through this door, or out searching, I tell Laci about them, looking for her. Early this morning, I felt she could hear me. She thanks you.
court of public relations
No family or friends emerged with suspicions about Scott Peterson until weeks after Laci Peterson's disappearance when an extra-marital affair was exposed at a police press conference.
Prior to that media event, family members and others close to the couple appeared on television and spoke on Peterson's behalf. They used glowing terms to describe an ideal couple in a storybook marriage and claimed that Scott was simply too upset and/or too selfless to appear on camera and ask for the return of his wife.
When police informed the family of the upcoming press conference with Amber Frey, support for Peterson dwindled, and the search center was closed.
"He can't talk to the media. He'll break down. He's too emotional to do that."
-- Brent Rocha, Dec 30
"Scott's just as worried as we are. He is sick at heart about what has happened to Laci. We're all looking for Laci. We all want her back."
-- Sharon Rocha, Jan 2
"He's overwhelmed by the support of the community."
-- Sharon Rocha, Dec 26
"There's no possibility that he would be involved. They were like honeymooners even after being married five years. They doted on each other. We all wanted to be like them."
-- Jacqueline Peterson
"In the short time I've known him, he's probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met. He's always a gentleman with women. We'll be at dinner with them, and when my wife and Laci get up to go to the restroom, he'll always stand up. And he'll stand up again when she returns. You don't see that anymore."
-- Guy Miligi, family friend
"He's the type of person that if you had broken down on the freeway, he'd be the guy who would stop and help you. He's just a very compassionate, giving person."
-- Kenni Friedman, president of the Downtown Rotary Club
"You exhaust the logical search places, and at some point you switch from looking for an injured, live person. That happens between 72 and 96 hours. For much of our search, when we're looking in places underwater, we're looking for a body."
-- Chief Roy Wasden, Jan 13
"The last numbers I saw, in 85 percent of all homicides, the victim is killed by someone she is close to. We profile the victim and establish a timeline. We start looking at people she knew as potential suspects."
-- Sgt. Bill Heyne, Jan 13
"I really don't care what people think of me as long as it continues to keep Laci's picture, description, tip line in the media. Make me the biggest villain if you want to, as long as it keeps her picture in the press. They can think anything they want of me. Let's find Laci."
-- Scott Peterson, Jan 16
"All of a sudden, Scott is talking to the media. He is realizing people are finding out about the girlfriend, so he'd better go out there and do some damage control."
-- "family member" Jan 17
"If Scott has nothing
to hide, they ask that he prove it. He has continually allowed family members
and friends to support him personally as well as on television."
-- spokesperson, Kim Petersen
Post verdict, CBS bought the rights to make a television movie based on Amber Frey's book, released January 4, 2005, which includes the line: "For as long as I live, I will never forget Gloria's words: 'The day you went to police, you became Laci's voice.'"
Amber Frey contacted Modesto police on December 30, six days after Laci Peterson disappeared.
"I met Scott Peterson November 20, 2002," Frey said when police held a press conference to publicly announce the affair. "I was introduced to him. I was told he was unmarried. Scott told me he was not married. We did have a romantic relationship."
the other woman
PETERSON: Um, I have not been traveling during the last couple of weeks. I have -- I have lied to you that I have been traveling. The girl I'm married to, her name is Laci.
AMBER FREY: Uh huh
PETERSON: She disappeared just before Christmas.
FREY: Uh huh
PETERSON: For the past two weeks, I've been in Modesto with her family and mine searching for her.
PETERSON: She just disappeared and no one knows...
FREY: OK, now --
PETERSON: Where she's been...
PETERSON: And I, I can't tell you more, because I, I need you to be protected from the media.
On April 18,
Scott Peterson was taken into custody at an intersection near the Torrey
Pines Golf Course while carrying $10,000 in cash and his brother's
"We were considering
doing a last-minute booking change. Our number one goal was to make sure
he was booked safely, and that included that he didn't get lynched when he
came in the driveway. There were people out there screaming, 'Murderer.'"
Contradictions Beneath the Surface
announced that Dean Cain is the perfect actor to portray Scott Peterson in
a new, made-for-TV movie called "The Perfect Husband." USA says the
movie which will air in the first quarter of 2004, will be directed by Roger
Young ("Murder in Mississippi") and scripted by Dave Erickson (USA's "Murder
"I had nothing to do with Laci's disappearance."
-- Peterson, January 29, 2003
Stanislaus County District Attorney
Modesto Police Department
Buehler and Jacobson
Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department
27, was described by friends and family as the life of the party, and very
happy in her marriage.
"No motive, no family history, they were doing awesome, looking very forward to having their baby," said Brent Rocha, her brother.
"I can't drive. I can't sleep.
Sometimes I feel I just can't do it.
I feel like I'm in a dark corner
and I just can't function."
-- Scott Peterson, February 2003
The Scott Peterson Investigation
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