“Simple solutions seldom are. It takes a very unusual mind to undertake analysis of the obvious.”
- Alfred North Whitehead
It was the 24th of December 2002. A Tuesday. Christmas Eve. Twenty six year old Laci Peterson lived with her husband Scott Peterson in Modesto, United States. Modesto is around 90 miles west of San Francisco.
Scott and Laci Peterson
Laci had grown up on a dairy just outside Modesto so knew the area well. She left for a few years and went to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She met Scott there. He was handsome and ambitious and wanted to be a pro golfer. But when he met Laci that changed. They dated for three years, became engaged and married in August 1997. Shortly after they graduated, they opened a sports bar, The Shack, in San Luis Obispo. It was a popular college hangout and Laci worked as front of house staff and Scott did all the cooking. They worked there for around two years before they decided to move to Modesto to buy a house and start a family. Scott got a job as a fertilizer salesman, and Laci worked as a substitute teacher.
Laci and Scott bought a three bedroom green house in a nice neighborhood near La Loma Park. They remodeled the house as soon as they bought it and put in a swimming pool and a built in barbecue. They wanted it to be somewhere where they were happy to spend time as they liked to socialize with friends and have dinner parties. And they were happy there. Their friends and family thought that they had an ideal marriage and it was only made more special when Laci discovered she was pregnant two years after they moved into the home. So that Christmas in 2002 was due to be a special one for the couple. Laci was eight months pregnant. They had the nursery ready for the arrival of their baby boy who they decided to call Conner.
Scott and Laci Peterson
But the excitement for Christmas 2002 turned to despair when Laci was reported missing on Christmas Eve.
That day, the 24th of December, Scott told police that he returned to their house at 4.30pm. He had been fishing that day and was due to get back around 4pm to meet Laci at home as they were due to go to dinner with Laci's mother Sharon. Scott said that he left the house before 10am that morning and stopped off at his warehouse to collect his boat. He was there for around an hour and then drove to Berkeley Marina with his 14 foot aluminum boat that he had purchased two weeks before.
When he got to the Berkeley Marina, Scott told police that he spent about an hour in the water where he headed north towards Brooks Island. Scott put the boat back onto the trailer about 2.15 pm and headed back to Modesto. He called Laci on the way home but there was no answer so he just dropped the boat off at his warehouse and returned home.
When Scott arrived at the house, Laci's car was in the driveway so he thought she was home but he noticed their golden retriever dog McKenzie was outside in the backyard with his leash on which he thought was strange.
The back patio doors were unlocked and there was no sign of Laci. Scott had some pizza and milk and washed his clothes because they were wet. He then had a shower. There was still no sign of Laci so he called Sharon, Laci's sister Amy and friends but nobody had seen her. Scott knocked on doors on the street but nobody knew where Laci was.
Laci was reported missing to the police.
Family and friends of Laci set up a command center at a downtown hotel immediately. 25,000 fliers were printed and appeared on shop windows and poles.
Laci's family and friends were afraid that she was abducted when she was out with McKenzie for a walk that morning. She normally walked him most mornings. Her route was nearly always the same. Laci would walk to the East La Loma Park near their house, head towards the tennis courts, and then back to the house. It normally took her 45 minutes. Scott told police that that morning, Laci told him she was going to do the grocery shopping and go for a walk. When Scott left, everything was normal. Laci got up at 7am that morning, watched some TV, cleaned a bit and they both watched a bit of Martha Stewart. When Scott left, Laci was wearing black maternity pants, a white t-shirt and white tennis shoes.
Scott, Sharon, Amy and Laci's friends and family met at East La Loma Park near Laci and Scott’s home to look for Laci. They followed the route she would have taken but did not find anything.
A neighbor, Karen Servas, told police that she found McKenzie on the street with his leash on at 10.18am that morning. The leash was moist and covered in leaves and grass clippings. She put him in the Peterson's backyard and closed the gate.
Police searched the Peterson house but there was no evidence of any foul play. Laci's friends and family said that there was nothing unusual that happened that would have made Laci leave. Just the night before, the 23rd of December, at 5.45pm, Laci and Scott met Amy at Amy’s hair salon so she could cut Scott’s hair. Laci ordered a pizza when she was at the salon to pick up on the way home. Scott invited Amy to join them but Amy already had plans. Laci was her normal, happy self.
Laci and Scott Peterson
When they got home, Laci called Sharon around 8.30pm to discuss plans for Christmas Eve dinner the following night. Laci's disappearance seemed like a complete mystery.
Scott and Amber
Amber was a massage therapist and a single mother who lived in Fresno. Police asked her to continue talking to Scott and to record their telephone conversations. Scott seemed carefree on the calls and was flirtatious.
Police searched Scott's warehouse and boat and found a pair of needle nosed pliers with a single hair fragment, 5-6 inches long and dark, in the “clamping” part of the pliers. The hair was consistent with hair found in Laci’s hairbrush.
Almost four months after Laci was reported missing, a woman walking her dog made a devastating discovery. On the 13th of April 2003, the body of Conner Peterson, was discovered on the shore of San Francisco bay, nearly one mile northeast of Brooks Island. The umbilical cord was still attached.
The body of Laci Peterson was found on the shore nearly two miles northeast of Brooks Island on the 14th of April.
The location of where their bodies were found was significant. Brooks Island was the area where Scott told police he was fishing at on Christmas Eve.
On the 18th of April, Scott was arrested and charged with the capital murders of his wife and child. When Scott was arrested , he was in San Diego and had bleached his hair and goatee and had $15,000 in cash and camping gear in his car.
It was the Prosecution's case that Scott killed Laci but they conceded they would not be able to say exactly when the murder took place, exactly where it took place or how it happened. But they believed they had enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty. It was their case that trouble started in November 2002 when Scott met Amber and their affair began. They believed that he wanted more excitement in his life. He didn't want to be stuck in the same boring job, in a dull marriage and tied down with a baby. He took up a sudden interest in saltwater fishing in December 2002 and the Prosecution believed that's when the plan to murder his wife began.
The Prosecution believed that when Scott left the house the morning of the 24th of December to drive to Berkeley Marina, he had already killed Laci. They argued that Scott must have suffocated Laci either on the night of the 23rd of December or early in the morning on the 24th. It was their case that he wrapped Laci's body in a blue tarp and put her in the back of his truck, in his toolbox, and drove to his warehouse. A strand of Laci’s dark brown hair got caught in his yellow-handled needle-nose pliers. At the warehouse, Scott then attached homemade cement anchors to the body and placed it in the back of his 14-foot Sears-Roebuck boat which he then towed to the Berkeley Marina.They believed that when he got to Berkeley Marina, he dumped Laci's body, weighted by anchors, in the bay.
The Prosecution believed that Scott put the leash on McKenzie so it would look like Laci was abducted.
The Jury heard the taped phone conversations between Scott and Amber and discovered that just days after Laci disappeared, he was still trying to flatter and flirt with Amber. He promised her they would have an exciting life together.
The Defense's case was that Scott Peterson was innocent. They argued that Laci may have been kidnapped by strangers. They believed that whoever kidnapped and murdered Laci dumped her body at Brooks Island because they knew Scott would be blamed. There was so much media interest and publicity in the case that everyone knew long before the bodies were found where Scott had been that day. It was their argument that there was no murder weapon, no crime scene , no confession and just a lot of theories in the case.
The Defense also raised the argument that someone saw Laci confronting men across the street that morning. A house across from the Peterson home was broken into the morning of the 24th of December at 10.30am. Others believed they saw Laci walking McKenzie after Scott had already left the house to go fishing.
It was the Defense's argument that Laci was still alive when Scott left that morning so a lot depended on exactly when Laci and Conner died.
Their witness, Dr. Charles March, a fertility expert, gave evidence that Conner Peterson had died sometime after the 24th of December. That would mean it was unlikely that Scott was involved as he was under police surveillance at that time.
Under cross examination, Dr March conceded that he may have been mistaken in saying Conner Peterson was born alive on or around the 29th of December.
Scott was never called to testify.
Scott Peterson was found guilty of first degree murder in the death of his wife. As he was found guilty of special circumstances in murdering his wife and dumping her body into the San Francisco Bay, that made him eligible for the death penalty.
He was also found guilty of second degree murder in the death of Conner.
The Jury had to decide whether Scott should be sentenced to life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection. Second degree murder is punishable by at least 15 years to life in prison.
During the course of making their decision, the foreman requested autopsy photographs of Laci Peterson and Conner. Her body was found in San Francisco Bay without limbs or a head. The foreman said:
"It was very important for me to see that, to be sure of my decision. We all passed them around and we looked at them."
The Jury opted for the death penalty and Scott Peterson is now on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
Lawyers for Scott Peterson have appealed to the California Supreme Court. They argued that due to the publicity their client did not receive a fair Trial and furthermore there were a number of legal errors made. The state Supreme Court will decide the appeal shortly.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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