These are the nights when Conner Peterson, who would have been 3 months old now, should be keeping his father awake. Instead the din of other prisoners at the county jail in Modesto, Calif., leaves Scott Peterson sleeping fitfully. His life has been reduced to bare essentials – a 6-ft.-by-9-ft. cell and a 90-minute twice-a-week session of shuffling along in shackles on the jailhouse roof. To relieve stress, Peterson has taken up yoga, just as his wife, Laci, did during her pregnancy. “He has done it every day,” says his sister Susan Caudillo. “He tells us he is doing some really difficult moves.”
Reminding the world of the bond that once existed between Laci and Scott – whether it be yoga, a shared love of cooking or their desire to have a baby together – has become a kind of mission for the Peterson clan. With a court appearance scheduled for May 27, the next step toward a preliminary hearing, Scott’s family is launching a public relations campaign in the hope of dispelling the tsunami of negative news reports that has battered him almost from the moment the pregnant Laci, 27, went missing on Dec. 24. In an interview with PEOPLE, his parents, Lee and Jackie, along with several of his siblings and in-laws, sought to portray Scott, 30, as a favorite son and ideal husband who never would have harmed his wife and unborn son, whose bodies washed up in San Francisco Bay in April. “He was framed in the media,” says his father, Lee. “He’s not the monster they’ve made him out to be.” Insists Peterson’s lawyer Mark Geragos, whose client faces a possible death sentence for the double homicide: “Scott does not have the genetics of a cold-blooded, premeditated killer.”
Not surprisingly, the “such-a-nice-boy” argument will not be Peterson’s only defense. Geragos told PEOPLE that he is working on a number of leads, including one involving strangers in a brown van parked in the couple’s neighborhood who, he argues, may have abducted Laci. He is even floating a theory involving a satanic cult. “The prosecution has no case,” maintains Geragos. “And what’s more disturbing is there are legitimate leads that point in other directions.”
While Sharon Rocha grieves for her lost daughter and grandson, as far as Laci’s family is concerned, all public talk of Scott is off-limits until after the trial. As Sharon’s husband, Ron Grantski, said shortly after Scott’s arrest, “We owe it to Laci to let the courts bring the facts out.”
Both families have agreed, however, that until late last year Scott’s life and his relationship with Laci gave no inkling of trouble. His parents describe a childhood of material and emotional comfort that sounds like a lost episode of The Brady Bunch. Both Lee, 64, the semiretired owner of a San Diego packaging firm, and Jackie, 59, who suffers from chronic bronchitis, had been previously married. Both brought three children to the new family, and from the start the new siblings got along as if they had always been reared together. Scott was Lee and Jackie’s only child together, and he quickly became the prince of the blended clan. Recalls Lee: “He didn’t have to walk until he was about 2, because everybody was carrying him around.”
The adulation never really ended. In high school, Scott, a star golfer, was the kind of guy girls found appealing. “Probably the worst thing I could say about him is he kind of knew he was good-looking and he knew he came from a good family,” says one woman who attended the same private Catholic school, University of San Diego High. “He had a little bit of arrogance about him.” But not as much, she hastens to add, as one might have thought. “He was someone you would think would be a jock, not approachable,” she says. “But he was friends with everybody.”
Peterson ended up at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. There he met fellow student Laci Rocha, first at a party, then later at a restaurant where Scott was working when she walked in. At first glance they didn’t seem to have much in common. Laci didn’t care for golf or fishing, another of Scott’s passions. On one of their first dates she got seasick during an all-day sport fishing trip. Yet they hit it off. Scott’s family says he was attracted to her vivaciousness. She, in turn, found him sensitive and attractive, defending him when his family teased him about his bushy eyebrows. “Laci would say, ‘I just love them, they’re like little caterpillars,’ ” says Jackie.
Both families endorsed the match. “When I first met Scott he looked like the guy who would take care of her,” said Laci’s brother Brent, 32, in February. “He was the perfect gentleman, a great guy.” Scott’s brother Joe, 39, had a similar reaction to meeting Laci. “We were pleased,” he says. “We thought, ‘Wow, this is a neat girl.’ She was so polite and smiling.” The good feelings were on display the evening of Scott and Laci’s wedding, on Aug. 9, 1997, at a hotel resort near Morro Bay, Calif. “I vividly remember Scott carrying Laci up to their room at the end of the wedding,” says Scott’s brother-in-law Ed Caudillo. “He’s shouting and happy, and she’s laughing, and we’re all worried he’s going to drop her. But Scott had her safe in his arms.”
This is an excerpt from our Cover package. For the complete story, please pick up the June 2, 2003, issue of PEOPLE.
– BILL HEWITT
– RON ARIAS, VICKIE BANE, LYNDON STAMBLER and JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles and MELISSA SCHORR in Modesto