By Bill Hewitt
Updated June 02, 2003 12:00 PM

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 bond that once existed between Laci and Scott—whether it be yoga, a shared love of cool 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 (see box, p. 54). “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.”

After a honeymoon in Tahiti, the newlyweds returned to Morro Bay and opened a restaurant called the Shack, something Scott had long dreamed of doing. The venture did well, but by late 2000 the couple had decided to move to Modesto to be nearer Laci’s family and they sold it. Scott, who had majored in business agriculture in college, landed a job as a fertilizer salesman for a large company called Tradecorp. They bought a 1,500-sq.-ft. ranch house for $177,000 and spent the next year remodeling it. (He did the woodwork; she did the decorating.) They borrowed money to build a swimming pool. And they set about trying to get pregnant. “We all knew they were trying,” says Scott’s sister Susan, adding that, although it took some time to conceive, “I don’t think they ever got to a point of frustration or concern.”

Scott’s family insists that he never flagged in his desire to have kids. Once Laci was pregnant, they say, he regularly went with her to doctor’s appointments and to Lamaze classes. Scott frequently talked about prospective names for the baby, at one point joking he wanted to call him “California.” What did they argue about? “The color of paint,” offers Ed Caudillo. Insists Lee Peterson: “I never heard them argue. Scott’s not confrontational at all.” Everything seemed well between Laci and Scott, a view shared by Laci’s family. “They were a happy couple,” Laci’s mom, Sharon, 51, told PEOPLE in February. “There wasn’t any reason to suspect any problems.”

Of course, there was one big problem: Amber Frey. Scott had started seeing Frey, 28, a massage therapist, in November. His family says they knew nothing about the affair. When asked in the interview with PEOPLE whether they had since discussed the matter with Scott, Jackie said they had, and that her son had admitted to her, “I’m ashamed.” At that point lawyer Geragos jumped in and argued, “There’s nothing about having an affair that means [Scott] would ever have harmed Laci or Conner in any way.”

Perhaps. But most unfaithful husbands don’t have wives who turn up murdered under mysterious circumstances. As a result, Geragos has had to spend time stamping out the brushfire of rumor and innuendo surrounding his client. For almost every supposed irregularity in Peterson’s story, Geragos offers up an alternate theory. Why, people wonder, would Peterson consider selling the couple’s house even before Laci’s body had been found? “I know people who sell their house and move away after they’ve been burglarized, let alone after their wife has been kidnapped,” he replies. Why couldn’t Peterson remember what kind of bait he had used when he said he was out fishing on Christmas Eve day? “If he had known,” says Geragos, “the cops would have said, ‘Aha! He knew what kind of bait. He should have been more concerned about his wife!’ ” And how about those press reports that police had found a strand of hair that could have been Laci’s on a pair of pliers on Peterson’s boat? Geragos scoffs at the notion. “There’s no evidence that it’s Laci’s hair,” he says.

With all the key documents in the investigation—including the arrest-warrant affidavit and the autopsy—remaining sealed, there is ample opportunity for spin on both sides. Recently FOX News reported that a “defense source” who had seen the autopsy claimed coroners had found that Laci’s body had been “carved up” and was missing internal organs. Geragos denies supplying any such leak. But he is likely not disheartened, because it tends to help Peterson—especially if it proves to be true. As Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School, explains, “It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that her husband had no reason to remove any internal organs. Chances are, if he kills her, he just wants to dump the body as quickly as possible.” In the past week or so dark rumors have also swirled that Laci and Conner were killed by a satanic cult, a scenario that Geragos has eagerly fostered.

Police and prosecutors, while reiterating their confidence in the evidence against Scott, have refused to fence with Geragos in public. “I guess we’re just going to have to find this stuff out at the trial,” says Modesto lead detective Craig Grogan. Whether the van and the cult prove a joker for Geragos or an ace in the hole remains an open question. But Geragos has to play every card he is dealt. He is, after all, fighting the widespread perception that his client is guilty. (One recent poll showed more than 80 percent of those surveyed in Stanislaus County believe Peterson committed the murders.) Thus Geragos is preparing the potential jury pool for the trial, which is likely to be moved to another venue. “If I had taken this case on, I probably would try to grab the attention of the public away from the idea that he did it,” says law professor Goldman.

In the meantime, Peterson sits in his cell at the Stanislaus County jail. For reading material, he has requested everything from J.D. Salinger to Homer’s Odyssey. His parents make the 14-hour round-trip drive from San Diego to Modesto twice a week, all so they can see him for a half hour each time. They seem utterly convinced that he is innocent. “We’re not giving up until the killers are caught and Scott is free,” says his father. For her part, Laci’s mom maintains a dignified silence—keeping her focus firmly on the victims in this terrible tragedy. As her family noted in a simple statement last month, they will do all they can “to seek justice for Laci and Conner.”

Bill Hewitt

Ron Arias, Vickie Bane, Lyndon Stambler and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles and Melissa Schorr in Modesto