The Peterson Case: How They Got Scott
The Laci Peterson murder case ended with a conviction but left unanswered questions. One of the most intriguing: How did the police and prosecutors, who until recently were under a gag order, put together their case against Scott Peterson? In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, the prosecution team breaks its silence, revealing details of nabbing Peterson for the December 2002 murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son Conner. In a five-hour discussion with correspondent Vickie Bane, the key figures—Stanislaus County prosecutors Rick Distaso, 38; Dave Harris, 43; Birgit Fladager, 43; John Goold, 47; their investigator Kevin Bertalotto, 46; and Modesto police detectives Al Brocchini, 46, and Jon Buehler, 49—described the behind-the-scenes drama that put Peterson on death row.
After cops got a missing-person’s report about Laci on Dec. 24, 2002, Peterson’s odd behavior offered the first clues to his guilt.
Detective Brocchini: I had a gut feeling, and the patrol officers out there had gut feelings. He went fishing 90 miles from home on Christmas Eve with an 8½ month-pregnant wife. When we questioned him a couple of hours after he got home, he didn’t know what he was fishing for or what bait he was using. Those were red flags.
Prosecutor Distaso: I’m a fisherman. I could tell you what I was fishing for three years ago.
Detective Buehler: We’ve been doing homicides for a while. When you compare Scott’s demeanor with other people we’ve dealt with, he didn’t even register on the scale as far as seeming concerned [about Laci]. And when Al played the tape of that lame-o message that Scott left on Laci’s phone—’Hey, beautiful, I’m on my way back from fishing. Pick up the basket at Vella Farms. I love you, sweetie,’ or words to that effect—it just seemed so insincere and false, like he was making this call to make us think he was in love with her. But anybody who has been married for five years knows there aren’t too many people who talk to their spouse like that after that amount of time. It didn’t mean that he did it; it just meant we needed to work him a little bit closer and clear him.
Brocchini: His major concerns were not Laci. His major concerns were his car door hitting his other car door in the driveway, or me taking a picture of this boat in his shop, or getting a receipt for the pink slipper and sunglasses the tracking-dog people used for Laci’s scent. He was concerned about the wrong things on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Buehler: He would cooperate to a point. But when we asked him for more, he would at times stop and then invoke, “Well, I need to talk to my attorney about that.” He wasn’t in custody, but for a guy whose wife is missing to even get an attorney—not that he doesn’t have a right to—that’s not usual. We don’t see that. We find people generally will open up their closets, their bank accounts, whatever it takes, to cooperate. And his was always conditional. It was polite; it was guarded. He was fairly easy to deal with, but as far as going 100 percent, he wouldn’t.
On Dec. 30, six days after Laci was reported missing, Fresno massage therapist Amber Frey, 27, phoned a police tip line to say that she was romantically involved with Peterson. It was the moment the cops were waiting for.
Brocchini: I was at the tip line, and I saw Bev, the woman taking tips. She was typing what the caller was saying: “Scott’s my boyfriend, and I was with him on this day.” It was unbelievable. So I asked Bev, “Let me talk to her,” and Amber told me, “Yeah, that’s my boyfriend.” She had dates down. She was very articulate, and she said, “Scott called me yesterday. He called me today.” It was exciting to think that Scott is calling this girl in Fresno while we’re looking for his wife.
Bushler: We left 15 minutes later to interview Amber. We had about an hour conversation; her recall was extraordinary. She had dates, times, locations, restaurants. She had it down to gifts, cards, corks from wine bottles that she and Scott would sign. Compared with most of the witnesses and victims, she was exceptional for having that kind of detail. Naturally we were going to verify everything, but she insisted on bringing all these things out so we knew she was telling the truth.
TELLING LACI’S MOM
Since news that Scott was having an affair was about to break, detectives informed both families about Frey on Jan. 15. For the Rochas, who had been supportive of Scott, Amber changed everything.
Buehler: Sharon and Ron [Grantski, Sharon’s live-in companion] came and sat down at our lunch table, and we briefed them quickly. Then I just slipped the photo [of Amber and Scott together] across the table. Sharon buried her head in her hands and said, “Why did he have to kill her?”
Brocchini: When they showed pictures of Scott and Amber to Lee Peterson, he wanted to discount them: “Maybe they were staged. It was a party they were at together”—almost making excuses for him.
After Frey disclosed the affair at a press conference on Jan. 24, police and prosecutors were astonished when Peterson went on Good Morning America on Jan. 28 and told Diane Sawyer a blatant lie—that he’d told police about the relationship with Frey.
Distaso: I watched the interview. I remember thinking, “Scott’s s lying to the entire world now,” because I know what’s going on. I know he’s been lying to the police, and frankly I was surprised he continued to lie to the entire world.
Investigator Bertalotto: Were we amazed? Not as much as his attorney. [laughter]
Prosecutor Goold: As far as we’re concerned, if they go out and start talking on TV, we’re happy. Talk all you want.
Bertalotto: Sometimes he would lie for no reason. Some of the lies he told, for the life of us we couldn’t figure out why he told us that.
The attorneys felt they had almost enough to arrest and charge Scott, and were researching how difficult it would be to prosecute a “no-body homicide,” when, on April 13 and 14, the bodies of Laci and Conner were found on the shore of San Francisco Bay. Police nabbed Peterson on April 18.
Proscuter Harris: There was a point, after the due date of Conner [Feb. 16], that it was changed from a missing person’s case to a homicide case.
Buehler: When you look at your victim, she wasn’t into drugs, she wasn’t running around with outlaw bikers, she didn’t cruise the bars, she didn’t have a bunch of boyfriends. She was as clean and pure a victim as you can find. That told most of us who had done this for a while that she ain’t coming back. Of course, we weren’t going to share that with the family right away.
Brocchini: We had GPS on a car that Peterson wasn’t driving, so we had to find him other ways. We asked the Department of Justice to go down and find the car, and when they did, his brother or somebody else was driving it. So they found him through wiretaps. He didn’t want to be followed and found, so we started to have concerns he was trying to avoid us. We didn’t want to lose him.
Bushler: He was just calm, like he always was, after they put the handcuffs on him. When we got him back to the offices, and he had his pool-dyed hair or whatever he said it was, we sat him down. He was not angry. He didn’t ask a whole bunch of questions. The only thing he said was, “Is that my wife and son?” At that point it was sort of like, “Come on, Scott.” So I said, “You know the answer to that question.” Then he did fake sniffles [Buehler wipes his eyes and puts his head down to imitate Peterson.] He said, “You told me what I needed to know.”
THE PERSONAL TOLL
The investigation and the trial, which cost the county and the city a staggering $4.1 million, lasted nine months and necessitated a change of venue to Redwood City, 90 miles from their homes in Modesto, were a draining experience for the prosecution team.
Prosecutor Fladager: I actually think we were better off going to Redwood City. When you move to a new town and you really can’t go home much, you work all the time. So we worked all the time, nonstop, on this case. We worked seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. That’s all we did.
Harris: My wife and I and our five children were in the process of looking to buy a house. So during the course of this trial, my wife found a house, had to pack up and move the entire family without me. For a while I did not know where we lived. It was kind of a running joke: “Are you sure she’s going to be there when you get back?”
Distaso: I would try to call my two sons every night. One night I was talking to my youngest, who was 7 at the time, about how was your day, how was your teacher, whatever, and he said, dead serious, “I just have one question. Who is this?” I said, “It’s your dad.” Yeah, I think they were missing me.
THE DARK DAYS
By most accounts the prosecution got off to a rather shaky start. Distaso and Harris were methodical to the point of plodding, and defense attorney Mark Geragos was able to castigate Brocchini for supposedly ignoring leads that could have cleared Peterson.
Brocchini: It was hard. I’m human. I make mistakes. To me, the newspaper got it wrong most of the time. What was happening in court was not what was happening on the news after court.
Distaso: It’s very hard when people say bad things about you. Did we always ignore it? There might have been a few times I yelled at the television set.
Harris: Experts say there is chronic stress and there’s acute stress. We had chronic acute stress. It seemed that everybody in the world was watching us. Every day we went to court, there was a roomful of reporters out there watching us, waiting to pick out everything we do, whether we did it right or we did it wrong. Everyone would put their spin on how they would do it. We never had a chance to respond and say, “Don’t worry about it. Trust us—we know what we’re doing.” We just had to put up with it day in and day out.
There was a complete lack of understanding of what we do. For us to put on a case, we have rules we have to follow, legal requirements to put evidence in: chain of custody, foundation—those steps. And if we don’t put them in, those witnesses don’t testify. So we don’t get to Amber and her tapes if we don’t lay foundations. People can complain that it’s dull and boring, but that’s our job.
WAITING FOR THE VERDICT
The jury deliberations also got off to a sputtering start. In the first days two jurors were removed from the panel. After that, though, there was considerable harmony in the jury room and it took less than nine hours to reach a verdict.
Fladager: Well, maybe I did have butterflies whenever one of our phones rang while we were waiting for the verdict. But I don’t think a single one of us thought there was any real chance of a not guilty.
SHARON ROCHA SPEAKS OUT
On March 16, at Peterson’s sentencing, Laci’s mother read an extraordinarily emotional statement in which she imagines Laci and Scott’s unborn son Conner being murdered—and Conner asking, “Daddy, why are you killing Mommy and me?”
Bertalotto: The only person in the courtroom not impacted was Scott. You could see it on everybody’s face. The jurors were openly weeping.
Harris: Even if you knew what was going to be said, it still touched you. I had to do everything I could not to cry.
Fladager: I usually try and never let my emotions about a victim surface during a trial. That was impossible here. The raw emotion and incredible sadness that filled that courtroom on many occasions seeped into your bones. It was very painful for everyone.
Bertalotto: I think this case restored some people’s faith in the criminal justice system: You can’t hire a popular, high-priced attorney and use that as a walk card.
Distaso: But Peterson will never confess. That will never happen. He would never admit it.