Sonar spied body in March

April 28, 2003 

The man Modesto police hired to search part of San Francisco Bay with sonar now believes he found Laci Peterson's body in mid-March.

But the officer who led the search disputed published reports Sunday that divers saw the body of Peterson, the pregnant Modesto woman reported missing Christmas Eve.

Peterson's body washed ashore near Richmond on April 14, a day after the remains of her unborn son were discovered about a mile away.

The Modesto Police Department had hired Gene Ralston of Idaho to search the bay with side-scan sonar. He now believes that what he saw March 13 was Peterson's body, based on where she was found.

"Piecing all the information we have now, I believe it probably was Laci Peterson," Ralston said.

But, he admitted, at the time, there was doubt.

"When I was hired for this job, I was told we probably would find a lot of bodies in the bay," Ralston said by telephone Sunday from Washington. "Apparently, the bay is a popular dumping ground."

Modesto police Sgt. Ron Cloward, who was in charge of the search, said Sunday he does not think it was Laci Peterson's body that Ralston found.

Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden was quoted Sunday in The Oakland Tribune as saying that searchers were frustrated that the weather did not allow divers to retrieve the body in March.

That quote was taken out of context, Cloward said.

"The chief made a comment saying we had been out there many times and came off the bay frustrated because of high winds and high weather," Cloward said. "As far as a body being found out there, the chief never made that comment."

Wasden could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Scott Peterson was arrested April 18 and charged with killing his wife and their unborn son. He had told detectives he was fishing off Brooks Island in the bay the day his wife disappeared.

The object divers saw in a deep channel March 13 was four miles from where Peterson said he was fishing.

Ralston said his side-scan sonar, which produces a clearer image than regular sonar, detected something that day. Divers using an underwater camera took a closer look, he said.

"It appeared to be a body, but we never got a close look at it," he said. "Wind-generated waves made it too dangerous to take a closer look at it."

When they returned a week later, the object was gone, Ralston said. He said the churning created by large ships using the channel could have moved the object.

Police have said they might return to the bay to look for more evidence in the Peterson case, and Ralston said he'll be there.

"I'm doing another job right now, but I'm trying to finish it as quickly as possible so we can return to San Francisco and finish the work there," he said.

Bee staff writer Patrick Giblin can be reached at 578-2347 or pgiblin@modbee.com.

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