Skeptics question Peterson claims

May 23, 2003 

The image of Scott Peterson fishing alone in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve does not sit well with some longtime sturgeon fishermen.

Their skepticism mostly is rooted in the size of Peterson's 14-foot aluminum boat.

"That's totally ridiculous," said Tim Sellars, manager of Fisherman's Warehouse in Manteca. "I've been out there in a 30-foot boat and it's spooky."

Five sturgeon fishermen, contacted separately, offered the same opinion. Waves and swells are common and can be deadly to small boats, they said.

"I wouldn't even take a 16-footer out in the bay," said Randy McGee of Modesto, who has fished there for 40 years. "You don't go fishing for sturgeon in the bay with a little 14-foot aluminum boat. You just don't."

Peterson, 30, of Modesto has been charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Their bodies washed ashore in mid-April within miles of where Peterson told authorities that he went fishing alone Christmas Eve. Family members reported the 27-year-old and pregnant Laci Peterson missing later that day.

Police photos of Peterson's 14-foot Gamefisher boat received wide circulation during the investigation.

"That boat is for lake fishing, not the bay," said Dennis Deaver, owner of the Berkeley Marina Sport Center. Peterson told police that he launched from the Berkeley Marina.

Other aspects of Peterson's claim smell like a fish story, the fishermen say:

  • Sturgeon, which often top 100 pounds and 6 feet in length, are difficult to haul into a boat without help. In 1983, a 468-pounder was caught in nearby San Pablo Bay.

    "You'll have a hell of a time landing one by yourself," said Ken Moore of Ripon. "They're big. It can be done, but most sturgeon fishermen don't go by themselves."

    Others said it is dangerous to fish alone, especially in the bay.

    "You never know if you'll have boat trouble or fall overboard while trolling," McGee said.

    Said Sellars: "Too many things can happen if you're by yourself. For example, you cannot pull your anchor up."

  • Most fishermen are at it by daybreak. Peterson told police that he left Modesto at 9:30 a.m.

    "A true fisherman would not go so late in the day," Moore said. "If you're honest-to-God serious about fishing, you're not going to have much time to fish."

  • Brooks Island "is not a known sturgeon spot," said Barry Canevaro, who has fished the bay for 50 years.

    "I was raised in the bay," he said. "I pretty much know what's going on. That's not a sturgeon spot."

    Peterson said he went fishing off Brooks Island. That is where law enforcement divers continue to search for evidence.

    Canevaro questioned why Peterson launched from Berkeley if his destination was Brooks Island. Berkeley is maybe five miles away, while a boat launch in Richmond is a short distance from the island.

    Reports that police have Peterson's receipt from the Berkeley launch do not impress Deaver. He said anyone can put a few dollars into the automated receipt machine and drive away.

    "If you dumped a body near Richmond, would you tell the cops where you launched?" Deaver asked.

    The fishermen raised eyebrows at unconfirmed reports of Peterson's tackle. But pictures of his boat were just too hard to swallow, they say.

    If a solo fisherman in a 14-foot aluminum boat had approached Sellars' group, he said, "we would have laughed. That's totally ridiculous."

    But, McGee noted, "It also would have been hard to throw a body with cement blocks out of that boat without capsizing."

    Feeling some sympathy for a fellow fisherman, McGee said, he went to a vigil for the missing Laci Peterson on Dec. 31, approached her husband and handed him his telephone number.

    "I said, 'When this blows over and everything calms down, call me and I'll take you sturgeon fishing,'" McGee said. "(Peterson) said, 'That would be cool.'"

    Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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