Sources close to the case say that in June, Peterson's defense team acquired a coat worn by a Modesto resident allegedly affiliated with an occult group. The man bragged about being involved in Laci Peterson's death, a source said.
The defense submitted the trenchcoat-type jacket for forensic analysis. The jacket bore an Oakland Raiders logo, had a downward rip from one side pocket, and had been torn and sewn in other places.
Also, authorities are consulting with Randy Cerny, a local expert on ritualistic crimes whom they directed not to speak to the media because he may testify in Peterson's proceedings, he said. Cerny had testified in the Salida killers' cases.
TV personalities such as talk show host Larry King and NBC reporter Dan Abrams have discussed a seeming similarity between the Peterson case and the one that shined regional attention on Salida in the early 1990s. The Salida case ended with three defendants on death row and two others with life sentences.
One survivor and two former cult members not involved in that massacre -- all three admittedly scarred by the butchery -- aren't willing to rule out a possible connection.
Some lawyers involved in the Salida case, however, and other experts scoff at the notion. They chalk it up to a trial balloon floated by Peterson's defense camp.
Observers may find out next month whether his attorneys will raise the issue in court. A preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin Oct. 20.
However, such proceedings typically focus on the prosecution's evidence. Defense strategy often doesn't become apparent until the actual trial, which might be a year or more away.
Peterson has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife and unborn son. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Deaths in Salida
Locals were horrified 13 years ago at the gruesome details of the Salida murders, committed by a paramilitary cult whose charismatic and sadistic leader had a deep interest in the occult.
"It was very serious, not just dabbled in," said former group member Angela Young of their unconventional worship. She broke away from the group before the murders, but her younger brother, Ricky Vieira, stayed and was sentenced to death.
Leader Gerald Cruz manipulated group members through bizarre activities that included indoctrination into various forms of the occult, sleep deprivation and brainwashing. At his direction, witnesses said, some members beat, raped and tortured each other.
Cruz eventually led his followers from their living compound in Salida to a nearby duplex where they bashed and slashed the occupants to death with baseball bats and knives. At least some of the victims were disassociated members of Cruz's circle.
Killed were Darlene Paris, 23, Frank Raper, 51, Dennis Colwell, 35, and Richard T. Ritchey, 25.
James Brazelton, a deputy district attorney at the time, steered the prosecution. A few years later, he became district attorney and now oversees the Peterson case, although his senior prosecutors are handling courtroom proceedings.
Sentenced to death in the Salida case were Cruz, now 41; his "enforcer," David Beck, 47; and Vieira, 34. Jason LaMarsh, 36, and Ronald Willey, 37, received prison sentences of 64 years to life. All remain under appeal.
A cult or just bizarre?
Their trials were sprinkled with testimony on the occult, including blood-letting rituals and black magic.
But many details were excluded from parts of the proceedings, sometimes because Brazelton protested, sometimes at the request of Cruz's lawyer.
In a recent interview, Brazelton said, "There was no evidence of any cult or rituals, though the defense tried to make it seem that way."
Cruz's Van Nuys lawyer, Seymour Amster, agreed, saying, "It didn't come out (in court) because it wasn't a cult murder in any sense, in my opinion."
Lawyers for Cruz's followers recalled things differently.
Ramon Magana of Modesto, who represented LaMarsh, remembers stories of rituals under the full moon at midnight along the Stanislaus River. Diaries and letters by group members made reference to desecrating graves, forced sodomy and beatings for disobedience, and even murder, Magana said, calling the writings "chilling."
"My recollection is that Brazelton wanted to focus only on the (Salida slayings) themselves," Magana said. "If the case got cluttered up with anything else, it might hurt his case."
Amster fought to exclude evidence of the occult from much of the proceedings, arguing that the group's worship was irrelevant to the quadruple murder.
Rituals, writings and sacrifice
Modesto attorney William Arthur Miller, who represented Willey, recalled many of the same things as Magana, plus allegations of animal sacrifice. He said group members listened to heavy metal music just before the murders, and remembered talk of group members dancing at one point, as if in a ritual.
Miller said crime scene photos revealed a scrap of paper scrawled with a ritual prayer or chant. A length of hair from one of the victims was affixed by a magnet to a refrigerator door, he said, noting that Satanists are said to use "parts of a victim's physical being to cast spells."
"A lot looked like satanic worship," Miller said of the writings. He recalled a member saying that the "sacrifice of a newborn baby was the 'cleaningest' thing you could do. I took that to mean to 'most cleansing,'" Miller said.
A review of some of the writings revealed references to altars, witchcraft, blood-letting curses, dining with the dead, pentagrams, demons, goats, visions, secret oaths and "the father of darkness."
The Salida group referred to itself as "children of Satan," "children of the night," "false prophets of Revelations" and "judge and jury of people's fate," according to the writings.
Books recovered from the compound included the Satanic Bible, The Magic Power of Witchcraft, First Steps in Ritual and other writings on voodoo, weapons and terrorism.
Miller and Magana said they didn't have the money or staff to thoroughly explore how the group's worship might have affected the murders. "I was always bothered by the fact that nobody seemed to care or investigate," Magana said.
Paul Ligda, a Vallejo attorney who represented Vieira, said, "Looking back, I don't think as much was done as could have been done. I didn't know as much then as I do now."
Young and another group member who broke away before the murders, contacted separately, said there were members who were not prosecuted. Both recalled outdoor ceremonies but would not provide many details.
Young said, "It was nothing like 'All hail Satan.'" She said Cruz, dressed in a Ku Klux Klan-type robe, would babble from a mystical book.
At one of the trials, Young had testified about participating in a ritual where her hand was sliced and a bloody thumbprint placed in a leather-bound book titled "The Order of the Lion."
The other former group member, who asked not to be identified, shook visibly and wept when asked about the group. She said when she distanced herself, members threatened her and her loved ones, and she is certain that remnants of the group continue to lurk in the area.
Angela Ragsdale, granddaughter of Raper, the unofficial leader of the breakaways who were slaughtered, agreed. "I know there are people still out there" who were affiliated with Cruz's group, Ragsdale said.
Of the murders, she said, "I truthfully believe this was an initiation to be in this cult."
She was 14 at the time, but had been welcomed as a youthful associate and recalls seeing riverside ceremonies featuring snakes, black cats, candles and blood. Ragsdale said she heard stories that "led me to believe that a child had been sacrificed."
Reports trigger memories
That something similar may have happened to Laci and Conner Peterson haunts Ragsdale.
She noted unconfirmed reports that the boy's body was recovered with a slash on the torso and a nooselike length of tape wrapped around the neck. That suggests "a satanical-type thing," she concluded.
"I'm not looking to save Scott Peterson by any means," Ragsdale said. "I'm not declaring him innocent or guilty. But to me, it's completely wrong for them not to recognize this (possible connection)."
Peterson's defense team has explored artwork discovered along San Francisco Bay near where the bodies of mother and son were recovered. The paintings include images of infants in water with umbilical cords attached, a man with an ax beheading a man in a boat and a woman with severed hands, goat-headed figures, devilish caricatures and scenes of mutilations.
Members of the Peterson camp said items released into the bay from a point near the drawings drifted to near where the bodies were recovered.
The kidnap-sacrifice theory has caused speculation across the United States and beyond.
People claiming to be victims of or to have personal knowledge of satanic groups have appeared on TV talk shows and have called and sent e-mail to The Bee. Many noted that Laci Peterson was reported missing on Christmas Eve, which is also a satanic holiday called "Demon Revels" or "Grand High Climax." One noted that the Petersons' Covena Avenue home is on a street containing the word coven, which is an assembly of 13 witches.
But several experts say the ritual theory is nothing more than a ploy by Peterson's defense team to cloud the minds of future jurors.
"The fact that they're throwing out this satanic connection tells me they're throwing stuff out to see what sticks, hoping maybe to sway one juror," said Fresno police Sgt. Bill Grove, who has studied ritualistic crimes for two decades. He reviewed the bayside artwork and pronounced it free from typical satanic influence, attributing its violence to artful eccentricity.
Grove reviewed writings by the Salida killers and concluded that they "had definite cult leanings." But it's a far stretch to suggest any link to the Peterson murders, he said.
The Salida killers appear to have fashioned their own brand of cult worship, Grove said. The literature they studied ranged from martial arts and worship of Mother Earth to witchcraft and Aleister Crowley, he noted. Those sources don't advocate violence or human sacrifice.
Brainwashed, but not Satanists
Jared Lewis, a former Modesto police officer and gang expert who has researched ritualist crime scenes, also reviewed the Salida killers' writings. "This is such a cross of everything," he said. "One minute it's white supremacy, one minute it's God, one minute it's witchcraft and the next it's Satan.
"There may be some satanic undertones, but calling this group a satanic cult is not accurate," Lewis continued. "This is a group of brainwashed outcasts doing whatever their leader was telling them."
Lewis and Grove, contacted separately, both pointed to one Vieira journal entry: "If Gerald (Cruz) ever kills himself, we will all go with him, out. There would be nothing left here for us if he were gone."
When such groups lose their leader, they often disintegrate, Lewis and Grove said. For example, remnant followers of Heaven's Gate or David Koresh haven't made headlines since their cultist gatherings ended in disaster, presumably because their leaders aren't around to give direction.
"I haven't known of any organizations or groups, once they've been identified and exposed, that have continued to exist after the fact," Grove said.
Cruz, the Salida leader, refused to comment from San Quentin State Prison through his new lawyer, Kathleen Scheidel. She said, "He's got no connection to the Peterson case."
Cerny, a former sheriff's deputy who testified about cult "mind control" as a defense witness at one of the Salida trials, also declined to comment. As a consultant to Modesto police on the Peterson case, he is subject to a court-imposed gag order on potential witnesses.
Cult theory scorned
Bill Ellis, a professor at Penn State University and an expert on Satanism and the occult, issued a statement noting that Stanislaus County authorities had no trouble quickly tracking down the Salida killers. Logic suggests police by now would have done the same if a similar group were responsible for the Peterson slayings, Ellis said.
"Nothing so far suggests that police have passed up credible leads that would implicate a cult," Ellis said.
Daniel Goldstine, a Berkeley psychologist who had testified in one of the Salida trials about the role of the occult on the killers' minds, also views the Peterson theory with skepticism.
"Based on what I knew at the time, there could be no connection between this group and what went on with Laci Peterson," Goldstine said. He said the Salida group was "not a cult that preyed on outsiders."
"They were a pretty confused group of people who both feared and admired their leader in some very messed-up way," Goldstine continued. "It was not the kind of group that would get off doing something like what happened to Laci Peterson."
Janice Keson's daughter was among those slain in Salida. Keson said she sees "nothing similar at all" between the two cases.
"If it was a ritual, why was the baby still intact?" Keson said. "They need to get off these theories and get focused back on the main issue. There was no cult."
Amster, Cruz's first attorney, said Peterson's cult hypothesis "is a reach. It's an interesting theory, but a reach."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or email@example.com.