Few bites from fishermen on Peterson sturgeon alibi

November 30, 2003 

Details from Scott Peterson's preliminary hearing about his Christmas Eve fishing trip left some already skeptical fishermen with more doubt.

"None of his story made any sense," said Carl Costley of Oakdale, who has fished 35 years for huge, tough-skinned sturgeon. "It just doesn't hold water."

Said Robert Kisner of Denair, "Pretty much any fisherman will tell you that guy didn't go out there fishing. It could be that he just didn't know what he was doing."

When word spread about Peterson's solo excursion soon after his pregnant wife disappeared 11 months ago, Costley and Kisner, among others, frowned.

The swelling San Francisco Bay is no place for a relatively small aluminum boat, many said. Most added that it's crazy to fish alone for sturgeon, which often top 100 pounds and 6 feet in length. Others who prefer to start at daybreak chuckled at the thought of Peterson launching after noon.

And now, they say, recent news about his gear, anchor and licenses gives them more reasons to doubt.

Authorities have said they believe Peterson, now 31, dumped the body of his 27-year-old wife, Laci, in the frigid water. The mother's and son's remains were recovered in April along the shore, less than two miles from the spot Peterson said he fished Dec. 24.

After reviewing evidence presented over 12 days of testimony, a judge ordered Peterson to stand trial. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Details from the hearing were limited to attorneys questioning detectives. In a nutshell, they said:

They found two unopened packages of lures in Peterson's pickup.

They recovered from his boat an "ultralight stream fishing pole," a "heavier pole" and a homemade 1-gallon concrete anchor.

They found five fishing licenses apparently belonging to Peterson: a two-day permit valid Dec. 23 and 24; other two-day permits issued in August 2002, October 1999 and July 1999; and a yearlong license issued in 1994.

Peterson "couldn't say" what type of fish he was trying to catch when a police officer asked him Dec. 24.

Peterson did not respond when his wife's stepfather, an avid fisherman, commented that Peterson had left late in the day for fishing.

Peterson's family has said he has loved to fish since he was young. Solo trips are nothing out of the ordinary, some fishermen said.

"When he was about 6 or 7 years old, we'd all go golfing together," his mother, Jackie Peterson, said in January. "He would put his fishing pole in his bag because the course we often went to was on the San Diego River. By the second hole, he'd stop golfing and start fishing. We'd pass by him every so often, and he usually fished until we were done golfing."

Fishing trips common

The Petersons often took fishing trips to the mountains, family members said. They said Scott Peterson, the youngest of seven siblings, eventually convinced his father to buy a fishing boat.

He bought his own Dec. 9, Detective Al Brocchini said at the recent hearing. The same day, Peterson told his girlfriend that he had "lost his wife."

A police computer expert testified that Scott Peterson had used a computer in early December to research San Francisco Bay and Central Valley lakes and reservoirs. The expert acknowledged that Peterson visited a sport fishing site as well.

Brocchini said he found unopened lures in Peterson's truck. That does not square with fishing for sturgeon -- which show no interest in metal lures but rely on a keen sense of smell to find herring roe and shrimp on the bottom of the bay, several fishermen said. Bait -- not lures -- replicates that food source.

"If he was using lures, he was not going sturgeon fishing," said Steve Perkins of Fisherman's Warehouse in Manteca.

Different poles for different fish

Many anglers keep all their gear together, whether going to a mountain stream or the ocean. That is the only plausible reason Peterson would have lures and a light stream rod in his boat, said Ken Moore of Ripon.

Using a light stream rod to catch sturgeon "is like hunting an elephant with a .22," or a rifle more suited for squirrels or rabbits, Costley said. "It's not practical."

Others acknowledged that some anglers bring light rods to catch bait, which they then use to try catching sturgeon with a larger pole. But that wouldn't fit with the profile police painted of Peterson -- a fisherman new to sturgeon fishing in a newly purchased boat on its maiden voyage in salt water.

Several experienced sturgeon fishermen said a concrete anchor made in a 1-gallon pitcher would hold a 14-foot boat in calm water. None believed it would work in the bay, where "rip-roaring currents," in Moore's words, are common.

"Worthless," Moore said of Peterson's homemade anchor.

Most bay anglers use heavy anchors with flukes that unfold, turn down and dig in.

"The bottom of that bay is so muddy and slimy," Costley said, "that a dead weight will generally just slide along in the mud."

Detective Dodge Hendee testified that cement spilled on a flat-bed trailer in Peterson's warehouse had five bare patches, perhaps indicating that Peterson made more than one concrete anchor.

A photo of the trailer submitted into evidence showed a plastic pitcher sitting amid the cement.

A concrete anchor with a rebar loop at one end found in Peterson's boat "fit perfectly" into the pitcher, Hendee testified.

Unless Peterson had other fishing licenses that detectives didn't turn up, he wasn't an ardent fisherman, the anglers said.

His last year-round license was issued in 1994. Currently, one costs $30.70, compared with $11.05 for a two-day permit.

"If you're an avid fisherman, you're going to be going more than two days out of the year, so that doesn't make much sense," Perkins said.

But it also wouldn't make much sense to buy a yearly license -- which lasts until the end of the calendar year -- in late December.

People can buy two-day licenses well before a particular trip. But they're supposed to designate upon purchase the two consecutive days they will fish, said Perkins, who has sold licenses for eight years.

And that raises questions about Peterson's intentions. Brocchini testified that Peterson told him late Dec. 24 he had decided to go fishing on the spur of the moment that morning, because "it was too cold to go golfing."

On Dec. 23, Peterson told his wife and her sister, Amy Rocha, that he planned to golf the next day, Rocha testified. And, Peterson offered to pick up a gift at a shop near his country club, Rocha said.

Peterson's fishing license was valid Dec. 23 and 24, Brocchini testified. That could figure into the prosecution theory that the murder was premeditated.

A neighbor's testimony

Further muddying the water was testimony from Amie Krigbaum, a neighbor who said Scott Peterson told her late Dec. 24 he had golfed that day.

Officials at Del Rio Golf & Country Club, where Peterson belonged, declined to comment on whether Peterson reserved a tee time Dec. 24. But club members have said reservations aren't required; the club reserves times on weekends as a convenience, but members don't need reservations to play, especially if they're alone.

Other details about Peterson's fishing trip revealed at the hearing include the fact that his father, Lee Peterson, didn't know his son had bought a boat. Lee Peterson said it was not unusual for his son to make a big purchase and not mention it, however.

Scott Peterson called his father after leaving the Berkeley Marina, cell phone records show, but said nothing about having fished that day, Lee Peterson said.

Though Detective Jon Evers testified that an officer told him Dec. 24 that Peterson could not say what fish he hoped to catch, it was widely reported after his wife disappeared that he was after sturgeon. And, Peterson's lawyer, Mark Geragos of Los Angeles, noted that his client had researched sturgeon sport fishing on a computer at his warehouse.

Most curious to many anglers is the relatively small size of his boat, which they say would be unsafe in unstable bay waters.

Geragos grilled Detective Phil Owen about a police theory that a paint scuff on the outside of Peterson's boat could have come from tying it to a buoy, to keep it from capsizing as he pushed out a weighted body. Owen acknowledged that he didn't know if paint he later scraped from a buoy matched that on the boat.

Some anglers say most of the evidence, at least that involving Peterson's alibi, points to a fish story.

"There are a lot of inconsistencies that made my colleagues and professional fishermen raise their eyebrows," Perkins said.

Said Costley, "He obviously was not an experienced sturgeon fisherman, for sure. Anybody who has done any sturgeon fishing is saying, 'Boy, that didn't make too much sense.'"

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

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