Book proposes new theory for Scott Peterson

True-crime writer compares Modesto's most notorious slaying to 50 other cases

June 2, 2008 

Pete Book

"Erased" By MArilee Strong, Is the latest book drawing on Modesto's Scott and Laci Peterson Case.

  • From "Erased: Missing Women, Murdered Wives"

    So much has been written and said about the Peterson case that we may be tempted to think there is nothing more we can learn from it. Yet for most people it remains a crime without context, something so seemingly diabolical and inexplicable that they cannot imagine that anything like it has ever happened before or since.

    Even the jurors who convicted Peterson did not seem to grasp what the case was really about. In finding a lesser degree of culpability for the murder of Conner than for Laci, they treated Conner's death as collateral damage in the killing of his mother, as if he were just along for an unfortunate ride.

    ***

    Scott Peterson was a fertilizer salesman with a glorified title running a failing start-up business. He was living in humble Modesto in a modest home, a married man with a baby on the way. With that baby would come a new set of responsibilities, new demands on his time and an inevitable change in lifestyle, which was contrary to every fantasy he had of his life.

    ***

    It was the impending birth of Conner that triggered his murder plan, not his romance with Amber Frey.

    ***

    In (an eraser killer's) mind, he is not really murdering a human being; he is simply rearranging the world to better suit his needs, to remove a major annoyance or let him make a fresh start of things.

    ***

    Murder is more palatable than divorce for men like Scott Peterson because simply leaving or divorcing a pregnant wife would tarnish the image they have crafted of themselves, however false -- that of the nice guy, perfect, husband, loving father.

    ***

    When (Brooks Island caretaker Heather Hailey) locked eyes with him, something strange happened. "As soon as he saw me, he pulled his boat around and made a dead stop," Hailey told me. "I thought maybe he was going to try to land and go camping because of all the stuff he had piled in the boat. So I sat down on the beach, and we had like a 10-minute staring contest." The man didn't wave or smile or shout a greeting. And he wasn't fishing.

    ***

    It seemed that both Scott and his attorney shared the same fatal flaw: an inflated sense of hubris. (Mark) Geragos seemed to possess the same narcissistic belief as his client that he could change reality and sway everyone around him with the magic of his words.

People still obsessed with the Scott and Laci Peterson story will find an intriguing mix of old facts and new psycho-theory in "Erased: Missing Women, Murdered Wives."

Others who have had enough of Modesto's most notorious slaying will see only another Peterson book to toss on a voluminous pile, and a rather gory one at that.

True-crime author Marilee Strong coins the term "eraser killers" to answer an enduring mystery: why a normal-seeming guy with no history of violence would murder the woman he promised to cherish.

Scott Peterson was like the other weirdos who simply erased companions from their lives, Strong says, comparing the Modesto case to more than 50 others in her recently released 337-page hardback published by San Francisco's Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.

"They eliminate the women, and sometimes children, in their lives because their victims no longer serve any 'purpose,' or are seen as impediments to the kind of life they covet," Strong writes. "In the mind of this type of murderer, it is better, easier and more satisfying for him to kill than simply to get a divorce."

Forget motives having to do with rage, jealousy or greed, Strong says. Eraser killers methodically plan and execute, and then they manipulate the legal system to erase clues leading to themselves, she says.

Despite delusions of superiority, eraser killers often make mistakes and get caught. That's what happened with the suave fertilizer salesman from Modesto, who has appealed a death sentence and convictions of murdering his pregnant wife and unborn son, Strong says.

Analysts and reporters unfamiliar with the psyche of eraser killers fueled widespread intrigue by chasing theories tied to Peterson's paramour, Amber Frey, as well as insurance money and Laci Peterson's recently inherited jewelry. Talk show "experts" shrugged shoulders while speculating on generic psychopathy, the author says, without seeing common elements in hundreds of other eraser killings.

Killers learn from each other

But eraser killers get it and learn from each other. Peterson, attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 1996, undoubtedly took cues from the disappearance of Stockton's Kristin Smart, Strong says, and she cites murderers since who have commented on Peterson's methods.

"If (eraser killers) are learning it, we need to describe and name it," she told The Bee on Thursday.

Strong, who lives in Oakland, attended Peterson's fall 2003 preliminary hearing in Modesto and followed a horde of journalists when the trial, lasting most of 2004, was moved to Redwood City to escape a tainted jury pool. She told fellow reporters she was working on a book for Simon & Schuster Inc.

But that company "just wanted to see a Peterson story," and competitors began flooding that market even before he arrived on death row in March 2005; more than a dozen books have been published since.

Strong, who blended abuse and psychology in "A Bright Red Scream" in 1998, took a step back, left Simon & Schuster and "found a publisher interested in the larger story," she told The Bee.

Exhaustive research stretched multiple years. Though she weaves in dozens of cases with similar markings -- many told in graphic detail -- the Peterson story dominates seven of 13 chapters.

Readers looking for previously untold tidbits might be disappointed, with one exception. Strong tracked down a Brooks Island caretaker who insists she saw Peterson in his 14-foot boat on Christmas Eve 2002, the day he killed Laci Peterson, police say.

The remains of the pregnant woman and fetus washed ashore not far from the island sanctuary four months after, providing a clue crucial to Peterson's conviction.

Better read

Prosecutors may have decided against calling the woman as a witness because she recalled seeing the lone boatman about 4:55 p.m., and Peterson would have left the Berkeley Marina by about 2:15 p.m., Strong acknowledged.

Though Strong has no formal psychological credentials, her book seems more insightful and satisfying than 2005's easily dismissed "Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson" by cable TV psychiatrist Keith Ablow.

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

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service