June 2, 2008

Book proposes new theory for Scott Peterson

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.

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