Witnesses: Fishing wasn't planned

11/01/2003 8:25 AM

11/19/2007 2:05 PM

Scott Peterson's alibi came under fire Friday as witnesses testified that he planned to golf and pick up a Christmas present the day his wife disappeared, rather than go fishing in a boat that family members did not know he owned.

Peterson's house cleaner, Margarita Nava, testified that she cleaned the couple's Modesto home on Dec. 23, the day before Laci Peterson was reported missing, and used water and a pine oil-based cleaner on the kitchen floor.

Investigators found indications that different cleaning chemicals had been used on the floor, suggesting someone cleaned the floor after the housekeeper, a source said.

The 31-year-old former fertilizer salesman is charged with killing his pregnant wife and their son, Conner, and faces the death penalty if convicted.

Early in the investigation, law enforcement personnel said they smelled a strong odor of bleach when they entered the home after Peterson was reported missing Christmas Eve.

"If the house cleaner says she used A and they found evidence of cleaner B, it means somebody else cleaned with (B)" sometime after Nava mopped the floor on Dec. 23, Richmond criminalist Peter Barnett of Forensic Science Associates said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon. Barnett testified on trace evidence in the San Francisco dog mauling trial.

But prosecutors did not ask one of the first officers who entered the home about bleach when he took the stand during the third day of Peterson's preliminary hearing on double-murder charges.

Instead, much of Detective Jon Evers' testimony centered on Peterson's story that began with his leaving about 9:30 a.m. Dec. 24 to go fishing in San Francisco Bay while his wife prepared to walk the couple's dog in East La Loma Park. Laci Peterson's mother and sister testified that Laci regularly walked the dog.

Evers, who was a patrolman at the start of the investigation into Peterson's disappearance, said Scott Peterson related that he had returned home and his wife was not there. Peterson said he ate some slices of pizza, took a shower and then called friends and relatives, Evers said.

Another officer questioned Peterson about his fishing trip, and Peterson "couldn't say" what type of fish he was trying to catch, Evers said.

Peterson did not respond when his wife's stepfather, an avid fisherman, commented that Peterson had left quite late in the morning for fishing in San Francisco Bay, Evers said.

Mother and sister take the stand

Laci Peterson's mother and sister took the witness stand for much of Friday's hearing, describing a seemingly loving couple who talked about baby names. Their testimony, which came during a shortened day in court, also gave glimpses into what may have been Laci Peterson's final hours.

Amy Rocha, Laci's sister, said the couple came to her workplace, Salon Salon, about 5:45 p.m. Dec. 23 so she could cut Scott Peterson's hair, which she did monthly. As Amy Rocha cut his hair, Scott Peterson offered to pick up a Christmas gift basket for her at Vella Farms in north Modesto.

"He offered to pick it up. He said he'd be out that way golfing," Rocha said. She said she assumed Peterson meant that he would be golfing at Del Rio Country Club, where he had a membership.

According to the source, Peterson attempted to set up a tee time for Dec. 24 at Del Rio.

Rocha said a Vella Farms employee called her near the store's closing time on Dec. 24 because the gift had not been picked up. Rocha called Scott Peterson's cell phone and home phone, but could not reach him, she said, so she drove to the store herself.

Prosecutor Rick Distaso asked Rocha extensive questions about the clothes that Laci Peterson was wearing Dec. 23. Rocha said it was a black-and-cream shirt and beige pants.

One expert said Peterson's apparent last-minute change in plans could aid the defense.

"It does lend itself to undercutting a premeditation case," said Michael Vitiello, a criminal law professor at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "Why would he change his alibi in midstream? A premeditator would have told everyone in advance that he was going fishing."

Scott Peterson spoke with his father that day on his cell phone between noon and 2 p.m., Lee Peterson said after prosecutors called him to the stand.

Peterson said his son did not mention going to the Berkeley Marina to fish when the two spoke on Dec. 24, but he said the call was brief, about two minutes.

Lee Peterson testified that he had not known Scott Peterson had purchased a 14-foot aluminum boat, which he reportedly bought in December.

But Peterson said his son had previously made several large purchases without telling him, and that the purchases included a motorcycle, a catamaran and the Ford pickup he used to tow the boat.

Unaware of the affair

A hush fell over the courtroom when Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, took the stand, appearing collected and looking straight ahead when not answering questions.

She and Amy Rocha testified that they had not known about the boat. Both said they were also unaware of Scott Peterson's affair with Fresno massage therapist Amber Frey.

"Laci and I were very close," Sharon Rocha said. "We talked probably at least every day or every couple of days."

She described the last time she spoke with her daughter, about 8:30 p.m. Dec. 23. The call lasted only a couple of minutes because Rocha had a caller waiting on another line, she said.

"She said she was very tired," Rocha said. "I asked her if she was feeling all right, and she said she was just tired."

Scott Peterson called the next evening to say her daughter was missing, Rocha said.

"When he said 'missing,' that's what concerned me," Rocha said. "It wasn't that she wasn't there, or he couldn't find her, but that she was missing."

Under cross-examination by lead defense attorney Mark Geragos, Rocha said her daughter had never confided in her about any serious marital problems.

She smiled broadly when Geragos asked if it was fair to describe Laci Peterson as a "determined young lady."

Rocha said it was common for Ron Grantski, her husband and an ardent fisherman, to make last-minute decisions to go fishing.

After the hearing, a reporter asked Geragos if he felt the proceeding was going well. "I'll leave that to you," he said.

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

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

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