Five years after Laci Peterson disappeared, reporter details covering the case
12/23/2007 1:03 AM
10/20/2014 10:12 AM
I will never tell anyone whether I think Scott killed Laci.
That, by far, is the most common question when people learn I covered Scott Peterson's trial in 2004.
Yes, I sat in the courtroom every day, with few exceptions. I saw firsthand how Scott Peterson smiled at jurors, bantered with his attorneys and looked away when gruesome slides of his dead family were shown on a 10-foot screen.
I spoke with his parents and siblings many times. Just before he was sentenced to death, his father screamed at me in a courthouse corridor as dozens of stunned reporters looked on.
More than 800 journalists were granted credentials to watch the case of a previously unknown fertilizer salesman accused of murdering his perky, pregnant wife and unborn son at Christmastime. A curious obsession spread over the continent and beyond, igniting untold hours of cable television talk, thousands of articles, more than a dozen books and two made-for-TV movies. And The Bee has been there at every turn.
I witnessed the pain of Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, a few feet away in the courtroom. I was glad when people would send her letters through The Bee, because it gave me an excuse to approach her, if only for moments at a time. Otherwise, she was bound to silence by the judge's gag order, and she steadfastly observed it. Once, while taking an envelope from me, she said, "I look forward to the time when this is all over so we can talk." That time came.
Yes, I saw and heard all the evidence, interviewed hundreds of people and spent most of five years learning everything possible about the Peterson case. But very early on, I realized that in order to keep any semblance of objectivity -- and by extension, credibility -- I simply couldn't go around spouting opinion. One stray comment could forever paint us as biased, one way or the other.
"If I won't tell my wife, why would I tell you?" I used that line several times, usually with a smile, to shut down aggressive, inquisitive people.
It's true: I never discuss Scott's guilt or innocence, even with Cathy. We talk about almost everything else related to the case, which upturned our lives when my reporting partner, John Coté, and I moved with the trial to the Bay Area after a judge acknowledged that everyone and his dog around Modesto knew too much about the Petersons.
We knew we were up against the best in the business, but we had a lot going for us. The hometown newspaper is expected to provide comprehensive, even exhaustive coverage, and we led the way, often breaking stories before those who pay big bucks for info, which we don't.
John and I marveled at the media circus. Many elements drove the intense interest among national media: holiday tragedy, good-looking victim and suspect, infidelity, celebrity attorneys and, most of all, mystery. Journalists delved into every aspect of the case, grasping at every tidbit and breathlessly reporting every factoid for more than two years.
I understand when people say, "Enough already. We're sick of the Peterson story." But every time the names of participants show up in any item on modbee.com, even five years later, thousands of people all over the world tune in.
The Bee would have covered the Peterson case from start to finish regardless, because it always was our story.
Laci was one of us. It happened in Modesto. It happened to Modesto.
The case was still in Modesto and heading for a preliminary hearing in the fall of 2003 when we got one of our biggest breaks: Amber Frey's cell phone records.
Judge Al Girolami's gag order had slammed a lid on reporters' ability to mine official sources. But it also created a constant flood of speculation, often with nothing resembling real documentation. We provided a rare exception with an unofficial but very real peek into the mind of Scott Peterson's girlfriend, a massage therapist in Fresno.
I'm not comfortable telling how I got the records. The people involved trust me and I can't give them up.
The cell phone list proved to have lasting value. While hundreds of journalists and TV talking heads speculated, we documented that Amber had called Scott 76 times over nine turbulent weeks, starting nine days before Laci disappeared. And Amber spent 20 hours on the phone with police, who bugged Scott's phones. Other reporters could only quote our paper until complete phone records were revealed at trial several months later.
But the triumph came with a bitter pill.
To figure out what Amber was thinking at the time, we had to know to whom those numbers belonged that she was calling. We pinpointed many using public records. But many others -- unlisted and cell numbers -- left us only one choice. To know, we had to call them ourselves.
That was anything but fun. Think about it: Most of these people by now are acquainted with Amber and her role in the Peterson case and have no desire to talk with reporters. How do you open a conversation with mostly hostile people and demand their identity?
Ring, ring. "Hello?" they would say.
"Hi, I'm a reporter with The Modesto Bee covering the Peterson case and we came across this number associated with Amber Frey. Can I ask who you are?"
"Get lost." Or words to that effect, sometimes with colorful language. Over and over, dozens of times.
I got lucky once in a while. Businesses identify themselves upon answering, so finding out that Amber had called certain journalists was easy.
A cold call to a People magazine reporter's personal phone, though, went badly. He was on to me immediately and let me stumble around in the dark for an agonizing period. "Dude," he finally said, "you need to change your approach." I was humiliated.
Hardest of the cold calls, but perhaps most valuable, were those that turned up Laci's family and friends.
I was struck when a pattern emerged showing Amber calling many of them just before she went public about her romance with a national pariah. We revealed that she reached out to them 53 times in conversations lasting nearly 6½ hours. No one else had a clue of the link between Scott's lover and the loved ones of his dead wife.
Some of the other important stories we broke resulted more from dumb luck.
A Bee photographer passed the Petersons' Covena Avenue house one morning and captured Lee Peterson, Scott's father, as he came out the front door carrying, of all things, a shotgun. I called to ask about it and Lee told me he didn't feel safe in Modesto. He added that detectives had seized his son's firearms while serving search warrants. We became the first to report that Scott owned guns.
Once, I took a call from a source on the East Coast who knew that the victims' loved ones were gathering, as we spoke, for a private burial of the remains of mother and son. John was dispatched with a photographer. They said they tried to keep a respectful distance and were mostly treated with courtesy in return. Readers all over the world could go only one place for news of the burial -- The Modesto Bee.
Hours before Judge Girolami decided to move the trial from Modesto, a source told me that Stanislaus State students had fabricated some data used in a professor's supposedly scientific survey meant to gauge whether Scott Peterson could get a fair trial in Modesto as opposed to other counties in California. I hustled to Turlock, found several students and heard their confessions.
An hour or two later, John and I confronted Girolami in a courthouse corridor. He got a sick look when I informed him he had that day, in announcing his decision to move the trial, cited a survey based on corrupt data. He later clarified that he would have approved the change of venue regardless, but we had landed another big story, one that touched off a scandal, prompted at least two investigations and resulted in the professor's demotion.
Another valuable "get" occurred because John was in the right place at the right time. We knew that distinguished criminologist Dr. Henry Lee and forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, both TV analysts, had been hired by their pal, defense attorney Mark Geragos, and were scheduled to view evidence at the crime lab in Ripon. While waiting in the public lobby, the defense team openly discussed a wild theory -- that satanists had snatched Laci for her unborn baby -- as John scribbled notes and our photographer snapped hundreds of frames.
An attorney noted the proximity of points where human remains were recovered to bizarre, sickening drawings on a barren peninsula inhabited by vagrants. Soon after, John tracked down some of the artists. They laughed at the suggestion that their work was linked to the occult. I polled experts on sacrificial rites, and we delivered a balanced report. The defense trial balloon stirred much controversy but never gained credible traction.
Another time, I became aware that the owner of a mom-and-pop burger joint had found a video camera in an alley grease barrel just across the street from a dance studio my children still attend. Fast Eddie Gibson confirmed seeing on the video 27-year-old Laci Peterson and another young woman in bikini tops, chatting away in a kitchen.
The Bee became the first to report that the Petersons' video camera had been stolen in a burglary shortly after Laci vanished. The clip was presented at trial and became a staple for outlets wanting to show the most recent known footage of bubbly Laci.
When the trial was moved to Redwood City, I found an older, affordable apartment managed by the mother of a Stanislaus County bureaucrat I'd known years before. It would serve as our home and news bureau for most of 2004.
It was perfect -- shower water pressure like Niagara Falls, new appliances and an oversized balcony patio just right for grilling steaks over John's real wood fires. And I could be in bed only an hour after Giants games.
Tall, wooded hills rise sharply to the west, between the coast and San Francisco Bay. I found them perfect for hard bicycling, an escape from the grueling workday. And I left most of the flesh from my palms on one steep descent when a front tire blew out.
The National Enquirer once wrote a snippet about our home away from home and said we nicknamed it "The Beehive." Clever, but untrue.
We rode bicycles each day to the San Mateo County Courthouse, the same building where Donald Beardslee had been sentenced to death
20 years earlier for shooting and slashing to death two young women in a drug deal gone bad. John and I later found out that he had kidnapped them when they came to his home, on the same street and only two blocks away from our apartment.
One month before jurors convicted Peterson of double murder -- identical to Beardslee's crime -- the U.S. Supreme Court denied Beardslee's final appeal. One month after jurors gave Peterson the same sentence -- death -- Beardslee was executed across the bay at San Quentin.
The next death row inmate to receive a lethal injection in California: Stanley Tookie Williams, executed one year to the day after Peterson's death sentence. Only one man in this state, Clarence Ray Allen, has been put to death since.
Some reporters were mystified that jurors were rarely spotted outside the courthouse. We learned that they parked in a distant lot, entered a building across a plaza and reached the courthouse through an underground tunnel.
I began staking out the parking lot on my bicycle. As jurors arrived, I would sketch where they parked, wait for the coast to clear and then approach each vehicle for license plate numbers. Most cars can be traced to owners using public records.
This exercise proved to be more time-consuming than anticipated. The lot, shared with hundreds of county employees, was large and jurors would park all over it, often with several parking at the same time. I would have to wait for all of them to leave, then hustle to court.
Sometimes I waited on a sidewalk mostly obscured from the lot by large bushes, but that seemed too sneaky. My favorite lookout was from the second floor of a parking garage, reserved for court employees, overlooking the lot.
Once, I saw that a driver who wasn't a juror had noticed me peering from my perch. She seemed to hurry away, and a couple of minutes later a patrol car zoomed into the parking garage. The deputy may not have been after me, but I could take no chances -- and I had planned an escape. As the patrol car negotiated turns in the ramp, I hefted my bicycle, shot down a nearby staircase on foot and disappeared.
My good fortune, though, would not last forever. Perhaps I got too cocky. As I rolled through the lot on my bicycle, one of the jurors noticed and called to the others. I probably would have been fine if I had kept going, but I made the stupid mistake of freezing, then awkwardly turned and fled. I guess I wouldn't make a good undercover guy.
The next day, a bailiff approached me in a corridor. "I hear you've been bothering my people," she grumbled. I broke into a cold sweat and mumbled something about them being too sensitive, probably brought on by the circus atmosphere and the judge's constant threats to keep to themselves. She let it go.
Though I hated being sneaky on one level, I knew the info would put us a step ahead of our competitors in the long run, meaning after the trial. We knew where every juror lived and had most of their phone numbers long before then, but never attempted to contact them until legally allowed to do so.
And it eventually paid off in a big way.
The day after jurors declared Peterson worthy of death by injection, I knocked on most of their doors and scored several interviews. The most important at the time was with Tom Marino, a practicing Catholic who revealed during jury selection seven months before that he had talked with a priest about the death penalty.
Actually, Tom's wife, Barbara, opened their door. She invited me in before he could say no, and the three of us had a long, delightful chat.
But Marino was reclusive. When the San Francisco Chronicle pieced together a story on jury deliberations with several of the more outspoken jurors, they pointed to Marino as the holdout who initially favored a life sentence, but the Chron couldn't get him to talk. I already had, allowing us to fill in the blanks for the rest of the world.
My calls -- made possible by parking lot stakeouts -- gave us other memorable interviews with Richelle "Strawberry Shortcake" Nice, a flamboyant, red-haired single mother who later exchanged letters with Peterson at San Quentin.
I also got the best scoop to that point from John Guinasso, who recounted his direct involvement in the dismissal of all three of the jurors who had been booted from the panel.
Closest to my heart were conversations with Mary Mylett, who to this day has not spoken to another reporter.
Four days after the trial, I still was making follow-up calls, hoping to stumble on anything that might help tell the story. I believe it was my pitch of representing Laci's hometown paper that got Mary talking despite having refused hundreds of requests.
It was clear from the start that Mary was overcome with pain. I listened and genuinely tried to understand. Eventually, she confided that she had lost a toddler 18 years before, that she still was deeply affected by his death and was stunned when the judge and attorneys from both sides, upon learning her secret while shielded from reporters in the judge's chamber, allowed her to be on the jury.
Somehow it came out that I was born on the Fourth of July. Her baby's birthday was July 5. She took that as a sign that it was OK to be open with me, that I might treat her story with the sensitivity it demanded.
But when I asked how her boy had died, Mary broke down. It was too awful to tell, she said.
I hung up knowing that I had most of a golden story, but not quite all. In a huddle with my bosses, an editor said, "She must have killed her son. That's the only thing that makes sense."
We immediately put all of our resources to work. Within minutes, we knew the boy's name and date of death. Within hours, I had a copy of the death certificate. "Accident. Residence driveway. Run over by family vehicle."
Almost trembling, I called Mary back. This time she told the whole heartbreaking story.
"I know what it's like to lose a life," Mylett told me, "and I know what it's like to take one."
Her main, poignant plea: That I share with Sharon Rocha the empathy Mary had, from firsthand experience, at losing a child to violent death. That Mary took strength from Sharon's strength. That emotional wounds can heal.
I did my very best.
Three months later, in March 2005, I visited several jurors to see if they would attend Peterson's final sentencing. Mary and I talked for a long time at her kitchen table. I never took out my notebook. She said it helped to share difficult feelings.
When her husband came home, Mary started to introduce me but he exploded in rage and demanded I leave that instant. Mary softly defended me, but I could see he wasn't about to calm down. "Mary," I said, "this is his house and I respect that. I will leave."
As I headed to the door, I began to say that I hoped he was proud of her. But at the first word, he blew up again and heard nothing. I felt lucky to get out the door with no violence.
I wish we could have discussed whatever bothered him. I still don't know, though I'm guessing it had something to do with reopening a wound that had never properly healed.
I have prayed many times that he would not blame Mary for what I wrote. I still do.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.
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