The challenge of a career. The case of a lifetime. The monster of Modesto murder trials.
Eyes across America a year ago turned to a courtroom in Redwood City, where Scott Peterson's lengthy trial had been moved to escape penetrating passion in Modesto. For nine long days of jury deliberation, people captivated by the blockbuster case waited and wondered: guilty?
The fate of a fertilizer salesman — and people's faith in the justice system, many would say — had been entrusted to three little-known Stanislaus County prosecutors.
They had gone to war with one of the country's most famous, flamboyant attorneys. They had lived apart from their families for most of the year, working on little sleep and enduring bruising critiques from TV's breathless talking heads.
Nine days earlier, prosecutors Rick Distaso, Dave Harris and Birgit Fladager had asked jurors to hand Peterson the same sentence he gave his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner: death.
They got it.
And they'll never be the same.
None since has argued another case in court, and it's not likely any of them ever will.
Distaso is a judge. Judicial prudence keeps him from accepting interview requests.
Fladager is running for district attorney.
Harris was just promoted to chief deputy district attorney.
They racked up four major awards celebrating prosecutorial excellence. All have traveled to share their stories with law-and-order groups.
But the real change, they say, happened inside.
"The case had an impact on everyone involved, not just Laci's family and friends," Fladager said while reflecting on the upcoming one-year anniversary of Modesto's milestone verdict.
"There is a sense of such incredible professional challenge," she continued. "It was exciting, rewarding, difficult — more difficult than you could imagine.
"And the impact hasn't stopped. It's ongoing."
Back in the spotlight
Cable TV viewers across the English-speaking world voiced an almost "here we go again" reaction when 8-months-pregnant Laci Peterson vanished on Christmas Eve 2002. They were familiar with Modesto's missing-women stories — the Yosemite sightseers, federal intern Chandra Levy — and knew they ended in death.
The Peterson storyline would be no different.
Nearly four months after the 27-year-old substitute teacher disappeared, the remains of mother and son washed ashore at San Francisco Bay. Scott Peterson, who said he fished there alone the day his pretty, pregnant wife disappeared, was arrested shortly after.
Distaso had been on the case almost since Day 1 by virtue of dumb luck. His name happened to be at the top of his office's on-call list when detectives needed help with a search warrant.
Harris was pulled in a few weeks later to respond to a Bee information request and stayed on to help. They provided frequent reports to Fladager and John Goold, two of the office's chief deputies.
Soon after the April 2003 arrest, TV legal analyst Mark Geragos took over Peterson's defense. His slick, glib approach seemed to win over many observers.
Geragos swaggers down a courthouse aisle in Modesto, his usual entourage trailing behind. An armed bailiff conducting security searches at a courtroom entrance recognizes the celebrity attorney and quickly waves him inside for a fall 2003 pretrial Peterson hearing.
Harris, who has handled dozens of cases in this courthouse over several years, approaches for the same hearing. The bailiff eyes Harris suspiciously and orders him to open his briefcase, empty his pockets and step to the side to face a metal-sensitive electronic wand.
"We knew (Geragos) could be very engaging, that people seem to like him," Fladager said in a recent interview. "We also knew the flip side, that he would wear on people after a while."
The big-city lawyer won a multitude of battles, both legal and public relations, in the course of the trial. But he couldn't overcome the mountain of evidence — circumstantial though it was — presented by prosecutors.
They say the fight was professional, that neither side holds a grudge. Harris has communicated with Geragos via e-mail on legal matters related to the trial. Geragos congratulated Distaso on his judgeship when Geragos ran into him and Fladager at a conference in Reno.
"Would I want to go out to dinner with him? No, probably not," Fladager said. "But he can be very nice, very cordial."
"We tried our case just like we try all our cases," Harris said. "Geragos' persona was not an issue."
The prosecutors' opinion of the defendant is less generous. They sat a few feet from him nearly every day of the trial, which lasted most of 2004.
Fladager said of Peterson, "I've never seen anyone like him."
Harris said Peterson periodically shot remarks their way.
"He believed he was one of the attorneys," Harris said. "He would give the appearance of being part of the conversation. We wouldn't respond."
After days of devastating evidence pummeling Peterson as a murderous, lying philanderer, he continues to enter the courtroom unruffled and smiling. He exchanges pleasantries with bailiffs, nods to family members and chats with his lawyers.
As people in the gallery mull particularly damaging testimony, Peterson's eyes scan the defense table, then light up: More mail from admirers.
Near the end of the trial, speculation swirled over whether a cocky Peterson would take the witness stand.
TV legal analyst Michael Cardoza confirmed he had spent multiple weekend hours in jail with the accused killer, pretending to be a prosecutor in a mock cross-examination. Cardoza wouldn't say anything else and the judge slapped him with the same gag-order muzzle as others involved in the case.
Because that antic was the subject of a sealed hearing, prosecutors refused to comment a year later. But their lead investigator, Kevin Bertalotto, who wasn't at the hearing, said, "I think Geragos was using Cardoza to convince Scott not to take the stand."
He didn't. And jurors who wanted to hear his side were left with damning statements Peterson made in limited TV interviews and recordings of his phone conversations.
What would these authorities say if they could ask Peterson a single question?
"Why?" Bertalotto said. "Just why."
Goold said he already knows the answer, but doesn't elaborate.
"I wouldn't waste my time because (Peterson) wouldn't tell the truth," Harris said.
"Most of us would just as soon never see him again," Fladager said.
That could happen if Peterson's appeals, expected to last more than a decade, ever run out. Fladager and Harris said they would attend his lethal injection as government witnesses, if they're still around, because it comes with the job.
Late at night in her Marriott hotel studio, Fladager turns on the TV to unwind from a long day in court. A talk-show host launches into a monologue and cracks a joke about the Peterson trial. Fladager switches off the set and vows to give up all media distractions.
Peterson's image-conscious defense team hated the court-imposed gag order. Geragos said the constraint would prevent him from setting straight any wrong ideas circulating in the press or on the boob tube.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, considered the gag order a blessing.
"It was easier for us to be able to say, 'We can't talk to you,'" Fladager said. And they didn't.
But they might have wanted to scream, at times.
"The media added another level of stress that I don't think is fair to prosecutors," Harris said. "I would not want others to go through that."
Fladager said, "The thing I was most mad about was the talking heads. They're doing it to get famous, for money, for self-promotion."
The team hasn't paid much attention to made-for-TV movies. They did buy copies of the six true-crime books published so far (at least three more are pending, publishers say), to track possible appeals issues.
The first post-trial book to appear was written by none other than their star witness, Amber Frey. The Fresno massage therapist, unaware that Peterson was married, had been sleeping with him shortly before Laci Peterson disappeared.
Frey secretly taped their phone chats for weeks after. When she appeared to testify in August 2004, hundreds of reporters and observers converged on Redwood City, hoping to snag a handful of available seats in a public lottery.
Jurors later said they were awestruck when they heard Peterson tell lie after lie after lie on the tapes.
"Amber was important not necessarily by what she was saying," Harris opined, "but by what Scott was saying to her. That gets you straight into the psyche of the killer."
Having made it through Frey's crucial testimony, a flu bug begins to make its way through the prosecution team. Detective Craig Grogan gets it first, then Bertalotto and so on.
Eventually, Harris is knocked flat with pneumonia. The judge allows Fladager to question some witnesses, the first time jurors have heard her voice in more than three months.
"Getting two to four hours of sleep every night, including weekends, not eating very well and not getting exercise probably contributed" to his illness, Harris said.
Spending so much time away from home wasn't easy either. Many team members' families didn't see them for six weeks at a time.
Bertalotto had a son in high school when the trial started. By the time it ended, he had finished a semester of college.
Harris returned to a new house. His wife and five children had moved without his help.
"Life went on without us," he said. "I came home and life was kind of spinning by. I would stand and watch and say, 'Can I help?' and they would say, 'Oh, we learned to do it without you.'"
After months of trial in Redwood City, Harris makes a stop at his office in Modesto. A recently hired receptionist at the security window asks to see his ID.
"I refer to myself as the most famous anonymous prosecutor who ever was," Harris said.
Fladager said people on the street often recognize Distaso, who delivered the trial's opening statement and closing argument. But the aloof, unflappable Harris — who engineered some of the trial's most memorable moments — says he regularly goes unnoticed, "which is terrific," he added.
A plaque in his office proclaims Harris "The Ice Man." Said Goold, "I think there is a reason why."
A self-absorbed defense expert pompously offers key medical testimony to bolster Geragos' claim that Conner Peterson was killed after his father came under intense scrutiny.
When Harris begins to skewer the condescending doctor for having based the opinion partly on banter at a baby shower and for making a careless mistake on a form, the obstetrician squirms. He pouts. He wilts.
"I would like everybody to cut me slack," he pleads.
Some jurors smile. Others chuckle, cover their mouths or look away.
At the counsel table, Fladager can hardly contain herself. She fights, with questionable success, to stifle giggles.
Harris doesn't immediately grasp that he is pulling off a Perry Masonesque witness-bludgeoning. During a break in testimony, he notices Fladager struggling to contain her composure. Harris whispers disdainfully: "What?"
"I was literally shaking, I was trying so hard not to laugh," Fladager recalled. "I thought that was the funniest moment I ever saw in a courtroom."
Prosecution team members came to "rely on each other completely and totally," Fladager said. "We became family."
"Of course, family members do sometimes want to strangle each other," Goold added.
With their makeshift office copy machine broken and the clock approaching 11 p.m., Distaso and Fladager race in a government car toward a business services shop. Colored lights begin flashing in the rearview mirror.
After pulling over, America's then-most-famous prosecutors wait as a patrolman approaches. Distaso points at Fladager. "This is my supervisor "
The officer verifies that the county-owned car doesn't need registration tags and sends them on their way without a ticket. Distaso and Fladager arrive at the store — just after it closes. They set off on a new search for another copy machine.
The prosecutors insist they weren't worried as millions waited on pins and needles for the Nov. 12 verdict.
Technicians in their office back in Modesto set up a TV in a second-floor training room. Supportive staff members crowded around when news broke that a verdict was imminent.
In Redwood City, a huge, almost festive crowd amassed outside the courthouse. Inside, Peterson sat ramrod straight, emotionless, as a court clerk read the verdict.
With one or two exceptions in eight months, the prosecution team has left the courthouse by an underground tunnel to avoid cameras, questions and crowds. But the day the guilty verdict is announced, they emerge from the front entrance and are nearly mobbed by hundreds of cheering, adulating well-wishers.
Making their way through the throng, someone steps on the back of Fladager's shoe and she nearly loses it. Bertalotto, knowing "one deranged person with a gun" could unleash tragedy, is consumed with worry, but he needn't be.
The prosecutors have become American heroes.
Those who brought home the prize in People vs. Scott Lee Peterson have no special plans to commemorate their victory. Maybe they'll go to dinner, Bertalotto suggested. Fladager nodded.
"Getting the guilty verdict, that's justice," Harris said. "It was not something to make me happy because it's not ever going to bring back Laci and Conner."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.