Change worries Peterson family

03/07/2003 9:30 AM

11/20/2007 6:00 AM

The Modesto police decision to reclassify Laci Peterson's disappearance as a homicide will keep people from looking for her, the missing woman's mother-in-law charged Thursday.

Jackie Peterson said she believes that her daughter-in-law still may be alive. The 27-year-old woman was reported missing Christmas Eve, slightly more than 10 weeks ago -- not enough time to assume that she has been killed, her mother-in-law said.

"I would hope that if I were missing for a month or two, people wouldn't stop looking for me," she said by telephone from her home in San Diego County.

The Stanislaus County district attorney's office declined to comment on the change from a missing person case to a homicide case, but the top prosecutors in two other counties said it would not make much difference.

Also Thursday, police spokesman Doug Ridenour said the Peterson investigation has cost the department more than $250,000 in overtime, probably making it the city's most expensive case ever.

Police announced the change in classification to a homicide Wednesday, without saying anything specific about why they did so. Relatives from Laci Peterson's side of the family attended the press conference.

Jackie Peterson said police have run the investigation as a homicide case from the beginning. "It's sad they made the announcement because it takes away hope," she said.

Ridenour said officials realize that some family members may not understand why police made the change. "It's difficult because they don't know everything investigators know," he said Thursday.

Jackie Peterson said she is afraid that thousands of fliers around the state will be torn down now that police have said publicly that they believe Peterson is dead.

"Please don't stop looking for her," her mother-in-law said.

Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold would not comment on the change in classification. "It's still in the investigation stages," he said.

Alameda County District Attorney Thomas Orloff said that, generally, changing the designation of a case does not signifi-cantly alter investigators' approach.

Merced County District Attorney Gordon Spencer agreed.

"Practically, there is no difference, but when the family is holding out hope, you don't want to do a homicide investigation when there's a chance the person may be alive," he said. "That's more of a media thing."

Proceeding with a homicide prosecution without a body is difficult but not impossible, Orloff said. In recent years, his office has won convictions in two cases of that nature.

"It all comes down to, can you circumstantially prove that the person is no longer living?" Orloff said. "There's no pat form-ula. You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person was killed. It's kind of like common sense in a way."

Absent a body, prosecutors can present witnesses who may have seen the body or heard statements about the death, Orloff said. Prosecutors also can introduce forensic evidence such as blood traces, Orloff said.

Officials with the state Department of Justice crime lab in Ripon would not comment Thursday on what progress they might have made on evidence in the Peterson case.

They previously have said that they had evidence that would be examined in the serology lab, which analyzes blood, saliva and semen.

Crime lab officials also would not say if they are looking at a patch of spilled concrete mix that a private investigator reported finding on a path along the Delta-Mendota Canal. A trailer tire track marked the concrete, the investigator said.

"We are working on the evidence given," said Manuel Valencia, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which runs the Ripon lab. "I can't comment on the concrete or any other evidence."

Mayor Carmen Sabatino, quoted in The New York Times on Tuesday, commented on why the Police Department has spent so much on the Peterson case in comparison with similar cases.

"We have spent the money on Laci because of the media," he said. "It is not the city that determines what the media considers a story."

The Times further quoted the mayor: "We have reached the point of diminishing returns. How many more places can we search? The question is, how do you turn off the faucet? You certainly don't do it when the national media is around."

Bee staff writers John Coté and Ty Phillips contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Patrick Giblin can be reached at 578-2347 or pgiblin@modbee.com.


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