DA thinks it's Laci

04/17/2003 7:55 AM

11/20/2007 6:16 AM

Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton said Wednesday he thinks Laci Peterson is the woman whose body was found this week along San Francisco Bay.

"I feel pretty strongly it is (her)," the county's top prosecutor said. "It's too much of a coincidence to have a female and a baby found close to each other a day apart and no others were reported missing. If I were a betting man, I'd put money on it."

Asked about what Brazelton had said about the missing Modesto woman, Police Chief Roy Wasden responded: "We're not discussing this investigation. That includes our feelings and suspicions."

But even an official at the state DNA lab said analysts are focusing on Peterson as they try to identify the remains.

"To date, we don't have another person in mind," John Tonkyn, supervisor of the missing person DNA program, said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the lab in Richmond.

Brazelton, within a few hours of making his statements, issued a news release stating that the district attorney's office will no longer comment on the Peterson investigation.

The Police Department began the investigation as a missing person case Christmas Eve, then reclassified it March 5 -- calling it a homicide. Police have not commented on the bodies found at the bay -- though the department is standing by to take jurisdiction if they are linked to the case.

Peterson was eight months pregnant, carrying a son, at the time of her disappearance.

Authorities in Contra Costa County, which has jurisdiction for now, have described the baby's body as a "full-term male child." The body was found Sunday about 15 feet from the waterline in south Richmond, and authorities believe that the body washed ashore.

The woman's body was found the next day at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline, about a mile away, and authorities suspect that it too washed ashore.

Autopsies on the decomposed bodies failed to reveal cause of death or the identity of either, officials said Tuesday.

Authorities are now turning to DNA testing. It could take days, weeks or longer, a coroner's spokesman said.

Tissue and bone samples from both bodies have gone to the state Justice Department's DNA laboratory.

"The big question mark now in my mind is whether they have good DNA material," Brazelton said. "Let's hope they do."

Lab technicians determined late Wednesday that samples from the baby's body contained enough intact DNA to be used for testing, an official said.

A determination on the adult female sample is likely to be made today, state Department of Justice spokesman Nathan Barankin said by telephone from Sacramento.

"We've determined that we can yield a usable DNA profile from the fetus sample," Barankin said. "We're doing a little more work on the adult sample to finally determine whether we will be able to get a usable DNA profile."

Barankin said the results were not an indication that one body had decomposed more than the other.

Lab officials said they had assigned the case a "very high priority," but that results still could be weeks away.

Technicians are working with a tibia, the larger of the two bones between the knee and ankle, from the woman's body, and a femur, or thigh bone, from the baby's body, said Eva Steinberger, assistant bureau chief at the lab.

Richmond police Sgt. Enos Johnson said the baby's body was so badly decomposed that he could not determine if the umbilical cord was still attached when it was found. "It was in very, very bad condition," he said.

Lab technicians hope to compare DNA from the bodies with a hair sample from Laci Peterson and inner-cheek swabs from her parents, Steinberger said.

Lab officials declined to comment on whether they had a DNA sample from Scott Peterson, the missing woman's husband. Such a sample could be used to compare with the DNA sample from the baby.

But a sample from the father is not required to determine if the woman and child are related, Tonkyn said.

He said the lab prefers to get long bones and teeth samples for DNA testing when dealing with skeletal remains, but said no teeth were submitted in this case.

Coroner's officials on Wednesday continued to withhold comment on the condition of the bodies when discovered.

A forensic anthropologist who specializes in submerged bodies examined the corpses for about 4 1/2 hours Wednesday, coroner's spokesman Jimmy Lee said by telephone from Martinez.

"In particular, we're trying to find out what happened after the bodies were in the water," Lee said. "We're looking at what type of damage was inflicted."

The specialist also was trying to determine how long the bodies were submerged, Lee said.

In other developments:

  • A pathologist determined that a bone found south of the Berkeley Marina on Monday was not human.
  • Modesto police Sgt. Ron Cloward said police last conducted a water search in the Richmond area March 29, about two miles from where the two bodies were found. He said they were discovered in an area that police had searched previously.
  • "We spent a whole day hovering over that area in helicopters," Cloward said. "The water there is about 5 or 6 feet deep. It was too shallow there to use the kind of boats and equipment we were using."

    Cloward said police intend to resume searches next week, provided that the bodies are not positively identified as Laci Peterson and her son.

    "We're not going to put all our eggs in one basket," he said.

    Bee staff writer Ty Phillips contributed to this report.

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

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