As mystery unfolded, fear turned to despair

04/20/2003 8:35 AM

11/20/2007 6:19 AM

Her baby was nearly full-term.

The nursery was almost complete.

The presents were wrapped and waiting beneath the Christmas tree.

As the holidays progressed, Laci Peterson seemed to have everything in order.

On Dec. 23, the Modesto woman had time to join her husband when he went for a haircut. They went to

Salon Salon at McHenry Village, where Laci's sister, Amy Rocha, cut Scott's hair. The sisters chatted.

It was the last time that anybody besides her husband reported seeing Laci.

Laci's mother said she spoke with Laci by telephone that night, and they ended their conversation about 8:30. Laci and Scott were due for dinner the next night at the home of

Laci's mom and stepfather.

Christmas Eve dawned, and at 9:30, according to Scott, he left on a solo fishing trip as his wife prepared to take their dog for a walk at East La Loma Park.

Her normal route would have taken her to a trail, about a block from their home at 523 Covena Ave., which leads to the park.

A neighbor later said she found the dog, McKenzie, wandering alone with muddy leash attached about 10:30 a.m. The neighbor, not thinking that anything was amiss, put the golden retriever in the Petersons' yard.

Scott said he returned home that evening, and his wife was not there, even though her Land Rover was in the driveway. He called his in-laws, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski. He checked with neighbors and friends.

He spoke with Grantski again, and about 6:30 p.m. Laci's step- father called police to report her missing.

Laci's family and friends started a search through East La Loma Park and neighboring land along Dry Creek, and police and firefighters quickly joined in -- on the night before Christmas.

Authorities quickly discounted the possibility that Laci had left voluntarily. Their reasons included her close ties to her fam-ily in Modesto.

"This is completely out of character for her," Detective Al Brocchini said.

Later, when the case made "America's Most Wanted" on Fox Television, police spokesman Doug Ridenour said: "Most all of her belongings were still at the house, her cell phone and those types of things that she would have probably taken with her if she had intentionally left."

The investigation

Investigators served a search warrant at the Peterson home at 7:45 p.m. Dec. 26 and posted yellow tape around the house. FBI agents assisted in the search.

Police kept the house sealed overnight and continued their search the next day.

Also on Dec. 27, police served a search warrant on a warehouse and office that Scott used in his work as a fertilizer salesman for TradeCorp, a Spanish company.

On Dec. 31, a week after Laci was reported missing, police said foul play had become the main focus of the investigation.

Scott Peterson retained criminal defense attorney Kirk Mc- Allister of Modesto. An investigator working for McAllister interviewed neighbors about a van that might have been in the neighborhood about the time that Laci Peterson disappeared.

Police Chief Roy Wasden said detectives believe the van belonged to a landscaping crew. The van has not been identified.

On Jan. 28, in the first part of a pretaped interview on ABC Television's "Good Morning America," Peterson denied killing his wife or having anything to do with her disappearance.

Armed with another search warrant, investigators returned to the Peterson home Feb. 18 and 19. Police escorted Laci's sister, Amy, into the house -- and she stayed inside with police for about two hours.

The case drew worldwide interest, spurred perhaps by the disappearance of a young, pregnant woman at Christmastime. Laci, 27, and Scott, 30, married about seven years, were expecting their first child, a son they had decided to name Conner.

Laci's due date passed in mid-February. Her sister and some of Laci's friends marked the occasion with a vigil just after sunset at East La Loma Park.

The search for Laci

Police say they don't think Laci made it to East La Loma Park on Christmas Eve morning, despite witnesses who reported seeing a pregnant woman with a dog.

Investigators brought in a bloodhound, hoping it would track Laci the short distance from her home to the trail that leads into the park. Instead, the dog stayed on streets and made its way to Yosemite Boulevard.

Police say they suspect that Laci left her home in a vehicle. Search teams proceeded west along the Yosemite Boulevard-Highway 132 corridor to the San Joaquin River 10 miles west of Modesto.

From Jan. 2 through 11, the search focused on the waters off the Berkeley Marina. That is where Scott Peterson said he went fishing on Dec. 24, going from Berkeley to Brooks Island, off Richmond. At the end of

the old Berkeley Pier, sonar detected something that investigators said might be a body. It turned out to be an anchor.

Scott's father said his son turned over a time-stamped receipt from an automated ticket dispenser at the Berkeley Ma- rina, claiming that the receipt showed that he was there when he said he was on Christmas Eve. Police verified the receipt was authentic, but Ridenour added: "We never said it was a receipt that came from him."

In February, Laci's family organized volunteer search efforts, three Saturdays in a row, at Don Pedro Reservoir, New Melones Reservoir, and the wetlands of western Stanislaus County and southern San Joaquin County.

Throughout the investigation, about 9,000 calls came in to the police tips line.

The evidence

During their Dec. 26-27 search of the Peterson home, police took two computers and two vehicles: Scott's 2002 Ford F-150 pickup and Laci's 1996 Land Rover. Police seized Scott's 14-foot aluminum boat from his warehouse on North Emerald Avenue in Modesto.

In early January, Katy Ciula, assistant director of the state crime laboratory in Ripon, said the lab had received evidence in the Peterson case, but she would not describe it.

However, she said the evidence would be analyzed in the lab's serology department, which is used for blood, saliva and semen analysis. Police have not revealed lab results.

Scott told TV interviewers that it would be normal for police to find blood in his truck. He said his work takes him to farms, where he has cut or scraped his hands. People in the fertilizer business said, however, that Scott is a wholesaler and works with dealers.

In the second search of the Peterson home, police hauled off bags containing almost 100 items of evidence.

Also, police seized Scott's new pickup, took it to the Police Department, and returned it about four hours later.

The truck is a 2002 Dodge Ram, which he purchased in a deal that involved trading in his wife's Land Rover. Doug Roberts, the dealer, later gave the Land Rover to Laci's family. Scott's sister Susan Caudillo told Court TV that her brother needed a truck for his work.

Scott himself rebutted a report that he had taken out a $250,000 life insurance policy on his wife last summer. He said that he and Laci each had $250,000 life insurance policies, taken out two years ago.

On Covena Avenue

There were events that complicated the investigation.

Neighbors of the Petersons' returned home after a Christmas trip and discovered that their house had been burglarized.

The couple, who live across the street on Covena Avenue, had been gone from Dec. 24 until about 5 p.m. Dec. 26. Police said a $1,000 reward led to two arrests, and investigators said they determined that the burglary was not related to Laci's disappearance.

A burglary occurred at the Peterson house when Scott was in Los Angeles to help with a Jan. 19 search for his wife.

Police identified a burglary suspect, described as someone known by the Petersons. The name has not been released, and no arrest has been made.

Drapes and umbrellas also have drawn attention.

Family members and neighbors said Laci opened the drapes every day -- yet they stayed closed Christmas Eve. On "Good Morning America," Scott said his wife might not have opened the drapes because it was probably 40 degrees outside, and keeping the drapes closed helped keep the house warm.

The "Good Morning America" interview also included mention of a report from a neighbor who said Scott loaded something into a vehicle on Christmas Eve. He said he loaded umbrellas -- perhaps 8 feet in diameter -- to take to his warehouse.

The affair

At a Jan. 24 news conference, police introduced 27-year-old Amber Frey, who said she had a romantic relationship with Scott. The Fresno-area woman, a single mother, said she met Peterson on Nov. 20 and that he told her he was not married.

Investigators had made no prior statements about the possibility of an affair.

Peterson, in TV interviews, publicly acknowledged the affair and said he told police about it Dec. 24. Police declined to comment on Peterson's statement; they repeated that Frey came forward Dec. 30 to tell them about the affair, after seeing Peterson in news reports.

Peterson said he revealed the affair to Laci in early December and that she had made peace with it. He called the affair

"inappropriate," adding: "It wasn't anything that would break us apart."

After those interviews and until his arrest Friday, Scott mostly kept out of sight.

Homicide declared

On March 5, police reclassified the case a homicide. "As the investigation has progressed, we have increasingly come to believe that Laci Peterson is the victim of a violent crime," lead investigator, Detective Craig Grogan, told a news conference.

The reclassification came despite the fact that no body had been recovered.

That changed with the discoveries last week of two decomposing bodies, since identified as Laci and her son, Conner, along the shore of San Francisco Bay. The baby's body was found April 13 in south Richmond and Laci Peterson's the next day about a mile away.

People walking along San Francisco Bay came across the bodies, which authorities believe washed ashore.

While the state crime lab was trying to determine the identities of the bodies, police began constant surveillance of Scott Peterson in the San Diego area.

Modesto police obtained a warrant for his arrest Thursday. Friday morning state agents arrested him near the Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla. He was driven back to Modesto late Friday, where he was booked at Stanislaus County Jail facing two counts of murder.

Bee local news and story editor Dave Jones, staff writers Patrick Giblin and Ty Phillips, and information center director Melissa Van Diepen contributed to this report.

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