A Canadian federal finance administrator makes certain she finishes Christmas shopping by the time her favorite cable news show comes on. She can't bear missing any Laci Peterson tidbits. And she contemplates vacationing in California when Scott Peterson's double-murder trial gets under way.
"Boy, I would give anything to be in Modesto," Marie Racicot said. "Just to satisfy my curiosity."
A real estate investor in Utah and her engineer husband check www.modbee.com every day and discuss Peterson developments at work and family gatherings. They send periodic e-mails of support to Laci Peterson's family and phone ideas to Modesto police.
"We feel an unusual sense of duty," Heather Hamilton said. "Not to be nosy or busybodies, but to help by offering an unusual thought."
A psychiatric worker who doesn't get The Bee calls her sister, Shirley Terrell, of Modesto every night to hear the latest Peterson news. Terrell reads every story, column, caption and commentary, no matter how long it takes.
"We sort of play detective," Terrell said.
Thousands have religiously followed the story since 27-year-old Laci Peterson, a substitute teacher who was nearly eight months pregnant, disappeared almost a year ago.
People as far away as Africa discuss minute details: plastic found in April near the bodies of mother and son along the San Francisco Bay shoreline -- a handgun in the husband's glovebox, neighbors' remarks about the family dog.
Media provide the fix, as ratings and newsrack sales soar. Though coverage has dropped off since Scott Peterson's preliminary hearing ended Nov. 18, some experts say interest will pick up at future hearings and during the trial.
"When a titillating, accessible crime story is out there to be told, the news media will run to it," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Felling called the Peterson case "a perfect storm of crime stories. You've got the neon light of Modesto bathing it with this curious glow from the aftereffects of Chandra Levy. Toss in a bit of infidelity, a beautiful victim and a murder conspiracy, and you draw in mystery novel fans and magazine readers alike."
Glued to the screen
Media glommed onto the Peterson mystery from the start -- and readers and viewers responded. The Bee's online edition, which had 31 million hits in 2002, powered to more than 89 million pages viewed so far this year; of the 58-million page increase, 44 million are attributed to Peterson coverage.
The preliminary hearing drew more than 100 journalists and crew from all sorts of media, mainstream and otherwise, over its three-week run. Writers from People magazine, the National Enquirer and many more publications attended every session, and talk shows such as Fox's "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" and CNN's "Larry King Live" rarely missed a day of analysis.
Various media have treated the story quite differently, however. Morning network shows, cable news magazines, local network affiliates, The Bee and some tabloid papers have dedicated extensive resources, while nightly network news and many large newspapers outside Modesto typically give it only cursory mention.
The Peterson story ranked third on network morning shows' list of most-talked-about stories through Nov. 30, with chatter running more than 11 hours, according to the Tyndall Report. Nightly networks, however, spent only 12 minutes combined on the topic through May and have all but ignored the story since.
Andrew Tyndall, president of the company that tracks top TV stories, said cable and nonprime network shows rely on high-profile cases to help fill two or three hours every weekday, while nightly network shows have no such luxury.
Felling added, "In this era of large media companies and 24-hour new outlets, news has stopped being information as much as it has become a marketable commodity. The public has moved past the point where we expect information from news outlets, and we're more than happy tuning in to conjecture for hours on end."
Peter Fenton, a former National Enquirer writer and author of "Truth or Tabloid?", said cable news shows, which carefully monitor ratings and craft segments accordingly, created the Peterson frenzy. "They need these soap-opera stories to keep an audience," Fenton said. "They know people will follow this for months on end."
So far this year, The Modesto Bee has published 563 pieces related to the Peterson case. The Fresno Bee, hometown paper of Scott Peterson's girlfriend, Amber Frey, has printed 233 and The Sacramento Bee, 134.
In the same period, the Los Angeles Times ran 91 stories on the Peterson case. The New York Times and Boston Globe published 33 and 17 stories, respectively.
The Modesto Bee receives periodic calls and notes from readers who say they are sick of Peterson saturation. But others say they're hooked -- and want more.
"It just captivates us," said Beverly Martin, a middle-school math teacher living in Greenwood Lake, New York.
Staying online for latest updates
Kristy Flick, an elementary school teacher in Boonville, Mo., was among 5,672 people who signed up for The Bee's online updates during the preliminary hearing. The updates, hailed as a journalistic advance for daily newspapers, appeared up to four times each day, often with photos and courtroom sketches.
Flick said she also watches cable news and regularly visits online message boards, several of which are dedicated to Peterson junkies.
Richard C. Green is a regular contributor to an online site where people post articles and opinions. He's written a few pieces on the Peterson case. He is critical of most media that "parade what is insinuation instead of evidence," he said from his Connecticut home.
Green's enthusiasm, which draws heavily on a cult ritual theory, "is not a hobby but an avocation," he said.
Jill Stinson, a Sacramento resident, and a friend made the drive to attend a show at the State Theatre in Modesto -- and swung by the Petersons' Covena Avenue home while in town. "To pay our respects," Stinson said.
Neighbors say the unrelenting parade of looky-loos in the first few months has subsided, though a day doesn't go by without several visitors.
"I wouldn't say we're obsessed with it," said Hamilton, the Orem, Utah resident. "And 'fascination' is too positive a word; fascination is watching a cat having babies. This is more an interest in fairness and justice."
Deneice Ontko and her three children planted a rhododendron bush at their home in North Ridgeville, Ohio -- in honor of the Peterson victims. She said she continues to follow developments.
Hundreds of people wrote poems in tribute to Laci and Conner Peterson. Others drew and painted pictures, and still more composed and even recorded memorial songs.
Racicot, of Ottawa, Canada, said, "I'm stuck in front of the TV every night" gleaning Peterson nuggets. "You feel like you've known (people connected with the case) for years."
Dr. Robi Ludwig, a New York City psychotherapist and regular TV pundit, said people with intense interest in faraway stories often relate more easily to characters in those dramas than they do to their neighbors. After all, people connected with the Peterson case come into their living rooms via TV.
Peterson buffs who have stuck with the story this far aren't likely to suddenly find something else to do when additional news surfaces, Ludwig said.
"An unfinished story is disturbing," she said. "People need to complete the story and come to terms with the tragic twist of fate.
"Through talking and repetition, people come to terms with these stories," she continued. "They basically talk about it till it makes sense, till it's less frightening and less scary and more understandable. Once the story makes sense, people achieve some degree of closure."
Fixation usually isn't harmful, Ludwig said, "unless people stay stuck in a place for too long." Symptoms include changes in eating and sleeping habits and difficulty working or leaving the house, she said.
Peterson buffs generally are happy to theorize on why the story got legs in the first place.
"Having a child abducted at any age is any parent's nightmare," said Martin, of New York. She and several others said they have children near Laci Peterson's age, bringing the story closer to home.
That she was pregnant and went missing at Christmastime provided more hooks, many said. Others note elements of infidelity, suggestions that she was snatched by neo-Nazi thugs or for a satanic ritual, and Scott Peterson's demeanor and fishing alibi.
He told police he fished alone Christmas Eve in San Francisco Bay -- less than two miles from where the bodies of his wife and son washed ashore almost four months later.
Ludwig pointed to less obvious draws. "We're kind of fascinated with the notion of a boogeyman living next door," she said.
"How well do I know my son-in-law? Who are these people we think we know? They could turn out to be drastically, and maybe even dangerously, different than we imagine," Ludwig said.
Tyndall pointed to Modesto's "missing women" stories -- the Yosemite sightseer murders, the Petersons and Levy -- and noted what all have in common: The Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation.
It was formed by survivors of the Yosemite victims and its executive director, Kim Petersen, subsequently served as a spokeswoman for victims' families in both other cases.
"I don't think the networks came looking for the (Peterson) story," Tyndall said. "I think Laci Peterson's family went out and actively solicited coverage, with backing of the foundation.
"Very few other stories get national attention, yet (Modesto has) had three. It's got to be these local activists."
Ernie Spokes, a Modesto defense attorney, noted photographs of the dimpled Laci Peterson, which popped up on fliers and posters all over town during the massive post-Christmas search.
"Who couldn't love that smile?" he said.
Tyndall said, "It helps if a beautiful female is the central character. This is pretty cynical, but I firmly believe that ugly people don't get this (media attention)."
Said Hamilton of Utah, "Scott Peterson is someone's son. Laci Peterson was someone's daughter. We empathize with both."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.