Christmas Eve 2002 spawned a family's nightmare and triggered a community outpouring. The details of what happened that day could determine whether a Modesto man lives or dies.
Scott Peterson's future appears to now hinge on what's uncovered as defense and prosecution investigators piece together testimony and evidence in efforts to craft very different pictures.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the 31-year-old fertilizer salesman, who they contend murdered his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner, sometime late Dec. 23 or early Dec. 24.
The defense maintains that although Peterson was an unfaithful husband, he was a man excited about fatherhood but whose wife disappeared while he was fishing.
Faced with a case heavily reliant on circumstantial evidence, a detailed timeline is crucial for prosecutors to show Peterson was the only person who had the means and opportunity to kill his wife, legal observers said.
The timeline also could reveal inconsistencies between Peterson's statements and actions.
"A timeline isn't important in every case, but it may be particularly important in this case because of the questions that remain unanswered," said Ruth Jones, a professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and a former New York City prosecutor. "The timeline will be critical in determining whether someone else could have done this."
Prosecutors likely will peg segments of their timeline to physical evidence in an attempt to show Peterson killed his wife and dumped her body in San Francisco Bay, legal observers said.
No cause of death has been determined, and prosecutors have yet to publicly acknowledge exactly where, why or how they think Laci Peterson was killed.
Peterson's defense attorneys will craft an alternate timeline and try to punch holes in the prosecution scenario, particularly in areas where the timeline relies on witnesses, observers said.
"The prosecution has to show that you can trust the timeline and that it's anchored by incontrovertible physical evidence," Oakland defense attorney John Burris said. "(But) there is nothing to independently corroborate the time frame as laid out by the individuals. People can be mistaken."
Peterson told police he decided that morning to go fishing in the bay rather than play golf. He last saw his wife mopping the floor as he left, and she planned to walk the dog that morning, he told police.
Detailed testimony from neighbors, police and family members during Peterson's 12-day preliminary hearing appears to corroborate parts of his alibi while also raising questions. Those include:
The fishing story: Peterson "couldn't say" what type of fish he was trying catch when questioned that day. Neighbor Amie Krigbaum testified that Peterson "said that he was golfing all day" when he knocked on her door looking for his wife.
When Laci's stepfather, Ron Grantski, asked him whether he was able to golf that day, Peterson said he decided to go fishing because it was too cold.
But it was not unusual for an avid fisherman, such as Grantski, to make a snap decision to go fishing, testified Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha.
The 10-minute window: The time span between a 10:08 a.m. call from Scott Peterson's cell phone and when a neighbor said she found the Petersons' dog in the street dragging its leash. The call was initiated through the cell tower that serves the Petersons' Covena Avenue home and then transferred to a second tower in downtown Modesto, indicating the caller was moving west.
The call could identify when Peterson left his home to drive to his company warehouse, which he told police he did about 9:30 a.m. If he left at 10:08 a.m. that would give his wife 10 minutes to finish mopping the floor, take the dog outside for a walk and be abducted before the dog is found at 10:18 a.m. But the call could have come from anywhere within a 1 1/2-mile radius that encompasses the Peterson home.
"The question of where that call was made from, you can't tie that down," Burris said. "At the end of the day, it is something jurors will have to play around with."
The unanswered call: After promising his wife's sister, Amy Rocha, he would pick up a gift basket from Vella Farms, Scott Peterson didn't answer or return her call that afternoon as he drove back from the Berkeley Marina.
Amy Rocha testified that a Vella Farms employee called her about 3:45 p.m. to tell her the basket had not been picked up. Rocha said she then called Scott on his cell and home phones, didn't get an answer and didn't leave a message. Peterson used his cell phone less than 10 minutes later to call his home, a prosecution investigator testified. At that point, Peterson had made seven calls on his phone since 2 p.m., including one in which he left a message on his wife's cell phone, asking her to get the basket, law enforcement officers testified.
When did he get home? Peterson told police he returned home between 4:30 and 4:45 p.m., Detective Al Brocchini testified. Next-door neighbor Karen Servas testified Peterson's truck was not in his driveway when she left her home at 5:05 p.m. Cell phone records show Peterson was in Livermore at 3:52 p.m. To arrive home by 4:45 p.m., Peterson had 53 minutes to drive 51 miles -- most of them towing a boat -- stop at his warehouse, unhook the boat and check his e-mail, according to his statement to Brocchini.
"If you're driving at a frantic pace -- 80 to 90 miles per hour -- you could do that," Burris said. "But that's a high rate of speed with a boat behind you. It's pretty rapid, but it's not out of the question. The issue is, why would he do that?"
If Peterson arrived after 5:05 p.m., he faced a tight window to complete what he told police he did after returning home -- empty a mop bucket, undress, put the clothes he was wearing in the washing machine, eat pizza, shower and listen to phone messages -- before calling Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha.
Sharon Rocha testified Peterson called her at 5:17 p.m.
Her daughter and son-in-law were to come over at 6 p.m., she said. As she began to prepare, Scott Peterson called and said his wife was "missing," Sharon Rocha testified.
"I was getting really scared by then," she said. "When he said the word 'missing,' that's what concerned me. It wasn't that she wasn't home or he couldn't find her; he said 'missing.'"
Peterson's every word that day will come under intense scrutiny, but so will the fragmentary testimony used to shape the mosaic of Dec. 24, 2002.
And testimony about time is prone to inaccuracies, legal observers said.
Asked to estimate two minutes, many witnesses only guess 30 seconds, said Jones. "It seems like two minutes can take an eternity in the silence of a courtroom."
The defense raised questions about witnesses' recollection of timing and specificity during the preliminary hearing.
After giving precise times for Scott Peterson's initial call to her, Sharon Rocha testified she couldn't remember what time she met him after rushing to Dry Creek Park to search for her missing daughter.
Servas, the next-door neighbor, anchors two key points on the timeline: when Laci Peterson could not have been walking their dog and when Scott Peterson returned from San Francisco Bay. Servas said she originally told police she found the dog at 10:30 a.m.
Police steps to substantiate the exact time Servas saw the Petersons' golden retriever could indicate her testimony's significance.
She deduced the 10:18 time after checking a time-stamped receipt -- that police confirmed was authentic -- from Austin's Christmas Store and clocking how long it took her to retrace her route that morning.
Minute details such as this will be used by both the defense and prosecution in efforts to craft their own pictures of what happened to Laci Peterson a year ago.
"With most of the evidence in this case," Jones said, "there can be an alternative explanation."
Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.