Peterson living life of letters, TV, chess

06/15/2003 9:30 AM

11/20/2007 6:40 AM

Scott Peterson whiles away the hours in his cell watching television, playing chess and reading stacks of letters from female admirers, a fellow jail inmate says.

Chris Young, 29, as a jail trusty -- an inmate who can be trusted for special work details -- served meals for a short time to one of the most famous inmates in the United States.

Young said he chatted with Peterson about their respective criminal cases and that Peterson once gave him a Nestlé Crunch bar.

"He's got me convinced he didn't do it," Young said in a jailhouse interview. "He loved that girl."

Peterson is accused of murdering his wife, Laci Peterson, 27. She was eight months pregnant when her family reported her missing from her Modesto home on Christmas Eve. Her husband has told police that he went fishing in San Francisco Bay that day.

The bodies of mother and fetus washed up on the bay's northeastern shore in mid-April. A few days later, authorities arrested 30-year-old Scott Peterson in San Diego.

He has pleaded not guilty to double-murder charges and is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing in July. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Young faces trial next month on multiple felony charges stemming from a high-speed chase. He recently was moved from Stanislaus County's downtown Modesto jail to the Public Safety Center west of Ceres.

Young and other sources said Peterson has a stack of letters -- many from women -- near the 2-inch-thick mattress in his single-person cell.

One was written by a female inmate who had murdered her husband, Young said, and is incarcerated at one of two prisons for women in Chowchilla. He said a guard read the letter aloud.

Deputy Tom Letras, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, confirmed that Peterson gets far more mail than most inmates. He refused to comment on the senders.

"This is a frequent phenomenon," said Jeanette Sereno, an attorney and criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus. She noted that serial killer Cary Stayner developed a close relationship with a 28-year-old Illinois woman while awaiting trial, frequently talking on the telephone with her and writing her almost daily.

"(Peterson) is a young, attractive man who has yet to be found guilty," Sereno said. "If you don't see him as responsible for the (slayings), he's a very sympathetic young man, someone the whole world is against. People out there have a need to come to the rescue of someone beleaguered."

Several unusual measures have become routine, Young said, to reduce the chance of attack on Peterson. They include:

Reducing chances of poisoning.

Guards instruct trusties to pick at random a meal for Peterson from a rack of trays, before any others are served on the first floor. To hurt Peterson, someone "would have to poison the whole first floor," Young said.

Letras said: "To my knowledge, there has never been a poisoning" at the jail.

Reducing chances of sniper attacks.

Guards escort Peterson -- always alone -- to the rooftop exercise yard twice a week at random times. Though the yard has basketball hoops, Peterson typically spends the time walking, sources said.

Alternating the routine reduces the possibility "that someone will take a (shot) at him," Young said.

Letras confirmed that Peterson spends his open-air recreation time -- 90 minutes per outing, twice a week -- alone. Some other maximum-security inmates can request time together, Letras said, but Peterson may be a target and remains alone for his safety.

Reducing chances of assault.

Inmates housed on the route from Peterson's cell to the roof temporarily are removed to allow him to pass, Young said. This prevents possible attempted assaults through cell bars, he said.

"They're afraid somebody is going to stab him," Young said.

Letras refused to comment, citing security concerns. He did say: "We worry more about assault than poisoning, because that's more likely to happen."

Peterson is in a maximum-security area, where all inmates are given red jumpsuits to wear. The other inmates in his area are murderers or accused murderers, Young said.

Peterson has been known to play chess with a neighboring inmate by placing a game board in the corridor, between their cells, Young said. The two men also share a television mounted on a wall on the other side of the corridor.

Letras refused to comment on Peterson's use of his time, but confirmed that many inmates play games checked out from the jail commissary.

Objects allowed in cells include hygiene items, five books, 10 pictures and legal paperwork. Inmates also have some clothes but are not allowed to stockpile, Letras said.

On the other side of Peterson's cell are the jail's drunk tanks, or holding cells, for inebriated men who are typically released after a few hours, Young and other sources said.

Young, an Oakdale resident, faces felony charges of assault with a deadly weapon on peace officers for allegedly swerving at them during a lengthy chase from Oakdale to Modesto. He has been offered a nine-year prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, according to his criminal court file.

The file includes a report by a police psychiatrist noting that Young experiences "auditory hallucinations," or imaginary voices, brought on by years of drug use. The psychiatrist concluded that Young is competent to stand trial and help his lawyer prepare the defense case.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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