Peterson: Preliminary Trial

July 4, 2003

(Media) circus is coming

Satellite TV trucks have taken root in front of the Stanislaus County Courthouse.

Four networks have installed telephone lines on a fence.

One cable network pays a woman to sit in front of the court clerk's office every day.

And that's nothing compared with what's coming, according to law enforcement officials.

"What we have seen on our busiest court day I think will pale in comparison with what we will see on the preliminary hearing," said Kelly Huston, a Sheriff's Department spokesman. "This is a case that is told in stories at conferences. This is one of those worst-case media nightmares that you hear about but nobody has experienced."

County and Modesto authorities are bracing for an unprecedented media crush for the preliminary hearing, scheduled for Sept. 9, where prosecutors are expected to lay out substantial amounts of their case against Scott Peterson.

The 30-year-old fertilizer salesman is charged with murdering his wife, Laci, and the couple's unborn son, who was to be named Conner.

Laci Peterson's family reported her missing from her Modesto home on Christmas Eve, touching off a massive search effort and a blitz of TV and print media coverage.

No fewer than 24 TV stations and networks are expected to descend on the courthouse for the preliminary hearing, Huston said.

Law enforcement officials said they are trying to balance the media interest in the case with residents' desires to go about their lives.

"We're trying to minimize the impact as well as accommodate the news media as best we can," Police Chief Roy Wasden said. "They've got a job to do, and I think they are good corporate citizens. I honestly do get a little tired about all the media interest, though."

Police routinely close 11th Street between H and I streets on hearing days to accommodate media trucks. And the city has restriped the street, as well.

A CNN producer suggested erecting scaffolding to hold a TV anchor and camera crews in an attempt to maximize the cramped space in front of the courthouse, according to two participants in a meeting between law enforcement and media representatives.

Shades of O.J.

Crews employed scaffolding, which typically creates platforms about 8 feet high, during the trials of O.J. Simpson and convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, said James Kyle, a coordinating producer for NBC News.

Wasden said he was unaware of a formal request to erect scaffolding. If one is made, authorities would have to consider a range of issues, including insurance, safety and effect on other people, Wasden said.

In an effort to lessen the traffic impact and improve safety on 11th Street across from the courthouse entrance, city crews repainted the traffic lines in late June. The center turn lane was changed to the southbound traffic lane, which then became buf-fer space between traffic and the parked TV trucks.

"We have to try and come up with a way to accommodate the influx of media trucks," said Detective Doug Ridenour, spokesman for the Police Department. "They had a number of times where cars are driving by and not paying attention and almost hit somebody out there."

Media companies have agreed to pay the approximately $3,000 cost of the striping project, including, when the case is over, switching the striping back to the way it was, said Mark Murphy, an associate traffic engineer for the city.

Police also have instituted a parking permit system for the seven parking spaces on 11th Street that are now occupied by three satellite trucks.

The cost is $12.50 per space per day, the standard rate for daily use of any public parking space in Modesto, Ridenour said.

On hearing days, trucks can park on the closed block of 11th Street, but those that park elsewhere are subject to parking regulations, Ridenour said.

The TV crews are starting to make their encampments along the street more permanent.

Phone lines have been installed to the fence in front of the former city hall, which now houses county offices.

FOX, CNN, NBC and Court TV all have land lines for fax, phone and high-speed Internet use. Fuel trucks routinely resupply the TV trucks, which use generators to power their equipment and air conditioning. Guards are employed to watch the trucks overnight.

Some residents have complained.

"I'm a little tired of them brushing their teeth with bottled water and spitting it out on the curb," said Lona Stonebreaker, who works in the county offices behind the trucks.

Other people are drawn to the scene.

John Dompeling, who uses an electric wheelchair, said he comes downtown nearly every day to chat with the TV crews. He rides the No.32 bus to and from the Modesto Guest Home on Orangeburg Avenue.

"I want to hear everything firsthand," the 60-year-old Dompeling said. "This is Modesto. Modesto's got something going on."

One woman waiting for something to go on is a news network assistant. She sits in a padded chair outside the court clerk's office each weekday, reading USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle and Time magazine. Each half-hour or so, she gets up and walks into the office to see if anything new has been filed in the case.

First-name basis

The clerks have come to know the woman. And other crew members are settling in, as well. Huston said his mother delivered cookies to TV personnel in the early stages of the case.

Crew members lounging in camping chairs as heat radiated up from the sidewalk declined to comment on their daily routines, citing company policies against talking to the press.

But one of the crew members, Kyle, reached by telephone later, appeared to sum up the widespread sentiment.

"When there's no news, it is boring as hell," he said. "But you're dealing with the story from the inside rather than the outside. From that perspective, I'm enjoying it. I just wish it was a story that was progressing."

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or

Related content