Reaction: In many places, the lunch hubbub hushes while people cluster around TVs to hear the jury's decision

11/13/2004 7:55 AM

11/20/2007 6:58 AM

The bustle of daily life all but stopped at 1:10 p.m. Friday.

A tension crept into restaurants, offices and homes throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley moments before a court clerk read the verdict in the Scott Peterson double-murder trial.

Waitresses stopped waiting on tables, customers abruptly ended conversations, and office work came to a halt as people turned up the volume on their TV sets.

"We the jury in the above-entitled cause find the defendant Scott Lee Peterson guilty of the crime of the murder of Laci Denise Peterson "

With those words, the tension gave way to joyous celebrations that broke out spontaneously around the area. Most everyone, it appeared, wanted Peterson to be found guilty.

"They sound like they're cheering at a football game," said Mike Nelson, owner of Mike's Roadhouse in north Modesto, after screams and applause erupted throughout the room. It was an odd moment for Nelson, who said Laci and her mother were customers at his restaurant.

"She was just a very likable person," he said. "What a personality. What a smile. What a tragedy. That's all I can really say."

At Kelley Brothers Brewery Co. and Restaurant in Manteca, about 20 people watched TV screens mounted on the walls. When the verdict came in, server Adrianne Bretao, 29, pumped her fist in the air and said, "Yes!"

"I'm glad justice was served," Bretao said. "I hope this sets a precedent for future cases involving pregnant women who are murdered."

Diners felt the same.

"It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," said Bill Hotaling, 50, a lumber salesman from Pleasanton. "We have kids not much younger than (Laci) was."

"It's awesome," said his wife, Dawn, a 42-year-old school secretary. "We've been following this from the start. There were just too many things that showed he's guilty. He's a creepy guy."

Melanie Wagner, 36, a school teacher from Escalon, used even stronger words. "They should hang Scott Peterson," Wagner said. "He's a pig. He's getting what he deserved."

Most people seem pleased

That sentiment was shared by many who had gathered at Turlock's Red Robin restaurant, where all 10 TV sets were turned to the news. Moments later, cheers broke out along with "yeah" and "all right."

"I'm not surprised," said Lori Harless of Denair, between phone calls about the verdict. "I just had a gut feeling."

Harless, who said she followed the trial closely, was happy with the outcome.

"I think they should fry him," she said.

"I'm shocked," said Paula Browning of Riverbank, who was dining with Harless. "I didn't think they were going to convict him."

Harless' husband, Richard, said he also had been worried Peterson would be acquitted.

"Evidence doesn't seem to matter anymore," he said, citing the O.J. Simpson verdict as an example. "I was afraid that without fingerprints around her neck they wouldn't be able to convict him. You almost need video cameras (of the crime) since Rodney King to convict anybody."

"You could just tell he was guilty," said Robert DeLa Rosa of Fresno, who was having a beer with his friend, Simon Lopez of Turlock.

"Either way it went, I have trust in the judicial system," Lopez said. "It looked bad for him being in the same area where the bodies turned up."

About 30 customers who were crowded around four TVs at Chili's Restaurant in Modesto cheered and applauded just after the court clerk read the word "guilty." They cheered again moments later when she announced the charge was in the first degree.

Kissten Jacobs, 25, of Modesto stood in the restaurant's waiting area several minutes after the verdict was announced, long after she had finished her meal.

"I'm shocked," Jacobs said. "I'm still taking it all in. I'm sad for both families."

Mercedes Wallace, 38, of Modesto also watched the verdict at Chili's. Wallace, who said she used to work with Sharon Rocha, said she was relieved at the jury's decision and hoped it might help bring some closure to Laci's family.

"I was afraid he was going to get away with it," Wallace said. "I'm glad he didn't."

Wallace and her friends took an extended lunch break from work, searching awhile before finding a restaurant that had TVs.

Kim Clardy, 38, of Turlock also said she was happy with the outcome. "I'm just thankful he was found guilty," Clardy said. "There were just too many things pointing to him and no other suspects."

Hot dog man listens in

On the sidewalk outside the Stanislaus County Courthouse, hot dog cart owner Dave Benitez, 67, of Modesto listened to reports of the verdict on a portable radio. The area -- swarmed with media and onlookers during the early portion of the Peterson case -- was nearly deserted when the verdict came in.

"A few people came over here to buy a hot dog and listen (to the radio)," he said, but business was slower than usual.

Roughly a dozen people gathered in the bar at Tresetti's World Caffe in downtown Modesto to hear the verdict. As the clerk began reading it, the noise of talking and eating came to a stop as people leaned toward the TV.

"Oh, my gosh!" cried Joanne Frank, 53, of Sacramento, as the verdict was read. The Tresetti's crowd answered the decision with brief cheers, followed by silence as people tuned in to hear more. Watchers there had seemed on edge before the verdict, but their reaction was somewhat subdued.

"I thought there would be people clapping and cheering," Frank said. She and her lunch mate, Rachael Avery, 27, of Modesto were pleased with the verdict.

"I'm relieved that the justice system is working," Avery said.

Michael Tozzi, the Stanislaus Superior Court administrator, came to Tresetti's for lunch and wound up staying for the verdict.

"The jury spoke," he said afterward. "I wouldn't have been surprised either way. You wait, and the jury is there and we weren't; they heard (evidence) we didn't. Even if it had gone the other way, the system works."

With that, Tozzi walked out the door and headed back to work as the city's bustle returned.

Bee staff writers Rosalio Ahumada, Mike Conway, Blair Craddock, Chris Togneri and Amy White contributed to this report.

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