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A Deadly Game
The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation
December 24, 2002
Scott was running late. It was about 4:45 P.M. as he pulled into his driveway, parking next to his wife's Land Rover. In less than two hours, he was due for dinner at his in-laws' home. It had been a busy day already, and there was a long way to go.
Scott entered the backyard through the gate and patted McKenzie, the couple's beloved golden retriever, as the dog bounded out to meet him. He unclipped the dangling leash from the dog's collar and tossed it on the patio table. Passing through an unlocked back door, Scott moved through the dark, quiet house. Stopping to tidy up a bit, he carried a bucket of wash water and two mops outside. He tossed the water onto the lawn, then left the cleaning items by the door. He then headed for the fridge. Cold pizza and milk would pacify his growling stomach, empty since a bowl of cereal early that morning.
Carrying a veggie slice with him, Scott went over to the washing machine, hidden behind bifold doors in the den. He pulled out some dirty towels. Then, stripping down to his underwear, the young man loaded his green pullover, blue T-shirt, and jeans into the washer, covered them with detergent, and started the machine. Then he was off to the bathroom, where he finished the pizza before stepping into the shower. Emerging in clean clothes, Scott checked his watch. It was 5:15 P.M. He picked up the phone.
Sharon Rocha was scrambling to finish preparations for her family dinner that evening when the telephone rang. It was already 5:17; her daughter Laci and son-in-law, Scott, would bearriving soon.
"Hi, Mom," Scott said. "Is Laci there?"
"No," Sharon replied.
"Laci's car is at the house, and McKenzie is in the backyard with his leash on," Scott said flatly. "Laci is missing."
Missing? The word took a moment to register. Her daughter would be pulling into the driveway with Scott any minute, she thought. Laci was a well-mannered, efficient young woman. She wouldn't be late for a family gathering.
Suddenly, a wave of fear washed over her. Laci was eight months pregnant. Had she gone into labor? Was she at the hospital? Trying not to panic, Sharon told Scott, "Call your friends. Ask them if they've seen her. Then call me back!"
Sharon put down the phone and turned to Laci's stepfather, Ron Grantski. His normally jovial face had turned serious as he listened to his wife's conversation.
"Laci's missing," Sharon said, echoing Scott's phrase. Just two or three minutes went by before the phone rang again. Sharon grabbed it on the first ring, nervously running her fingers through her short blond hair.
"I checked with friends," Scott reported, "but nobody's seen her." "Try the neighbors," Sharon commanded, her alarm escalating as she put down the receiver. Laci had sounded fine when they last spoke on the phone at 8:30 the previous evening. There was no reason for her to be missing, unless she was hurt or had been harmed. The wait seemed endless before Scott called back, although phone records would show that only a few more minutes had passed. "I checked around," Scott said again. His tone remained even; the young man was not one for histrionics. "Nobody's seen her." Scott explained that Laci had planned to walk their dog that morning. Her usual path would have taken her through East La Loma Park, located at the end of their street on Covena Avenue. But he reminded Sharon that McKenzie had been at home when he arrived, trailing his leash.
By then it was 5:32 P.M., fifteen minutes since Scott's first call. In hindsight it seems surprising that Scott could have gathered information from so many people so quickly, but Sharon wasn't going to waste any more time. She told Scott to meet her in the park, then hung up, phoned her friend Sandy Rickard, and asked her to help search for Laci.
Moments later, Sandy pulled up in front of the house. "I'm going to look for her," Sharon yelled out to Ron. "Call the police." Then she raced out the front door.
For months, Laci had been taking McKenzie for morning walks in the nearby park. Sometimes Sharon went along, but in recent weeks, Laci had begun tiring easily, and Laci's yoga instructor and obstetrician had both recommended that she give up the walks until the baby was born. At first, Laci resisted -- she was always headstrong -- but now her body was insisting that she slow down. The narrow, sandy footpath that sloped down toward the park entrance no longer provided sure footing, and Laci was less inclined to complete her regular half-mile loop around the leafy grounds.
Sharon knew it was unlikely that Laci had taken that walk. At 5:47 P.M., Ron Grantski dialed 911.
"I'd like to report a missing person," he told the dispatcher. It was Christmas Eve, so only a skeleton crew was on duty, but the Modesto Police Department knew the emergency line would probably stay busy. Many people find Christmas one of the loneliest times of the year, and the department often logged an especially large number of calls from people whose anxiety levels jumped during the holiday season.
Grantski gave his own address -- 1017 Marklee Way -- then Laci's -- 523 Covena Avenue, between Encina Avenue and Edgebrook Drive. Their houses were less than two miles apart in the small city of Modesto, southeast of San Francisco and about ninety minutes from the Pacific coast.
Grantski told the dispatcher that he was relating information from his son-in-law, who had notified him that his stepdaughter, Laci Peterson, was missing.
The dispatcher who took the call made the following notes:
STEP-DAUGHTER, LACY [sic] PETERSON, PORTUGUESE/ WHITE FEMALE, 26 YEARS, LEFT TO WALK DOG AT DRY CREEK PARK & NEVER RETURNED HOME. SUBJECT IS 5 FOOT 1, DARK HAIR & DARK EYES, 8 MONTHS PREGNANT, UNKNOWN WHO LAST SEEN WITH. DOG RETURNED HOME WITH LEASH & UNABLE TO LOCATE WOMAN ANYWHERE. REPORT RECEIVED FROM WOMAN'S HUSBAND, SCOTT PETERSON. HUSBAND IS NOW LOOKING FOR WIFE IN THE PARK. OFFICER JOHN EVERS DISPATCHED TO THE PARK AT 17:48. AT 17:58, OFFICERS DERRICK LETSINGER AND MATT SPURLOCK AND SGT. BYRON DUERFELDT DISPATCHED TO 523 COVENA AVENUE.
An adult missing person report rarely generates a major response within the first twenty-four hours, but the emergency operator recognized that Laci's condition made her situation different. The young woman might be injured or experiencing a problem with her advanced pregnancy. And, of course, there was always the possibility of foul play. By 6:00 P.M., officers from the Modesto Police Department were en route to both the couple's home and East La Loma Park.
Dry Creek Park spans twelve city blocks and is parceled into several small mini-parks. East La Loma Park, barely three blocks from the Peterson home, was the area where Laci usually strolled with the dog. McKenzie had been a gangly, energetic puppy when Laci gave him to Scott for Christmas just a month after they met. He was almost eight years old now, sprouting white whiskers around his muzzle, but Scott still warned strangers that the retriever was very protective of Laci. Sharon Rocha was growing increasingly worried as her friend Sandy steered them into a parking lot just west of El Vista Avenue. Jumping out of the vehicle, Sharon hurried across the stubby grass, Sandy trailing behind her.
During the short ride from her house, Sharon had called Scott and arranged to meet him at El Vista Bridge to begin the search. Now she raced through the park calling out, "Laci!" and peering into the shrubbery, checking trash cans lined along the pathway. She and Sandy were nearly breathless when they reached the site. Sharon later recalled that it seemed like "forever" before Scott arrived, although he had said he was already in the park when she last called. She finally spotted Scott walking along the south side of Dry Creek with McKenzie at his side.
"Scott!" Sharon called, waving her arms. "Scott, we're over here!" But Sharon couldn't get his attention. Scott seemed to be lost in his own world. Although he was just fifty feet away, he didn't seem to hear or see his mother-in-law. It wasn't until Sharon's nephew, Zachary Zwald, walked over to him that Scott actually acknowledged the other family members around him.
Sharon was surprised to find her son-in-law so calm. She later told police that Scott wouldn't look her in the eye as they spoke about Laci. Eventually the lights of a police cruiser distracted Sharon, and she headed over to meet the police; Scott and the others followed close behind.
The first uniformed officer on the scene, John Evers, had been on patrol for ninety minutes when the missing persons dispatch came over his radio. A sixteen-year veteran of the Modesto Police Department, Evers noted the darkening skies and dropping temperatures and quickly got down to business.
According to his radio call, the husband had been the last person to see the missing woman earlier that day. "When was the last time your saw your wife?" he asked Scott.
Scott told Evers that he'd last seen Laci around 9:30 that morning before he'd left home to go fishing. During their brief conversation, Scott said that Laci had planned to take their dog for a walk in the park that morning, then go grocery shopping for the dinner party at her mother's that evening. She planned to spend the afternoon baking gingerbread cookies.
When Scott left the house, he continued, his wife was mopping the floor. He returned in the afternoon to find McKenzie in the backyard, his leash still attached. Entering through the unlocked patio door, he found the house empty.
"Is her purse at home?" Sharon interrupted.
"I don't remember," Scott said blankly.
"Where does she usually keep it?"
"On a coatrack by the front door."
"I'm going to the house to see if it's there," Sharon announced. Officer Evers stopped the anxious mother and told her he'd go check it out himself. She should remain at the park.
John Evers pulled up in front of Scott and Laci's home along with Officers Letsinger and Spurlock and Sergeant Duerfeldt in county patrol cars, and quickly established a command center for the missing persons investigation at 523 Covena Avenue.
The Petersons' home was a modest, single-story ranch with drab green shingles on the west side of the street. The couple had purchased their three-bedroom, two-bath home for $177,000 in 2000.
In less than three years, its value had appreciated by $100,000. The peaceful neighborhood, with its well-kept houses, manicured front lawns, and flower beds, had a small-town feeling. Neighbors tended to stop and chat with one another, and children felt safe playing and riding their bicycles in the quiet streets. The Petersons' property was surrounded by an imposing six-foot wooden fence. The police noticed that several of their windows looked out on Covena Avenue, but heavy drapes covered the openings and blocked any view -- in or out.
As Officer Matt Spurlock led the men down the brick walkway toward the Petersons' front door, Sergeant Byron Duerfeldt dialed the unit's on-call supervisor to alert him to the situation. Carter, the head of the Crimes Against Persons (CAP) unit that night, listened intently as Duerfeldt reported the details: A woman named Laci Peterson, age twenty-seven, eight months pregnant, was missing from her residence. The husband, Scott Peterson, age thirty, said he had left early that morning to go fishing for the day. When he returned home at 4:30, she was missing.
"Where is Peterson now?" Carter asked.
Duerfeldt reported that Scott was walking the neighborhood looking for his wife. Other family members were already gathering at the residence. No one seemed to know where Laci might be.
"I'm requesting the assistance of a CAP detective, sir," Duerfeldt said. The Crimes Against Persons unit had six full-time detectives assigned to investigate felony assaults, robberies, homicides, and missing person cases. Carter agreed, then instructed the field sergeant to locate the husband and bring him back to the house for a more indepth interview. He also wanted calls made to area hospitals in case Laci had checked herself in without the family's knowledge.
"Call me back with any new information," Carter instructed. Sergeant Duerfeldt left to find Scott Peterson while his three uniformed patrol officers examined the Peterson premises. Officer Spurlock led the way to the house.
Duerfeldt found the front door unlocked. Most of the interior lights were on. A carefully trimmed Christmas tree glimmered in a corner of the dining area next to the fireplace. The officers quickly inventoried the presents piled beneath the tree. One large box wrapped in deep blue paper was addressed from Scott to Laci; another gift, a Louis Vuitton wallet, was nestled in an open bag. Initial reports assumed that this was Scott's gift to his wife. However, a credit card receipt showed that Laci had purchased the wallet during a trip to Carmel the previous week, although whether it was for herself or someone else was never established.
In the galley-style kitchen, painted a cheery yellow, a chalkboard on the wall read Merry Christmas. There was some leftover pizza sitting on the kitchen counter in an open box, and an open container of ranch dressing nearby. A telephone book on the counter was open to a garish full-page ad showing a young man being handcuffed by a uniformed officer. "Criminal Defense -- Former Deputy District Attorney," the ad read. Among the specialties the lawyer listed was murder.
The living room, painted a vibrant burnt orange, was furnished with overstuffed couches topped with fluffy throw pillows. But something seemed out of place in the carefully ordered environment. Evers noticed a tan-and-white throw rug bunched up on the floor against the patio door as if something had been dragged over the threshold.
The officers also walked through the nursery, with its deep blue walls and nautical theme. A small white crib was set up against one wall, its mattress covered with new baby clothes. Miniature sailboats dangled from the ceiling, and a decorative life preserver hung on the wall bearing the greeting Welcome Aboard!
The officers continued their examination, opening closet doors and pulling back the shower curtain, looking for anything out of the ordinary. After checking the rest of the house, the men moved to the backyard through the living room door. They carefully stepped over the bunched up rug, leaving it undisturbed.
Spurlock noticed that a mop bucket and two mops were leaning against an exterior wall just beside a side door. The bright blue bucket was still wet, apparently from recent use, as was the sidewalk nearby.
The police surveyed the area quickly, then left the residence. Evers saw Scott standing outside and asked him to check the house for any signs of a struggle or burglary.
The officers accompanied him back inside. Evers tossed out some questions as they walked. According to Scott, Laci had been wearing a white, long-sleeved crewneck shirt and black maternity pants when he left home that morning. She was barefoot at the time, but she usually wore white tennis shoes when walking McKenzie. He also told the officers that she had been wearing expensive jewelry -- a diamond necklace, diamond earrings, and a gold-and-diamond Geneve wristwatch -- when he last saw her.
"Is your wife's purse still in the house?" Evers asked. In response, Scott went not to the hall coatrack he'd mentioned to Sharon in the park, but into the master bedroom. The bed was tidy. Hanging behind some scarves on a hook in the closet was Laci Petercrie son's purse. To most women, this might seem an unusual place to keep an everyday handbag, but Scott went straight there to find it. The blue pocketbook contained her wallet, keys, sunglasses, and other personal items. The young husband told the police that nothing seemed to be missing.
Although Scott seemed calm about the discovery, Evers knew that finding a woman's purse left behind like this was an ominous sign. "Have you been working all day?" Evers asked.
"I went fishing," Scott replied. Pulling a piece of paper from his pocket, he volunteered it to the officer. It was a receipt from the Berkeley Marina for 12:54 P.M. that afternoon.
The officers exchanged glances. Scott was certainly quick to provide proof of his whereabouts without being asked.
"What time did you leave the house?" Spurlock inquired.
"Earlier this morning." Scott did not pinpoint an actual time.
"What did you go fishing for?"
"What did you use for bait?" Spurlock persisted. He wasn't comfortable with Scott's awkward answers, and as an avid angler, the officer knew just what to ask.
"Some type of silver lure," was the best Scott could do.
"Where do you keep all your fishing gear?" Spurlock asked.
Finally, a direct response. "I keep it atmy company's storage facility."
Scott began reciting his movements after leaving home that morning. First, he drove to his company's warehouse at 1027 North Emerald. Checking his e-mail and faxes, he sent a message to his boss in Portugal. After straightening up his work space, he spent some time assembling a mortiser -- a woodworking tool -- before finally hitching up the new boat to his truck.
I would later wonder about his use of time. Scott had decided to fish only two hours earlier, according to his own account. It was too cold to golf, he said, so he chose fishing in the bay as an alternative. He left home knowing he had errands to run before the dinner with his in-laws at six o'clock that evening, including picking up a Christmas gift basket by 3:00 P.M. for Laci's grandfather. Yet, when he arrived at the warehouse, he allegedly spent time cleaning up the interior, working on his computer, and casually assembling the mortiser, all before setting out on the ninety-mile trip to the Berkeley Marina to fish. In describing his trip, Scott specifically mentioned that he'd made two calls to Laci from his cell phone during the drive home -- one to her cell and another to the house. He left messages, he said, but he never reached her.A Deadly Game
The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation. Copyright © by Catherine Crier. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.