A murder trial to die for

They seemed an ordinary, happily married, small-town American couple - until Laci Peterson was washed up dead on a beach, alongside her unborn son. Now husband Scott is awaiting trial for the killings, amid a media frenzy and a cast of colourful supporting characters to rival even the OJ Simpson case. Rupert Cornwell reports on a lurid tale that's gripping the US

Friday 11 July 2003 00:00 BST

In retrospect, the moment when the Iraq war ended for US cable television is clear. Not when that statue of Saddam was pulled down in Baghdad, or when George Bush did his Top Gun routine and landed on an aircraft carrier to proclaim that major combat operations were over - but on the weekend of 12-13 April, when the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn son washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay.

Laci Peterson, you may ask - who on earth is she? But in America, every now and then, a crime case comes along that creates its own separate universe. For readers of America's supermarket tabloids, for addicts of cable television and the vapid morning shows on the networks, her tragic story is a daily happening, divorced from normal human considerations of decency, grief and privacy. To this obsessed audience, every available particular of Laci's life and death is second nature.

A few years ago, there was the OJ Simpson affair. Then we were regaled with the story of Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old Capitol Hill intern whose disappearance from a Washington city park obsessed the country that distant pre-September 11 summer of 2001. And now, terrorist attacks, anthrax scares and two wars later, the Laci Peterson case is set to join that company. And, in however unedifying a fashion, this made-in-California tale of love, betrayal and murder somehow marks a country's return to normality - far more than any lowering of the national colour-coded terror alert from scary orange to humdrum yellow.

Its beginnings, when Peterson disappeared last Christmas Eve, were nothing to raise the eyebrows. She was a 27-year-old substitute teacher, apparently happily married and eight months pregnant, living with her husband Scott, a fertiliser salesman, in the quiet agricultural town of Modesto. That 24 December, Scott went on a fishing trip to San Francisco Bay, 90 miles away. It was the last time, by his account, that he saw his wife. When he returned home in the evening, Laci had gone.

From the outset, however, police had their eye on Scott, though they never named him as a suspect and he denied any involvement in his wife's disappearance. They tapped his phone and discovered that, the previous autumn, he had had an affair with another woman. Scott Peterson told them that Laci knew about his transgression and had forgiven him.

But three months ago the case cracked wide open. On 12 April, the remains were found of an infant, with its umbilical cord still attached, on the bay shore near Berkeley. The next day, the mostly skeletal remains of a woman were washed up on the beach a short distance away - a few miles from where Scott had told the police he went fishing. Television and the local press excitedly carried the news of the gruesome discoveries, dutifully cautioning, however, that it might be several weeks before DNA tests permitted the two bodies to be identified. In fact, confirmation that they were Laci and the unborn Conner came just six days later - and the police took no chances with the man they were increasingly sure had committed the crime.

Having been under intense media as well as police surveillance for the best part of three months, Scott Peterson was arrested on 18 April as he was driving just 30 miles from the border with Mexico. He had $10,000 (£6,100) in his pocket and sported a goatee beard, while his dark brown hair had been dyed reddish-blond. He was charged with murdering his wife "around December 23 or 24, 2002", a formulation implying that he may have killed Laci at home and then taken her body to be dumped in San Francisco Bay.

The sensational news of the identification of the mother and child, and the arrest of the father, went out on the evening news. When Scott Peterson arrived at close to midnight at Modesto's county jail, a crowd of dozens had gathered, some of them shouting "murderer". And an already hyperventilating media went into a frenzy.

Quite why some cases capture the media's imagination, while others that appear equally lurid do not, is one of the unfathomables of the news business. The modest Petersons of Modesto might have been an attractive couple, but they were no celebrities - unlike OJ, the former gridiron superstar with his Hollywood trappings, or Chandra Levy, also of Modesto, but who, it emerged, had an affair with the prominent California Congressman Gary Condit ("Did Gary Do It?" was the big question). But peer a little closer into the Peterson story, and you are gazing into tabloid paradise.

What crime could be more unspeakable than a husband's murder of his pregnant wife, especially when the unborn baby has already been given a name? And perhaps the deed was even ghastlier. Leaked details of an autopsy on the infant revealed that plastic tape was looped around his neck, and that there was a long cut on his body, believed to have been caused by a knife. Might the child have been cut from his mother's body - or might the baby even have been born before she (and he) died?

Like manna from heaven, talkative relatives emerged. Scott Peterson's father Lee told Time magazine that "the police had bungled this case from day one". His mother Jackie was no less outraged: "You have a district attorney calling this a slam-dunk before there's even an arraignment. I feel like I'm living in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union." Laci's parents delivered excruciating public grief - yet in a poignant moment just before the arraignment hearing began, her mother and mother-in-law hugged each other. That detail, incidentally, was relayed not by The National Enquirer (whose sales jump by 30 per cent each time it puts the Peterson case on the cover), but by The New York Times. The country's flagship news organisation had certified the Peterson case as a major national story.

And little wonder. For the cable stations and the supermarket tabloids, there was an "other woman" who might have been sent from central casting in the sky. She was called Amber Frey. Amber was blonde and attractive and plied the rather suggestive trade of massage therapist. And, it soon emerged, she had had a month-long affair with Scott Peterson in the autumn of 2002.

Better still, she was a character in her own right. Rejecting offers said to exceed $100,000, she has given no interviews - which only makes the unattainable prize even more alluring. Instead, she turned up at a press conference with her newly hired Hollywood celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred to beg for her privacy to be respected.

The press just dug harder (Amber's father says he has taken 5,000 media calls) and came up with a portrait of a star-crossed woman with a string of unhappy affairs behind her, who fell for Scott's tale that he wasn't married. They also, inevitably, unearthed glamorous nude photos of a younger Amber, whose adorning of the Enquirer's cover can only enhance her role as star prosecution witness in what will surely be the trial of this young century so far.

And the better the story gets, the better the supporting cast. Connoisseurs of the OJ trial of 1994-95 will be delighted to hear that the gang's all back, flocking like moths to the glare of the cameras and the bait of fat TV appearance fees. Marcia Clark, who led the unsuccessful prosecution of Simpson, is dispensing her wisdom on the pundit panels. So is Mark Fuhrman, the racist cop taken to pieces by Simpson's lead defence attorney, Johnnie Cochran.

Set for the Cochran role this time round is another Hollywood celebrity lawyer, Mark Geragos, who last year represented the actress Winona Ryder in her shoplifting case before working as a TV commentator in the early coverage of Laci's murder. Just like OJ did, Peterson and Geragos have vowed to find "the real killers". The last of the obvious potential stars is Al Girolami, the gravel-voiced judge of Modesto's Stanislaus County who (assuming that the defence fails to get the case moved) is poised for fleeting fame to match that of Judge Lance Ito in the OJ saga.

Recently, Judge Girolami has managed to cool matters down with a string of gagging orders. But these have done little to change the minds of the 80 per cent of Modesto residents who believe that Scott Peterson is guilty, or to dent the media's obsession with the case. Once again on Wednesday, the streets around the ochre-coloured Modesto courthouse were jammed with TV trucks and microphones as famous crime reporters breathlessly recounted a string of procedural rulings by the judge as if they were the verdict in the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Yes, prosecutors would have access to 176 wiretaps of calls by Scott Peterson which mysteriously popped up on 13 June - and these would include a couple of dozen conversations with reporters seeking interviews with him before his arrest. But the defence will have no access to another case which Geragos says could cast an entirely different light on proceedings.

When the macabre detail of the cut on Conner's body and the tape round his neck emerged, Scott Peterson's lawyers speculated that Laci had been a victim of a "satanic cult". They spoke of a curious "brown van" that was spotted near the Peterson home on Christmas Eve.

But these theories suffered a setback when Judge Girolami barred the lawyers from looking at police files on the unsolved murder of Evelyn Hernandez, a 24-year-old single mother from Nevada who disappeared in May 2002. Like that of Laci Peterson, Hernandez's body was found on the San Francisco Bay waterfront two months later - and like Laci, she had been eight months pregnant. The coincidences are intriguing but, the San Francisco Police Department maintains, the killings of the two young women are otherwise unconnected. For the media and for addicts of the case, however, the merest hint that a ghoulish serial killer is at work makes the whole dreadful tale even more compelling.

And there, for the moment, matters rest. The trial will not get under way until after the summer. All but lost in the media's pursuit of the sensational are the distinctly serious implications for America's never-ending abortion debate. Not surprisingly, the pro-life camp has seized on how, even though he may still have been in his mother's womb when she died, Conner was treated from the outset as a separate living victim. Scott Peterson has thus been charged with not one but two murders, which under Californian law allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

In truth, most contact with reality has been lost. Instead, the American media juggernaut has demonstrated its ability to turn the most wrenching personal tragedy into pulp entertainment. Laci Peterson's parents have lost their only daughter, and a grandson who did not live to see them. Whatever the trial outcome, Scott Peterson's family will live for ever under the shadow of the case. Oh, yes, but a lot of people are going to get rich. And that's show business.

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