Behind the Laci Peterson Murder


CNN People in the News

Aired July 26, 2003 - 11:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS what appeared to be a perfect marriage becomes the plot for a national murder mystery.
SCOTT PETERSON, CHARGED WITH WIFE'S MURDER: I had nothing to do with Laci's disappearance.

ANNOUNCER: A pregnant wife who was bright and vivacious.

ANNE-MARIE O'NEILL, SENIOR EDITOR, "PEOPLE" MAGAZINE: I guess you could call Laci an all-American girl.

ANNOUNCER: The seemingly ideal husband, accused of murdering her.

ABBA IMANI, OWNER, PACIFIC CAFE: People really liked him. He was a very likable guy.

ANNOUNCER: A storybook relationship that ended in a tabloid confession.

AMBER FREY, HAD AFFAIR WITH SCOTT PETERSON: We did have a romantic relationship.

ANNOUNCER: A murder case that's got the country talking.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Even though Scott has been convicted around every water cooler in America, the actual evidence against him is far from overwhelming.

ANNOUNCER: Beyond the hype and the headlines. The story behind the relationship of Scott and Laci Peterson.


JOHN WALSH, "AMERICA'S MOST WANTED": The crime of the century.

ANNOUNCER: He's the television force who's helped put many of America's most wanted behind bars.

WALSH: We're the fifth longest running show in the history of television.

ANNOUNCER: But before the bright lights and stardom, a phone call that no parent should have to get.

WALSH: I was so heartbroken. I wished I was in another place. ANNOUNCER: He turned his tragedy into a crusade for the rights of missing children. The story of the man who's made it his mission to stop crime of all sort. John Walsh.

Their stories and more now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

PAULA ZAHN:, ANCHOR: Hi. Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn.

They seemed like the all-American couple, happily married, anxiously a waiting the birth of their first child. She was the girl next door and he was the adoring husband. At least that's how it seemed until Laci Peterson and her unborn son were murdered.

Now Laci's husband, Scott, is awaiting trial for the killings in a case that has fueled a media free for all.

Here's David Mattingly.


SHARON ROCHA, LACI PETERSON'S MOTHER: I love my daughter so much. I miss her every minute of every day.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a story that has captivated the country. A murder mystery played out daily in the media.

TED ROWLANDS, REPORTER, KTVU: People wanted to know where she was, whether she was OK and whether that babe was OK.

MATTINGLY: Last year in the state of California alone, thousands of adult men and women were reported missing, but in the final days of 2002, one of those cases went from an ordinary disappearance to an extraordinary media phenomena that has mesmerized the country.

S. PETERSON: I had nothing to do with Laci's disappearance.

TOOBIN: One of the great mysteries about the Peterson case is yet public has responded to it so passionately, because it doesn't have a celebrity involved. No one had heard of these people before, but there is something about it that has grabbed many thousands of people.

MATTINGLY: Twenty-seven-year-old Laci Peterson, gone without a trace on Christmas Eve. The media was flooded with images of a beautiful, beaming young woman and the tearful family members desperately seek her return.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Laci Denise, if you're hearing dad, we love you very much and we want you home.

MATTINGLY: it just didn't make sense. Laci had a handsome, loving husband, parents, siblings and in-laws who cherished her. Plus, the substitute teacher was eight months pregnant when she suddenly disappeared. Things had been good for Laci Peterson. She was starting a new chapter of her life in the place where her very first chapter began.

Modesto, California, a mid-sized city with a very small town feel, a place where happiness is spelled out in the welcome sign.

Laci Peterson was born in Modesto on May 4, 1975. Even as a young girl, Laci Denise Rocha had the same sunny disposition that was so familiar in her adulthood.

STACEY BOYERS, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: Laci is always smiling, no matter where we are or what we're doing. She's always bubbly and talkative and she's usually the center of attention.

MATTINGLY: Laci was into everything and she had no shortage of friends. As a student at Downey High, Laci wasn't your typical angst- ridden rebellious teen. Quite the opposite, in fact.

O'NEILL: I guess you could call Laci an all-American girl. You know, she was a cheerleader in high school. She was vivacious. She was outgoing and friendly. Her stepfather used to call her Jabber Jaws because she talked so much.

MATTINGLY: Pretty soon, cooking and gardening joined chatting on the list of favorite Laci pastimes and her green thumb planted her at San Luis Obispo at California Polytechnic State University with a major in horticultural sciences.

There she would meet the man who would become her husband. Scott Peterson was a handsome, athletic California boy from San Diego.

O'NEILL: People who knew Scott at high school have described him as -- as a kind of jock. Very confident. Slightly arrogant and yet still friendly and easy to talk to.

MATTINGLY: The consummate outdoorsman, Scott loved hunting, fishing and golf, but he also had an entrepreneurial spirit. As a student at Cal Poly, Scott made a good impression on his teachers in the agriculture and business department.

JAMES AHERN, PROFESSOR, CALIFORNIA POLYTECHNIC STATE UNIVERSITY: Very nice guy. A good guy. A capable student. Interested beyond just getting grades and interested in knowing people and a good interactor, charming person that could talk well and was interested in what other people had to say. A very likable guy.

MATTINGLY: Scott's agreeable personality worked for him outside the classroom, as well. He parlayed his charm into a part-time job at the Pacific Cafe.

IMANI: His mom and dad were a customer here. They ate here regularly. And then when Scott graduated from high school he came and ate with them a few times and then he asked for a job.

He was a very good worker. Very responsible, but most importantly, very polite person. People really liked him. He was a very likable guy.

MATTINGLY: One customer in particular took a liking to Scott, fellow Cal Poly student Laci Rocha. After talking to Scott a couple of times, Laci asked a friend who worked at the Pacific Cafe to give Scott her number. He called right away.

RENEE GARZA, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: They're like teenagers in love.

MATTINGLY: That's how most everyone described Laci and Scott. The relationship turned serious quickly and when Laci said she was bringing her mom to dinner meet Scott, he went out of his way to impress her.

IMANI: He asked me to make some special appetizer for them. And I did. Some scampi, if I remember right, and he had some flowers on the table.

MATTINGLY: The storybook courtship led to a storybook union.

O'NEILL: The wedding was really elaborate. Laci had a big part in planning the wedding. She made sure the flowers were just how she liked them. And there was a white dress. Him feeding her cake, the full routine.

He carried her up the stairs. For awhile there, his family thought he that might drop her, but he didn't.

So the wedding by all accounts was a big and happy affair.

IMANI: It was a gorgeous day out on the beach, outdoor wedding. Perfect. Everything was just right and a nice couple. They were, like, perfect for each other.

MATTINGLY: It was a picture of perfection that would suddenly be shattered.





MATTINGLY (voice-over): Laci and Scott Peterson went from ocean front wedded bliss to a shack. The couple wanted to create a hangout spot where students from their alma mater Cal Poly could eat well for cheap. This was a dream they shared and they each took an active role.

BLAKE REED, FRIEND: Scott's an entrepreneur, and he pretty much just built the place up, you know, from the ground up.

CHRISTINE REED, FRIEND: Laci's involvement, too, in the restaurant was significant. She loved to cook. She would go on these trips to France and learn to cook for a week or two and then come back and they kind of both sat down and developed the concept and the menu and then went and then found a location.

MATTINGLY: The restaurant soon took off.

When they weren't working, Laci and Scott were out spending time with friends like Blake and Christine Reed. They say this picture taken at a dinner party perfectly summed up the dynamics of their relationship.

B. REED: All of the guys were sitting out in the back porch and we were all smoking cigars and drinking a scotch or whatever and just hanging out and it was all of the guys.

And so somebody wanted to take a picture of all of the guys sitting back there and they were just getting ready to snap the shot and Laci comes behind all of the guys and she wanted to get right in the middle and that's a really good way to describe Laci. She was really gregarious and she liked to be in the center of things and be -- you know, she was real comfortable being the center of attention.

C. REED: You know, I never saw Scott feel -- or I never saw the expressions or his behavior never said he was embarrassed by that or angry by that. I mean, he kind of just stood back and smiled and said, "That's my wife"

MATTINGLY: Though surrounded by friends and fulfilled by the success of their restaurant, Laci and Scott decided to move back to Modesto to be closer to Laci's family and to start a family of their own.

O'NEILL: Laci was really excited about getting pregnant. They'd been trying to get pregnant for some time and when she did get pregnant and she got the news she was pregnant she was on the phone at 7 a.m. the next morning, calling her relatives and telling them of the news.

SUSAN CAUDILLO, SCOTT PETERSON'S SISTER: She and Scott were just thrilled about the coming of their baby boy and everything in their life that they had planned for the past five years and their marriage was coming. This was a big event for them and everything was going wonderfully.

MATTINGLY: Which is why it was so stunning when Scott called family members on December 24, saying he had just come home from a fishing trip and couldn't find Laci anywhere.

JACKIE PETERSON, SCOTT PETERSON'S MOTHER: They were all ready for Christmas, their presents wrapped, their plans laid and they had a little free time. And it's just like Laci to let Scott go do something he wanted to do, and she wanted to do a little more shopping privately, so that was their agreement and it was only for a few hours. It should have been fine.

MATTINGLY: But it wasn't fine. Hours passed with no sign of Laci. The family sprang into action, pleading for help on the airwaves and putting Laci's picture on every tree, lamppost and window in sight. ROWLANDS: When Laci was missing, literally thousands of people who didn't know her came out to help search for this missing woman and they started to know her.

MATTINGLY: Laci's family, her parents, her brother and sister, as well as Scott's parents, became familiar faces.

ROCHA: I'd like to make a plea to the person or persons who have my daughter.

MATTINGLY: They appeared on television night and day. Noticeably absent, her husband Scott.

ROWLANDS: When someone's going through this you don't know how they're going to react, but normally you've got a father or a spouse or a family member of a missing person who wants media coverage, who wants the picture out there, the flyers, wants to do interviews. Wants to really do anything to get help to find this person.

And with Scott it was a little different story where he was real standoffish; didn't want us to take his picture, didn't want us to interview him.

MATTINGLY: Slowly, people began to question Scott's demeanor.

TOOBIN: For better or worse, the public seems to have kind of a script in mind for how bereaved relatives ought to behave and he didn't follow that script. He was not quite sad enough.

MATTINGLY: Modesto police also seemed to think something about Scott wasn't right. He wasn't named a suspect, but he wasn't ruled out either. Police repeatedly questioned him and searched the home he shared with Laci.

But the people who knew him best ignored all that whispering.

LEE PETERSON, SCOTT PETERSON'S FATHER: If you knew Scott as far as him being implicated it's just a non-issue.

O'NEILL: Laci's mother Sharon told us that she was calling Scott every day. They were speaking on the phone and she was telling him that they loved him and not to worry.

MATTINGLY: With Laci missing for one full week, the family in the town of Modesto came out on New Year's Eve for a candlelight vigil.

Scott Peterson raised eyebrows and got stares of disbelief as he laughed and joked with friends and even took a cell phone call while the rest of the family was in tears.

That, combined with frequent out of town, overnight trips and his steadfast refusal to speak publicly, turned Scott into a villain in the media.

But it only got worse. When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, a potential motive for murder surfaces.

FREY: I met Scott Peterson November 20, 2002. I was introduced to him. I was told he was unmarried.





MATTINGLY (voice-over): Nearly one month after the disappearance of Laci Peterson, a shocking revelation.

KIM PETERSON, ROCHA FAMILY SPOKESPERSON: Approximately two weeks ago Ron Grantski, Laci's stepfather, asked Scott if he had a girlfriend. Scott told him no and Ron believed him.

Now, however, they believe that he has lied to them about this and possibly other things, as well.

MATTINGLY: At first, Scott continued to deny the affair, but a press conference with the other woman, Amber Frey, erased all doubts.

FREY: Scott told me he was not married. We did have a romantic relationship. When I discovered he was involved in the -- the Laci Peterson disappearance case, I immediately contacted the Modesto Police Department.

TOOBIN: The fact that Peterson was having an affair at the time his wife disappeared certainly raised suspicion on him and obviously gave him a motive for murder.

MATTINGLY: It was also the turning point in Scott's relationship with Laci's family.

TOOBIN: That was the moment when they went from being largely supportive of Scott to neutral to hostile.

MATTINGLY: Engulfed in a torrent of bad press, Scott Peterson agreed to what he had resisted for so long, on-camera interviews, but it had to be on his terms.

ROWLANDS: He called me on the phone the night before and said no lights, just one camera guy. I just want it to be a simple interview. He said I'd like to see the questions you want to ask me. I've never had anybody ask me that before, so it was a definite situation where he was in control and he didn't want to say anything that quite frankly, would, I think, make him look bad.

MATTINGLY: And when it came time to speak he chose his words carefully.

S. PETERSON: I had nothing to do with Laci's disappearance. Even if you think I did, think about Laci.

MATTINGLY: He seemed the most emotional when speaking of the empty nursery for the baby they had decided to name Connor.

S. PETERSON: The nursery's ready for him. That door is closed. I can't look, you know? All of the little bitty clothes and all of those wonderful things we have.

MATTINGLY: But public reaction was mixed.

ROWLANDS: I think that people thought he was guilty, and I think seeing him in his sort of pat answers and his reluctancy to really open up didn't help him.

TOOBIN: And then he started doing things like trying to sell Laci's car. Actions that seemed inconsistent with a grieving relative and more consistent with a criminal suspect.

MATTINGLY: The downward spiral continued for Scott Peterson, but the darkest days were just ahead.

On April 13, just miles away from where Scott said he was fishing on Christmas Eve, the body of a fetus washed up on the shores of San Francisco Bay, followed by the partial remains of a woman.

The question on everyone's mind, could this be Laci Peterson and baby Connor?

Claiming Scott was a flight risk, the Modesto police didn't wait to find out. On April 18, he was arrested near a posh golf course in San Diego, just an hour away from the Mexican border.

Despite appearances, the Peterson family stayed strong and supportive.

L. PETERSON: They made a rush to judgment because of all of the media pressure, I believe, and politics. And he's in there, he should not be and we're going to find out who did it.

MATTINGLY: But the attorney general disagreed, calling the case a slam dunk. And the state of California said it would seek the death penalty against Scott Peterson.

After DNA results confirmed their worst fears, that the bodies that washed up were indeed Laci and her baby, Laci's family held one final heart-wrenching press conference.

ROCHA: I literally get sick to my stomach when I allow myself to think about what may have happened to them. No parent should have to think about the way their child is murdered.

RON GRANTSKI, LACI PETERSON'S STEPFATHER: I know all of you would like for us to say something about Scott, but we're not going to do that. We owe it to Laci to let the courts bring the facts out.

MATTINGLY: The family took the high road and refused to publicly discuss their feelings toward Scott.

TOOBIN: Anyone who has followed the case at all closely can see that the Rocha family, Laci's family, has gone pretty much over to outright hostility to Scott, even though they have never said the words publicly, "We think Scott did it."

MATTINGLY: Laci Peterson's family was done talking, but the rest of the country was not. Television was filled with talking heads, debating the case against Scott Peterson.

MARK GERAGOS, SCOTT PETERSON'S ATTORNEY: The most damning piece of circumstantial evidence comes out of his own mouth and his own hands when he hands the police that receipt from the very location where two miles away she's found. I mean, that is just a devastating thing.

MATTINGLY: In the early stages celebrity defense attorney Mark Geragos was among the crowd on TV saying the evidence against Scott was overwhelming. But after meeting the accused and his family, Geragos made a surprising about face.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Mark Geragos is the attorney, also?

GERAGOS: That's correct, your honor. I represent Mr. Peterson.

TOOBIN: It is almost a perfect symbol of this case as a media phenomenon that the defense found its lawyers on "LARRY KING LIVE".

MATTINGLY: Wasting no time, the new defense tried to provide alternative theories.

GERAGOS: We know that there are specific individuals who have information that relate to this -- to the kidnapping and the abduction and the murder. And we're asking that you come forward and we'll do everything possible to protect you.

TOOBIN: A cult murder. A random murder. A kidnapping. That gives the public something to think about except the obvious possibility, which is that her husband did it.

MATTINGLY: The defense had also worked hard to remind potential jurors that their client had a perfectly clean record.

ROWLANDS: He has a history of cheating which is coming out, but as far as could he be responsible for this? There was nothing in his past and especially in the beginning, people were ready to stand up for this guy and say yes, he's acting strange, but believe us, he's a great guy.

MATTINGLY: The prosecution has largely kept quiet, allowing the circumstantial evidence to speak for itself.

TOOBIN: The prosecution will undoubtedly focus on a basic appeal to common sense, which is who else could have done this? Who else had the motive? The opportunity?

MATTINGLY: But the prosecution still has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

TOOBIN: This case is not a slam dunk, at least not in terms of the evidence that's public. There is no murder weapon. There is no eyewitness. There is no time of death established. Those are all things that the defense can explore.

MATTINGLY: In the meantime, two families are left to grieve the loss of Laci Peterson and her unborn son Connor. Forced to wonder how their loved ones came to their deaths in a watery grave, so close to home.


ZAHN: The preliminary hearing that will decide whether the case goes to trial has been postponed until September.