Feb. 28: Did Police Overlook Important Peterson Clue?


POSTED: 9:51 a.m. PST February 27, 2003

MODESTO, Calif. -- Two neighbors said they saw missing pregnant woman Laci Peterson walking her dog the morning of Christmas Eve, about 45 minutes after her husband says he left on a fishing trip.

But they said police never called them back after they reported seeing her.

The development prompted frustration from Scott Peterson's father, Lee, who criticized Modesto Police for focusing suspicion on his son.

"How do you follow up on a lead if you don't return someone's calls?" Peterson said in a Thursday telephone call to The Associated Press from Solana Beach in San Diego County.

"It makes me wonder about their competency," he said of Modesto Police. "Here's an eyewitness account of my daughter-in-law and they don't follow up on it."

Modesto Police spokesman Doug Ridenour told The Modesto Bee that several people reported seeing the missing woman that morning. He said detectives investigated the reports, but didn't return every tipster's call.

Vivian and Bill Mitchell told The Bee they saw Laci Peterson at about 10 a.m. or 10:15 a.m. on Dec. 24, wearing white and black clothes and walking with a golden retriever.

The Mitchell home is about 10 blocks from the Covena Avenue home where Laci Peterson, 27 and nearly eight months pregnant, disappeared during the day.

"I had seen Laci walk by the house several times before," said Vivian Mitchell. "When she walked by on Christmas Eve, I hollered to Bill, 'Oh look, it's the lady with the golden retriever."'

Bill Mitchell, who served three terms on the Modesto City Council, said he saw them go around the corner as he went to the window.

"It looked like the dog wanted to go one way, and she was going another," he told The Bee. Vivian Mitchell said she reported the sighting to Modesto Police about a week after Laci Peterson disappeared, but never heard back.

Scott Peterson, 30, told police he last saw his wife about 9:30 a.m. as he left for a fishing trip at the Berkeley Marina.

Peterson's father said police have focused solely on his son, which is "why they ignored those sightings. They've got a scenario and if it didn't fit that scenario, they didn't want to hear about it."

Lee Peterson said police investigators have put his son's job as a fertilizer salesman at risk by seizing his vehicles and computers, which are "everything he needs to hold his job. They're messing with his livelihood. It's more of a harassment, that's what it is."

Calls to Modesto Police for comment were not returned Thursday.

Thursday's development came 24 hour after one of the lead detectives heralded his department's efforts.

Capt. Greg Savelli, of the Investigative Services of the Modesto Police Department, told KTVU's Ted Rowlands that his team meets every day to carefully piece together a battle plan.

"We meet every morning and discuss the goals of the case -- and for that day -- and where we are going," Savelli said. "We're confident in the direction of the investigation and we're going to follow all the leads we have."

"That's our plan -- as leads come in, they are developed and we will follow them."

One of those leads was to have Bruce Peterson -- the former Modesto resident who sold Scott Peterson his fishing boat weeks before Laci disappeared -- come in to look at the craft earlier this month.

"It's another piece of the puzzle," Savelli said.

The Modesto investigator also said his team watches the local and national media reports of Laci's disappearance with special interest.

"We are learning a lot of information from watching the media," he said. "In a sense that we want to hear from those shows what other experts feel about what they are hearing. It's important to us to get all opinions (on the case)."

Savelli also said that his department is not too proud to ask for help if they need it.

"There are a lot of dedicated, experienced employees and detectives working on this case," he said. "They are devoting their time tirelessly to solving this...If we feel the need for assistance, we will call in assistance. We've had help from other agencies and the federal government. We want the best people on the job."

"Right now, we have a core of investigators that are very experienced and very detailed. They are doing an outstanding job."

While the police methodically work their way through the case, Laci's family continues to wrestle with the emotions of missing a loved one.

Laci's mother -- Sharon Rocha -- said it was gotten to a point where she once thought her daughter was in her home.

"I opened the front door and I walked in and I just stopped," she said. "And Ron (Grantski, her husband) literally walked right into me. Because I saw Laci on the sofa turn around and say 'Hi Mom!' And it was so real."

Visibly tired and emotionally drained, the Rocha family appeared on CNN's Larry King Live show Tuesday. They said they were taking time to regroup and would stop organizing volunteer searches for the foreseeable future.

Copyright 2003 by KTVU.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.