Frey described as complex, quiet woman

Published: August 3, 2003, 06:40:21 AM PDT
Six months ago, Amber Frey stepped before a phalanx of reporters at the Modesto Police Department and made this plea:  "I would appreciate my friends and acquaintances to refrain from talking about me to the media for profit or recognition," the 28-year-old Fresno woman said at the news conference where she announced that she had been Scott Peterson's mystery girlfriend.

Despite her plea for privacy, Frey's father would soon be dallying with reporters and making himself available for interviews. A girlfriend would sell People magazine photos of Frey and Peterson together.

And an angry woman who did not buy Frey as a victim would tell the National Enquirer that Frey had an affair with her husband while the woman was pregnant.

Today, Frey's voice remains a distant echo from January's news conference. She has stayed mostly silent since then, providing few clues or comments about herself, even as the tabloids have poked into her private life and one published nude and seminude photos that she posed for as an aspiring model.

Frey declined to be interviewed for this article. She shook her head and delivered a firm "no" during an encounter two weeks ago at the Fresno business where she works as a certified massage therapist.

Friends and former friends have chosen to fill in the details of her life. The Amber Frey of their stories is a complex woman. One of her confidantes today is a 77-year-old pillar of her church whose husband and son are pastors in a conservative, evangelical denomination. The same Amber Frey once lived with a boyfriend who worked as a stripper.

Despite her tight-lipped reticence, Frey may be drawn back into the spotlight of the Peterson case soon. A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge has scheduled a preliminary hearing for Sept. 9 to determine if there is enough evidence to put Peterson on trial for murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. The charges could land him on death row. Peterson has pleaded innocent.

Frey may be the prosecution's star witness.  "She is the most valuable person in terms of the prosecution's case, as far as we know," said Maureen Orth, a Washington, D.C., writer who dissected media coverage of the Peterson case in a summer edition of Vanity Fair magazine. "She gives motive, and in this bizarre media circus in which these people become commodities, she is one of the most important commodities."

If that is a difficult position for Frey, she does not say so publicly. She is barred from speaking about the case by a judge's gag order on witnesses, lawyers and police officers.

But even if she does not speak, she does go out -- to a Journey, REO Speedwagon and Styx concert at Selland Arena, and to a family birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant -- and her face often catches people's eyes. Some recognize her immediately. Others wonder aloud: "Where do I know you from?"

Frey's one-time reply suggested that she has not lost her sense of humor: "Oh, it will probably come to you."

The official line on Frey comes from her Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who represented the family of Nicole Brown Simpson in the criminal trial against O.J. Simpson and won a settlement for a photographer who was assaulted by rocker Tommy Lee.

Allred described Frey as a person of strong faith and family values. She added: "People ask, 'Does Amber think Scott did it?' She has indicated she feels the decision is for the jury and that the final judgment will be made by God."

Frey attends Fresno's Northpark Community Church with her daughter, and has since last September or October. "From my estimation, she is a delightful young woman who really has a deep desire to know God and do what's right," said the pastor, the Rev. Bob Willis.

Dean Hoffinger, a Fresno events promoter who met Frey in the mid-1990s and claims to have been her boyfriend, said: "Let's not make her into this girl who wanted to be an angel. She would do -- we did crazy things. Everyone has different sides."

Allred said Frey would make no comment on Hoffinger's statement.

Amber Dawn Frey was born Feb. 10, 1975, in Los Angeles.  Her parents, Ron and Brenda, divorced when she was 5. Her sister, Ava, was 8. The family was living in the Fresno area at the time. Amber Frey also has a half brother, Jason Frey, a 32-year-old San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy now serving as a captain with the Army Reserve in Baghdad.  Court records indicate that Amber lived with each parent as she was growing up.

She spent at least part of her elementary school years in Coarsegold. She spent her freshman and sophomore years at Sierra High School in eastern Fresno County and her junior year at Fresno's Hoover High School. She graduated from Clovis High School in 1993.

Ron Frey, a gregarious and talkative general contractor, said he was out of town a lot when Amber lived with him during her high school years. He had a friend -- a woman bodybuilder -- stay with his daughter while he was gone. That is when Amber developed an interest in bodybuilding, he said, and she has kept her interest in staying in shape.

"She's tough as nails," her father said.  He had Amber handling bricks and a wheelbarrow on his job sites as a girl. Now he tries to defend her by giving interviews to the media even though she would prefer he be quiet and not attract attention. "I'm the dad. What is she going to say?" he said.

Ron Frey collects reporters' and producers' phone numbers in spiral notebooks. Sometimes, they call him. Sometimes, he calls them, as he did in June when he wrote a letter to the editor praising his son and daughter and wanted some TV coverage. Appearances followed on MSNBC, CBS and ABC.

"I have a mission," Ron Frey said. "My mission is to get Amber through this without a scrambled mind."  He also confided: "I'm close enough people will believe anything I say one way or the other."

Key people in Amber Frey's life have had to decide what, if anything, to tell an obsessed media with an appetite for anyone connected to the Laci Peterson murder case.

Joshua Hart, a former boyfriend, said he has no hard feelings even though court records indicate a troubled end to their relationship.

A blunt man who once showed off his buff physique as a stripper, Hart met Frey in 1998 at George Brown's Fitness club. Hart and Frey eventually moved in together. He was married at the time and his wife, Michelle, said she was six or seven months pregnant.

Michelle Hart told her story to the National Enquirer, and the tabloid ran its article under the headline: "His mistress stole ANOTHER mom-to-be's hubby!"

Michelle Hart met with Frey, and the two women talked. Michelle Hart made negative comments about her husband, and Frey reportedly agreed. Michelle Hart told The Fresno Bee that Frey secretly tape-recorded their conversation and then played the tape for Joshua Hart, which he confirmed.

"It was part of her plot to keep him," Michelle Hart said. "Josh told me (about the tape) on the phone, and he replayed it." The Harts had other problems. In a letter in court files, he wrote to his wife: "I've tried my best, but I'm not what you need. I'm going to Vegas to strip (pray for me)."

Hart, 28, said he did not work in Las Vegas after all. Today he works in the motorsports industry in Southern California.  Hart and Frey dated for six months and lived together for four months in 1998, according to a police report connected with the couple's breakup.

Frey claimed that Hart grabbed her by the face, while Hart said Frey got upset and slapped him because he was going out with friends. He said he never assaulted her.

Nevertheless, he pleaded no contest to a battery charge -- saying he did so to avoid the risk of going to trial, being found guilty by a jury filled with battered women and getting a prison sentence. Instead, he attended a batterers treatment program for one year.

Hart said Frey leveled the "hideous" charges against him because he chose to return to his wife and newborn son. The Harts reconciled for a few months and then split up for good, divorcing in January 2000.

Hoffinger said he and Frey dated for three months in 1999 after being friends for several years. Through her father, Amber said Hoffinger was not a boyfriend. Hoffinger disputed this, and three of his friends say they did date.

Hoffinger had only good things to say about Frey. Romance ruined their friendship, Hoffinger said, though they are now speaking again.

His words paint Frey as an adventuresome woman who rode his personal watercraft at Millerton Lake -- sometimes sitting backward behind him, sometimes sitting on his handlebars.

He said she has eclectic tastes and interests. She fancied mellow reggae music but also the pulsing dance house sound. She sketched landscapes in pencil and decorated a small, upstairs apartment in the Tower District with her drawings. She shopped at thrift stores and favored hats and sunglasses that set her apart.

"People didn't understand her," Hoffinger said. "She was different, but different in a good way. She was more cultured. It was like she didn't belong in this town. She was more an earthy, hippie type."

In what he called conventional, staid Fresno, she liked ethnic restaurants and had no problem popping into a Fresno nightclub that was popular among gays. In quieter moments, she could cry easily over hurt feelings.

Some found her too quiet, not realizing that she was self-conscious about the braces she wore in her early 20s. Others judged the way she dressed, Hoffinger said: "She didn't fit the pattern of Fresno. People never understood her, and she just felt alone."

After their relationship ended, Frey became involved with a man who fathered their now 2-year-old daughter. His name is not listed on the child's birth certificate. Frey has never been married.

She worked at Crescent Jewelers. She worked at a child care center, after studying child development and graduating from Fresno City College in 1997. Then she turned to massage as a profession.

She completed 540 hours of training at Golden State College, a vocational school with campuses in Fresno and other valley cities. She passed a standard criminal background check done by Fresno police on massage therapists. She rented space at American Bodyworks, a therapeutic massage business where many of the clients are athletes or people suffering from injuries.

Damien Berg, who owns American Bodyworks, crossed paths with Frey at massage school. Berg called her a good person but can say little else because he signed a confidentiality pact, agreeing not to talk about her.

Berg said the agreement protects both him and Frey, and that he did not receive any money to sign the document.
"It made her more comfortable working here," he added. "I'm not going to spread lies and rumors or anything I don't know anything about."

The confidentiality agreement keeps him from saying whether Frey ever talked at work about Peterson.

The 38-year-old Hoffinger, who bleaches his hair a white blond and is fond of puka shell necklaces and Hawaiian prints, said he puts on events where Fresno's young professionals can meet and socialize.

One of those events was a Christmas formal, Dec. 14 at World Sports Cafe in northeast Fresno. Peterson and Frey attended, a month after meeting.

Frey wore a strapless, straight-cut red evening gown, while Peterson chose a dark suit, a white shirt and a shiny gray tie.  They appear to be a couple in a photo taken that night in front of a friend's Christmas tree. His arms are wrapped around her waist; her left hand resting on his forearm, the other hand clasped in his.

Frey enclosed a photo of them together in her 2002 Christmas cards, and her father still has one in his wallet.

Ron Frey said his daughter was quickly smitten and saw a future with Peterson: "This was the real deal in her mind." Peterson had the package. Athletic. Good looks. Dressed up nicely and liked to go clubbing. "He appeared to have the right stuff."

Amber Frey has said that Peterson told her he was single. He was living in a house on Covena Avenue in Modesto where his wife had decorated a nursery. Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant.

Scott Peterson told Frey that he would not be around for the holidays because he was going to Paris. Authorities believe he killed his wife in their home Dec. 23 or 24.

In late December, Frey began having questions about Peterson and she asked a private detective she knew to make some checks. The detective identified Peterson from news coverage of Laci Peterson's disappearance, which was reported Dec. 24.

Frey contacted Modesto police Dec. 30, and police did not immediately disclose her identity to a hungry media. Speculation soon began, however, about Peterson having a girlfriend who lived in the Fresno area. On Jan. 24, Fresno television reporter Sontaya Rose, then working for KGPE Channel 47, learned Frey's identity and hustled over to American Bodyworks with a camera crew.

Frey hid out there all day, refusing to go on camera for an interview. Modesto police whisked her away late in the afternoon. They took her to Modesto, where she had little time to freshen up before facing dozens of reporters and television cameras. As a result, she appeared with "messy, dirty-blond hair," according to a description in Vanity Fair magazine.

When Frey appeared before cameras in May to announce that she had hired attorney Allred, she sported light blond hair cascading to her shoulders and noticeable eye makeup. Cable television pundits suggested that her new look might compromise her credibility as a witness in the Peterson case.

Ron Frey maintained that his daughter had no makeover, and, in a convoluted explanation, said of the two images: "It wasn't that she was more blond (the second time). It's that she was more brown the first time."

In the months since word broke of her connection to Peterson, Frey has forged an unlikely bond with Betty Willis, 77, the mother of the pastor at Northpark Community Church, an Assemblies of God congregation. Willis' husband is a retired Assemblies' pastor.

The two women could not be more different. Frey, fodder for the tabloids, and Willis, the septuagenarian who did not marry until 30 because she was waiting for "the right man to come along." She adds with a knowing chuckle: "And we lived happily ever after."

She went to Frey at church and offered to be her friend.
After nearly 50 years of observing the human condition in congregations in California and Texas, Willis said: "I have great admiration for Amber. She is a wonderful person who may have made mistakes in the past that have nothing to do with this case."

Willis added: "It sounds strange for me to talk about her, but I just believed in her from the first. Sometimes you can't explain why, but you see the spirit or the essence of the person. You look beyond the eyes and see something deep down inside that is very worthwhile."

Other church members also have shown support. "We have no reason not to support her," Willis said. "She stands tall and straight, and she's bent on being a good mother. I see her talking about the child with the utmost love that a mother ought to have."

Frey's past relationships do not faze this grandmother who tries to remember human nature for what it is and not be too disappointed with anyone. She said she also remembers what the Bible says: "Let the person who has never done anything wrong cast the first stone."