Flowering love turns to deceit and death

Calif. city bound by grief after bodies wash ashore

April 21, 2003


MODESTO, Calif. -- For a time, the little green house with the pair of miniature palm trees and flowering brick planters seemed filled with promise. It is the place where Scott and Laci Peterson planned to start their family. Laci should have been a mother there, her son 2 months old.

This is where, on a warm spring day like Sunday, Laci might have been tending her prized garden with her new baby laying on a blanket beside her.

But betrayal and lies invaded the house. And when she disappeared on Christmas Eve, the home she had lovingly prepared for the birth of her son began to die with her.

Weeds have taken over the front beds. The edges of the lawn, once perfectly manicured, creep into the driveway.

The nautical-themed nursery is dark, the shades drawn. The gate to the courtyard is padlocked.

Police believe that Scott Peterson killed his wife, who was 8 months pregnant, weighed her down and dumped her into the turbid waters of the San Francisco Bay.

The remains of her body washed up at Point Isabel near Richmond last week, separated by storm-churned currents and waterlogged decomposition from the unborn baby she carried in her womb. The tide pulled his body to shore a mile away.

The bodies weren't identified until Friday. But police, fearing Scott Peterson might flee, had obtained an arrest warrant for him Thursday night and arrested him Friday, a few hours before the DNA results came back.

Detectives said Sunday that Peterson was carrying $10,000 when he was pulled over about 30 miles from the Mexican border.

Peterson may have been trying to flee to Mexico because the law there forbids the extradition of anyone facing the death penalty, Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said.

Prosecutors plan to charge Peterson with two counts of capital murder.

Idyllic beginning

Maybe it's the photos that make all of this so hard to believe.

They show Scott, 30, and Laci, 27, tanned and healthy, grinning cheek-to-cheek, toasting wine glasses, showing off a pregnant profile. But over the past several months, as authorities searched land and sea, a haunting story emerged that belied the couple's exuberant smiles.

It took nearly a month for Laci Peterson's family and the rest of the captivated nation to learn about her husband's affair. In the meantime, however, friends and family were at a loss to find chinks in the seemingly perfect marriage.

Scott and Laci met as students at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo and were married five years ago.

In 2001 they bought their first house in the quiet neighborhood of well-kept bungalows. And finally, after years of trying, they conceived their first child. It was a boy, the ultrasound showed. They would name him Connor.

Work began to turn a spare bedroom into a nursery. Scott spent weekends finely edging the lawns, improving the house and building a brick barbecue pit next to the pool they installed last summer.

Laci, a former high school cheerleader and ornamental horticulture major, kept her front planter boxes weeded and filled with azaleas and camellias. Geraniums bloomed full and bright pink in the terra cotta pots lining her courtyard -- a view she enjoyed from the sliding glass doors of her living room.

Laci stopped working as a substitute teacher in December to get ready for the mid-February birth. She watched "Martha Stewart Living" in the mornings and waved to her neighbors as she walked her golden retriever to the hilly, wooded park just a block away.

They seemed to have it all -- an upscale Range Rover in the driveway, a subscription to a wine of the month and a golf membership for Scott at the Del Rio Country Club.

As Scott told ABC interviewer Diane Sawyer in January, he bought Laci a Louis Vuitton wallet for Christmas and, a few months earlier, a small fishing boat for himself. Sturgeon were running in the bay, he was told, just outside the Berkeley marina.

An affair emerges

The Petersons were the kind of charming young couple that inspired neighbors to peek out their windows and watch them walk past, hand-in-hand, on evening strolls. Neither arguments nor raised voices were ever heard coming from their home.

"They matched each other," said Amie Krigbaum, 28, who lives across the street. "But you never know what happens behind closed doors."

In fact, Scott, a fertilizer salesman who often traveled on business, was having an affair. It started in November, when his wife was 7 months pregnant. He told massage therapist Amber Frey from Fresno that he was single.

If and when he told his wife about the affair is uncertain.

He said he told her, but her family can't imagine Laci keeping such traumatic news to herself. Police believe Scott killed his wife sometime after she called her mother the evening of Dec. 23 to finalize plans for Christmas Eve dinner at her mother's house nearby.

Scott insists he's innocent. He told reporters that he said good-bye to his wife Christmas Eve morning to go sturgeon fishing. She planned to take the dog for a walk.

Krigbaum was preparing her own Christmas Eve dinner later that evening when Scott knocked on her door. "Have you seen Laci?" he asked. He was teary-eyed and, to Krigbaum, appeared distraught.

She had assumed the Petersons were out of town. She noticed the shades were drawn at the house and Laci made a point of opening them each morning.

The search for Laci Peterson began immediately and continued for nearly four months. Her family appealed for help. A $500,000 reward was established.

The national media moved into town and Scott moved out of the house, putting new locks on the gates, closing the shutters and leaning his queen-size mattress and box springs high against the sliding glass doors to keep trespassers from peering in.

He sold his wife's Land Rover and bought himself a new Dodge pickup. He talked to real estate agents about selling the house and was seen from time to time golfing at the country club.

Scott avoided the news media for weeks, his family explaining that he was so distraught he would be embarrassed to break down during an interview. Only after his affair became public in mid-January did he finally speak to the major TV networks about his marriage.

"I mean, the first word that comes to mind is, you know, glorious. I mean, we took care of each other very well," he said. "She was amazing. She is amazing."

Home is a magnet

The bodies of mother and child must have remained together for months at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, the nearly full-term baby locked tightly in his mother's womb.

But waves whipped up by 30-m.p.h. winds roughed up the shallow bay, likely freeing Laci and the unborn baby from what held them down and bound them together. When the tide came in, their bodies washed ashore not far from the Berkeley marina. People out walking along the beachfront path discovered the bodies -- the baby last Sunday, the mother on Monday.

Scott was locked up at the Modesto jail Saturday, not far from his parents' San Diego home.

At their Covena Avenue home, the nursery door remains closed. Laci's camellias and azaleas bloomed without her, but their spent blossoms are rotting on the grass. Behind the locked courtyard gate, the grass tops 6 inches and the potted geraniums are scraggly. Someone in a yellow pickup appears each week to mow the front lawn, but it is cut so short, yellow patches show through. On the bottom of the new pool, algae has begun to grow.

Nonetheless, the neglected property has become a magnet.

As it did on Christmas Eve and now during the Easter weekend -- two Christian holidays signifying the innocence of birth and the promise of life after death -- the Modesto community is bound by grief.

In their own form of pilgrimage, people carrying Easter lilies, handmade cards and candles come to pay homage in the only way they knew how, to two lives cut short by killing. The overgrown brick planters are an altar now, the twin palm trees a shrine. And as the sky grows dark on the little house, the candles cast the faintest of glows.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.