Cops' big secret in Laci's death
Sonar experts located body in Bay in March


By William Brand, STAFF WRITER
Oakland Tribune

POINT ISABEL -- Weeks before the remains of Modesto's Laci Peterson and her unborn son Connor washed up on the Richmond shoreline, investigators say they had found her watery grave through side-scan sonar that penetrated the inky darkness inside a Chevron shipping channel.  

But before they could retrieve the bodies, they believe a heavily laden tanker passed over or near the burial spot, churning up the channel's bottom and dislodging the sunken corpses.

The wind, choppy waves and high incoming tides influenced by the full moon -- as well as gases from the deteriorating remains -- combined to eventually bring the bodies to shore.

Sources said the original grave site was miles away from where the only suspect in the case, Laci's husband Scott Peterson, told police he had gone fishing Christmas Eve. That was the day Laci, eight months pregnant, was reported missing, triggering a search that received national attention.

Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden confirmed investigators believe they found the body as early as mid-March, but could not retrieve it. "The waves came up and we couldn't go down. I can't tell you the frustration we felt," Wasden said.

No one who participated in the search said a word to reporters waiting on shore the day the sonar detected Laci's body. "We thought if the suspect knew we had found her, he might flee," one law enforcement source said.

But with Scott Peterson now in jail on charges of killing Laci and Connor, those close to the investigation confirmed the detection of Laci's body weeks before it washed ashore April 14.

Sources say the remains, possibly wrapped in some sort of plastic and held down by heavy material, were found by side-scan sonar deep in a shipping channel of San Francisco Bay, about 4 miles off Brooks Island.

That's the spot of land just south of the Richmond shoreline where Peterson, 30, told police he spent the morning of Christmas Eve fishing for sturgeon.

The Bay around the island is extremely shallow -- a marine chart shows low-tide depths of less than 3 feet -- not the kind of place to find sturgeon or dump a body.

The only deep water in the vicinity is to the west, in a shipping channel that is regularly dredged to allow ocean-going vessels into port.

Strollers found Laci's unborn baby, Connor, in a tidal pond about 250 yards east of the last house in Richmond's Marina Bay on the afternoon of April 13.

Laci's partial remains -- her torso and a leg -- were discovered the next day, less than a mile across the Richmond inner harbor, lodged in concrete rip rap at Point Isabel, the popular East Bay Regional Park District dog-walking park.

A state lab in Richmond identified Laci and Connor by DNA analysis April 18.

"When those remains washed up, it confirmed everybody's suspicions," one source said. "We know where she was put, and it wasn't in that shallow area around Brooks Island," the source said .

"But when we got back out there, she was gone."

Shipping channel theory

A veteran San Francisco Bar Pilot captain, not connected to the case, said last week that the shipping channel theory sounds plausible.

Although most people may not realize it, much of the deep water in the Bay is in the shipping channels, which are dredged, said Capt. Blake Coney -- one of more than 60 expert pilots who guide ships in and out of the Bay by navigating treacherous, shifting shoals of sand.

Large tankers carrying heavy crude oil headed for the big Chevron Refinery in Richmond often have barely 2 feet of water under their keels at low tide, Coney said. The channel is dredged to about 43 feet deep, but those heavily laden tankers draw nearly that much water, he said.

A ship's screws could churn things up, Coney said.

'Like a movie plot'

"This sounds like a movie plot, and it's creepy," he said.

Coney noted that marine charts show low-tide soundings throughout the Bay. They mostly indicate depths of less than 10 feet everywhere except in the dredged channels.

Of course, the water is deeper when the tide flows into the Bay and the low-tide numbers are "mean numbers" -- the depth midway between the lowest recorded low tide and the highest low tide.

The nearest deep water from Brooks Island or from the Berkeley Marina, where Peterson said he launched his small boat, is Southampton Shoal Channel. It's the route that tankers going to Chevron take.

Outbound tankers take a wider route, more than a mile further west.

Coney added that even if Laci's killer intended to dump her in the shipping channel, then it would be easy to make a mistake.

"The sides are toed in (sloping)," he said. "But it would be very easy to miss the deepest part of the channel, get (the body) in 6 feet rather than 30 feet of water."

That's why ships entering and leaving the Bay must employ a San Francisco Bar Pilot, he said. Smiling, he recalled how the U.S. Navy supercarrier USS. Enterprise once ran aground off the Alameda Naval Air Station because its captain ignored advice from a bar pilot.

Meanwhile, Modesto Police Chief Wasden said investigators intend to follow up leads to the rest of the remains.

At a news conference last week, when he announced results of the DNA tests and the arrest of Scott Peterson near San Diego, Wasden credited volunteers, divers, search-and-rescue experts, and sonar experts who painstakingly probed the bottom of the Bay from the Berkeley Marina north to Brooks Island, then west to the shipping channel.

Among others, he mentioned Gene Ralston, a Boise, Idaho, side-scan sonar expert who helped Modesto detectives search the bottom of the Bay.

Ralston would not comment last week about the initial discovery of Laci's body.

Submerged bodies

But Ralston, who has donated his services, said he's hopeful a new search would yield the rest of the young woman's remains. He noted his sonar is very sophisticated and he has helped find submerged bodies many times.

Another member of his firm has been participating in a search of lakes and reservoirs in Texas, looking for parts of the space shuttle Columbia.

"This sonar is the best way to see stuff underwater," Ralston said. "In San Francisco Bay, because of all the silt, you've got zero visibility on the bottom.

"At the range we're looking at, I've seen things as small as a half-gallon can, a small coffee can. The bottom varies; there are some rocky areas and lots of smooth, mud bottom. Some places the floor is reticulated -- like the surface of the moon -- there are little pockmarks."

Ralston said he's prepared to help again. "We're optimistic we'll be able to find the rest," he said. "I only hope we can get there before the killer hires someone to go out. You know, money talks."

Investigators would not comment.

Those who know a lot about angling question Peterson's story about fishing around Brooks Island.

"I don't believe I would have tried fishing around there," said Gary Freedman, who works at the Berkeley Marina Sports Center, a supplier for fishermen.

"The day was windy and cold, and mostly sturgeon like deep water," he said. "I don't think my choice would have been to fish that day and if I did, I would have been more inclined to launch my small boat at Antioch or Pittsburg -- closer to where the fish are."

Back at the spot where the Bay gave up Laci Peterson, bedraggled flowers and rain-soaked teddy bears mark a make-shift shrine.

People still come, add a flower, or a note, and stand for a moment, staring silently at the windswept Bay.

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