Karen Servas – The Real Story
by Jane Hamilton
Karen Servas lived on Covena Avenue, directly to the south of the house where Laci and Scott Peterson lived. On December 24, 2002, as she backed out of her driveway on her way to do errands, she found the Peterson’s dog, McKenzie, standing in the street with his leash attached. She parked her car and took hold of the dog’s leash, walked across Peterson’s front yard to the north gate, put McKenzie back inside the yard, and closed the gate which had been ajar. She went back to her house to wash her hands, and then got in her car and continued on her way to do her errands. This could have been a very ordinary event in the neighborhood, except that this happened to be the morning that Laci Peterson disappeared.
What Karen Servas did, and when she did it became crucial information in this case. Her timeline became a major factor in the conviction of Scott Peterson. Her story, however, is based on invalid or unverified time sources. There is nothing to support her claim that she found McKenzie on December 24 at 10:18 a.m.
When Karen Servas was first interviewed by Detective Jon Buehler on December 25, 2002 around 11:30 a.m., she said she found McKenzie at approximately 10:30 a.m. on December 24.
Jon Buehler: She gave me an estimate time as I believe about 10:30 that morning.
David Harris: You say she gave you an estimate time. Did she -- was she telling you she was looking at her watch, or something had just happened?
Jon Buehler: I don't remember her saying that she was looking at her watch. But she was recalling from the shopping that she did the day prior about what time it was. And her estimate was approximately 10:30.
We learn from Buehler that Detective Allen Brocchini had been the first to interview Karen Servas on the night of December 24, but we do not know what she told him because he destroyed all notes that he took before December 25th or 26th.
Jon Buehler: No, actually, my interview with Karen Servas was the second one. Brocchini had talked to her the night before, the evening before on the 24th.
BROCCHINI: I took some notes, but, yeah, I didn't take a lot of notes.
GERAGOS: Okay. By the way, where are those notes?
BROCCHINI: They're destroyed.
GERAGOS: When did you destroy those notes?
BROCCHINI: On December 25th, or 6th.
Karen Servas changed her story. On December 28, as she was doing her laundry, she found a receipt in the pocket of her pants from a purchase she had made at a seasonal Christmas store, Austin’s, on December 24. A letter dated January 3, 2002(3), was written by Karen Servas to Detective Jon Buehler, relating the discovery of this receipt (People’s Exhibit 30).
Enclosed is my receipt from Austins on 12/24/02.
After I found the Peterson’s dog and put it back in their yard, I went in briefly to wash my hands at my house. I then went to Bank of America, couldn’t find a parking spot; then drove to Austin’s.
I have retraced my trip; timed it from the time I found the dog to parking at Austin’s. I approximated the time it took was about 11 minutes. I was in Austin’s for five minutes before I made my purchase. I went to the second cash register furthest away from the front door.
So I estimate I found the dog at 10:18 a.m., based on the receipt and working the timing backwards.
If you need any more info, please call me at 480-1744.
On the basis of this receipt, Karen Servas reconstructed her timeline and arrived at the conclusion that she found McKenzie in the street on December 24 at 10:18 a.m.
This is a description of that receipt (People’s Exhibit 28):
DISTASO: Okay. What time was it that it shows you made a purchase at Austin's Christmas Store?
SERVAS: It says 10:34 am.
DISTASO: Ms. Servas, this is so faint that I don't think that it's going to show up on the document camera, so can you just read where it's from and the date and the time.
SERVAS: It says Austin's Christmas Store, 12/24/2003, 10:34 a.m., Clerk No. 1.
DISTASO: Let me see the date, I think you said 2003.
SERVAS: I said, oh, no, I said, did I say 2003?
DISTASO: That's what I heard.
SERVAS: 2002. 12/24/2002.
The time on the receipt is barely visible. In fact, Detective Buehler wrote the time in ink on the receipt because the print was so faded. Given these circumstances, what did he do to verify that the time source was accurate? Virtually nothing. He received the information about this receipt early in January of 2003 and did not go to Austin’s to check the time source until September of 2003.
Buehler accepted the word of the store owner that the time was accurate. He did nothing to check the register and did not interview the person responsible for setting the time on that register. This first excerpt comes from his preliminary trial hearing testimony on November 18, 2003, and the second from his trial testimony.
Q. As part of that, did you receive a receipt from Austin's from a Karen Servas?
Q. And as part of that, did you conduct follow-up as to the time on that particular receipt?
Q. Can you tell the Court what you did?
A. Karen Servas gave me a receipt for a purchase she had made at Austin's Christmas Store on December 24th. And I took that receipt back to Austin's in September of this year to confirm that the time on that receipt was accurate. I spoke to Bill Austin, the owner of the business. He looked at the receipt and confirmed for me that there's only one computerized cash register in the store that they use for Christmas transactions, and he was able to confirm that that receipt came from that cash register. He was able to tell me that they set up the time on that cash register by calling time on the telephone to program it in, so that that's how they assure accuracy with what they have.
Mark Geragos: When -- Bill Austin is the owner of the place; is that right?
Jon Buehler: I believe he is.
Mark Geragos: Are you aware that he's testified that he's not the one -- he's testified here that he's not the person who set the timer, that Jerry Jensen is?
Jon Buehler: No, I understand he didn't set it.
Mark Geragos: Okay. And have you ever gone back to talk to Jerry Jensen, the gentleman who apparently, according to Mr. Austin, does set the time?
Jon Buehler: No, I did not know that there was a Jerry Jensen.
What did the store owner, William Austin, say in his testimony about the accuracy of the time source? He said that he checked it to see if the time was accurate. When did he do that? How often did he check the time during the season? How did he verify that the time was correct? None of these questions was asked or answered, and yet the prosecution accepted Austin’s word. Geragos pointed out that Austin did not set the computer, and Jared Jensen who did set the time was never interviewed by the police.
AUSTIN: Yeah. We program the register at the start of the season. It's part of the programming procedure. Date and time has to be accurate.
HARRIS: How is that done?
AUSTIN: The young gentleman that sets them up goes to the phone line, picks up the time off the phone and coordinates that with the register.
GERAGOS: Be an objection. Hearsay. Motion to strike.
JUDGE: I think he's talking about his custom and practice. So, overruled.
HARRIS: From your personal experience, do you confirm at some point in time that they're using it or checking it later that the time is accurate?
HARRIS: And from looking at that receipt, was that an accurate time on that receipt?
AUSTIN: Yes, sir.
GERAGOS: The computerized cash register would have been attended to by Mr. Jensen?
GERAGOS: And he's the one who would have set up that cash register back in 2002; is that correct?
AUSTIN: That's correct.
GERAGOS: Okay. You did not set it up?
AUSTIN: No, I did not.
On January 14, 2004, Mark Geragos sent his investigator, Carl Jensen, to Austin’s store. William Austin, in his testimony, grudgingly admitted that he ran 2 receipts for the defense investigator on the same day. These receipts, according to Geragos, were run within 10 minutes of each other on that day. The time and date on the receipts indicates that they were run 49 minutes apart and on 2 different days. This raises serious questions about the accuracy of this computer register and invalidates it as a credible time source.
GERAGOS: Defense H?
GERAGOS: Now, these two receipts, you see the one says 1:35 and the other says 2:26? Do you see that?
AUSTIN: Yes, sir.
GERAGOS: Okay. Isn't it true that those two, even though they show approximately being 50 minutes apart, or 49 minutes apart, were actually run up just ten minutes apart?
AUSTIN: I have no recollection of how far apart those were rung up.
GERAGOS: And apparently it wasn't accurate in 2004, was it?
AUSTIN: I don't know why it wouldn't be.
GERAGOS: Well, because if it was ten minutes apart and it shows different dates and different times, that would be a pretty good indication that that wasn't accurate, wouldn't it?
GERAGOS: You ran the receipts for him on one occasion; is that correct?
AUSTIN: That's what I recall.
GERAGOS: Right. Same day?
AUSTIN: As far as I can recall, yes.
Karen Servas used 2 additional time sources to back up her new story. However, neither one of these sources confirms her story.
First, she provides the MPD with her phone records for the month of December (Prosecution Exhibit 29). This includes the record of a call she made on the morning of December 24 at 10:37 a.m. In her revised story, she claims that she made this call after the 10:34 purchase at Austin’s. We know that the Austin’s time does not verify her story, and neither does the time of this phone call. No follow-up was done by MPD to determine where she was when she placed this phone call. Cell phone tower records, which could have given general information about her location, were not checked. No witnesses were called to confirm her account of where she was when she made this call.
Mark Geragos: Her cell phone statement which she had --
Jon Buehler: I don't know if she had it with her at that time. I don't know if she didn't have it when I met her before. She had the same, clarified call number 108, which she made at 10:37 a.m.
Mark Geragos: Did you at that point attempt to get her cell phone sites so you could determine where she was when that call was made?
Jon Buehler: No, I didn't see a reason to do that.
Mark Geragos: You didn't?
Jon Buehler: No.
Mark Geragos: Okay. Did you get any cell phone sites in connection with what you were doing?
Jon Buehler: No, not with Karen Servas.
Second, she says she went to Bank of America and made a deposit on the morning of the 24th after she had been to Austin’s. However, no deposit slip or bank statement verifying a transaction at Bank of America on the morning of December 24 was ever entered into evidence by the prosecution. Even if such a document existed, and it appears it does not, it would not prove anything about when she left home, when she found the dog, and where she went first on her round of errands. There is nothing to confirm this transaction, and Karen Servas’ word is not good enough when a man’s life is on the line.
Mark Geragos: Now, she called you up sometime during this trial, about June 18th, is that correct?
Kevin Bertalotto: I'm set. Go ahead.
Mark Geragos: Okay. And she told you that she went and got her ATM record from Bank of America?
Kevin Bertalotto: Yes, she told me she made several requests for ATM transactions from the Bank of America and she just received it in her mail.
Mark Geragos: Okay. And she told you that the ATM transactions showed that she completed it at 10:53 on 12/24, correct?
Kevin Bertalotto: Yes, that's what she told me.
Mark Geragos: Did you ever receive that from her?
Kevin Bertalotto: I didn't receive it. I told her to hold on to it, it may be required later.
Mark Geragos: Okay. Now, specifically did you ask her what location, what Bank of America it was from?
Kevin Bertalotto: No.
Mark Geragos: Did you do anything, did anybody that you were aware of do anything to follow-up on that transaction?
Kevin Bertalotto: I know later I believe it was collected.
Mark Geragos: Are you sure about that?
Kevin Bertalotto: Or a copy of it was taken. Maybe, maybe not the original, maybe the copy.
Mark Geragos: Do you have that?
Kevin Bertalotto: I don't have it, and I'm not the one that collected it. And I, I do believe that she told one of the initial interviewers of her what Bank of America she went to, but I'm not aware where that bank is.
* * *
Rick Distaso: The, regarding the, when she called you about the ATM bank records that, when she went to the bank at 10:53, she was calling to tell you that those records, I mean that those records confirmed her testimony here in this trial, correct?
Mark Geragos: Where is that in the report?
Kevin Bertalotto: I don't know if she's,
Mark Geragos: There's an objection. Assumes facts not in evidence. It's certainly not in the police report.
Judge Delucchi: Well, this, this is cross. I'm going to let him ask the question. If he knows the answer. Overruled.
Rick Distaso: Well, let me ask you this, let me just phrase it this way I'll withdraw that question, Judge.
Judge Delucchi: Well, I already ruled on it, so you don't have to.
Rick Distaso: All right. I'll withdraw it anyway and start over.
However, Prosecutor Distaso improperly argues this in his closing. No one has testified to the truth of this information, and there is no documentation to verify it.
Distaso: …….If you remember at the end of the trial the defense asked Investigator Bertalotto about that additional record that she just got, which was at 10:53, completely supporting exactly everything that she said. ……
1. Karen Servas’ timeline, although tenuous at best, was used by the Modesto Police Department to excuse its failure to investigate the Medina burglary even though there were more credible sources to suggest that the burglary and Laci’s disappearance were directly related.
On the morning of December 24, Susan Medina and her husband were getting ready to leave home to visit their children. A city inspector had been to their house that morning and around the time he left, Mr. Medina made a phone call at 9:32 a.m. During the next hour or so, Rudy and Susan Medina were busy packing for their Christmas trip to Los Angeles.
21 Q. And did you close up the house and -- and leave
22 for LA at that point in time?
23 A. Not yet. We still continued to -- we took a
24 shower, and he loaded the car with the groceries and meat
25 and things we were bringing for the kids. And, you know,
26 the vacuum cleaners and all that kind of things.
1 And then went inside one more in the house, my
2 husband, you know, just make sure that -- that our -- that
3 we have brought what we need to bring, and then left.
* * *
HARRIS: And as you start to leave for LA, so you were in your car and you are starting to drive. Do you call your children to tell them that you're leaving at that time?
MEDINA: Not when we back off from our driveway. It's when we made, after we made the stop on Encina to make a right turn, that's when I started to dial his number. And that's the 10:33 a.m. call to my son.
HARRIS: Let me go back through this. I'll show it up here on the chart to make sure we're all talking about the same thing. Now, this has been identified as your house here.
HARRIS: So you say that you come out and you come to the stop sign on,
MEDINA: On Encina
HARRIS: on Encina, right here?
HARRIS: And as you start to make this turn, that's when you call your son?
HARRIS: And that's what you're saying is the 10:33?
During the time that Karen Servas says she found McKenzie, the Medinas were packing their car, going back and forth inside and outside, getting ready to leave on a trip to visit their children. Surely, if she found McKenzie at the time she said she did, the Medinas would have noticed the activity in the street, and she would have seen them. Their driveways are almost directly across the street from each other. Karen Servas found McKenzie in the street right in front of Medina’s house. She walked across her yard and Peterson’s yard and back again as she returned McKenzie to his yard, but she said that she did not see the Medinas that day, and they did not see her.
Karen Servas’ original time estimate for finding McKenzie at approximately 10:30 is certainly more probable. It is reasonable to believe that she found McKenzie after the Medinas left home at 10:32, after she made a phone call to Tom Eakin at 10:37, and after Sage and McKenzie stopped barking around 10:40 (testimony of Amie Krigbaum). It is also reasonable to believe that the burglary at Medina’s started shortly after the Medinas left home on December 24, and that the disappearance of Laci Peterson is directly related to that burglary. Diane Jackson reported seeing three men with a van and a safe in the front yard at Medina’s at 11:40 a.m. on December 24, 2002 (Testimony of Craig Grogan).
2. The Modesto Police Department also used this faulty timeline after the fact to cover up its failure to investigate the numerous credible sightings of Laci Peterson walking her dog in the Covena neighborhood on the morning of December 24 (People’s Exhibit 267).
GROGAN: Well, I can't say that the sightings were automatically a priority for us at that time in the investigation, but the intention always was to try to contact any of those folks around there, yes.
GERAGOS: Now, when you say that you can't say that the sightings were, what was the term you used?
GROGAN: A priority.
GERAGOS: A priority. And you did apply for search warrants repeatedly in this case, correct?
GERAGOS: In every single one of those search warrant affidavits, which are declared under penalty of perjury, there was a section that says there are no verifiable sightings of her on December 24th, correct?
GROGAN: Something to that effect.
GERAGOS: Okay. That it's a, I don't want to call it boilerplate, but it's a, it's a kind of a cut and paste on your word processor that goes from search warrant to search warrant to let the judge know, you're supposed to give the judge all the pertinent information in an affidavit for a search warrant, correct?
GERAGOS: And one of the things that's contained throughout virtually all of the search warrants is that there's no verifiable sightings of Laci Peterson, correct?
GROGAN: That’s correct.
* * *
FLADAGER: All right. Detective Grogan, I'd like to take you back to December 24th one more time. The sightings of Laci Peterson on December 24th that are indicated on that particular diagram, which is People's Exhibit 267, you indicated earlier that you had ruled out essentially in your mind ruled out those as being viable of Laci's sightings, correct?
GROGAN: That's correct.
FLADAGER: Now is there a time frame that was available for Laci Peterson to be out walking, according to the defendant's statements and physical evidence and phone records on December 24th?
FLADAGER: What was that time frame?
GROGAN: From approximately 10:08 to 10:18.
FLADAGER: And on either end of those time frames prior to 10:08 subsequent to 10:18 are there factors that would indicate she could not have been out walking?
GROGAN On these sightings in particular?
FLADAGER: No, just in general.
GROGAN: In general. Well, there is the information that we had from her medical records that said that she was supposed to walk later in the day, that she had been getting nauseous, and then those reports to the doctor stopped, so you can read maybe something into that. The fact that cuts down some on the time line is she is, she's supposed to be in the house in a pair of black pants and a white shirt and mopping the floor when he leaves at 10:08, and so for in order for her to, to go for a walk, she would need to, based on the defendant's statement and the clothing, she would have to change her clothes, put on her shoes and socks, put the leash on the dog and then leave the house.
FLADAGER: And at 10:18 end of time period, the end of that time frame what, what caused that 10:18 time frame?
GROGAN: That's when Karen Servas finds McKenzie with his leash attached in the street one house south of 523 Covena Avenue.
3. Judge Delucchi, when presented with credible information about the involvement of the Medina burglars in Laci’s abduction, used Karen Servas’ imaginary timeline as his rationale for denying the Defense Motion for a New Trial.
………………………What we've here is this conversation of, of this inmate, I'm not going to identify who it is, that somebody told him, and they believed this Todd had told him, that he had confronted, or Laci Peterson had confronted these burglars during the course of this burglary that took place at the Medina residence. The court's not too impressed by that evidence. I don't think it has much credibility or value to it. And the reason being is that there is evidence in this trial that the dog, McKenzie, was recovered at 10:14 or 10:18, I don't remember exactly what happened, and the Medinas didn't leave until after 10:30 in the morning. So the burglary must have occurred after the Medinas left their residence, and by that time Laci Peterson, under one interpretation of the evidence, was already missing……………..
The damage caused by
Karen Servas’ reconstructed timeline can not be
overstated. Scott Peterson has been convicted and
sentenced to death by a story that has no basis in fact.
Karen Servas did not find Laci’s dog, McKenzie, on
December 24, 2002 at 10:18 a.m. There is nothing at all
that confirms her timeline. The Austin’s receipt is
invalid, there is no verification of her location when
she was making the 10:37 phone call, and the bank
deposit information, even if it exists, would not prove
when she left home and when she found McKenzie.
The Modesto Police Department and Judge Delucchi have capitalized on this false information and have used it to excuse a terrible injustice, the wrongful conviction of Scott Peterson.