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Jewelry plays mysterious role in Peterson murder case

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

• Court TV:  Case coverageexternal link

REDWOOD CITY, California (Court TV) -- Did $100,000 in diamonds, sapphires and other gems play a role in Laci Peterson's murder?

Witnesses at her husband's capital trial suggested Thursday that, before she vanished, both Laci and her husband, Scott, were preoccupied with jewelry -- not just the valuable baubles she had inherited from her grandmother, but also cheaper accessories they were pawning for quick cash.

Prosecutors, who called the witnesses, have not said how the jewelry fits into their theory that Scott Peterson killed his wife December 23, 2002. And the testimony from two jewelers, a pair of pawn brokers and the victim's aunt seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

Laci Peterson's aunt, Robin Rocha, testified that her niece received a stash of pricey watches, rings, necklaces and other items in November 2002 as part of the settlement of her grandmother's estate.

Two jewelers, MaryAnne Felix and Jeff Schumacher, said they appraised the inheritance at their Modesto store for "in excess of $100,000." Felix said Laci Peterson told her that her husband wanted to know how much the pieces were worth.

"She said he would be very happy," Felix recalled.

The jewelers told jurors that the pregnant 27-year-old commissioned them to incorporate two of her grandmother's rings into her own wedding ring. The result, the jewelers said, was to be a diamond confection worth $55,000. The 2.5-carat center stone itself was valued at $30,000.

But in December 2002, at the same time she was meeting with the jewelers about the extravagant ring, Laci Peterson also made two visits to a pawn shop where she hocked gold chains, charms and other rings for $250. Scott Peterson accompanied her on the second of those December sales, and the pawn shop owner's wife testified that, while Peterson was affectionate toward his wife, rubbing her belly, she appeared uncomfortable.

"She was hesitant toward him," Victoria Brooks recalled.

Brooks said Laci Peterson told her that she was cleaning out her jewelry box and wanted to get rid of items she received from her grandmother. But Robin Rocha said that, when she inspected her niece's jewelry at the request of the police, she found only two pieces missing: a fancy gem-encrusted watch and a 2-carat pair of diamond earrings.

The trips to the pawn shop are even more mysterious in light of their timing. Laci Peterson made the first trip to Brooks Pawn in Modesto on December 10, when she handed over a gold chain for $140. The day before, her husband had plunked down $1,400 in cash for an aluminum fishing boat prosecutors believe he later used to dispose of her body.

Her second trip to the pawn shop, this time with her husband, occurred four days later on another date highly significant to the prosecutors' case. On December 14 (timeline), the Petersons were scheduled to attend a Christmas party together, but according to witnesses, Scott Peterson told his wife he had to meet a business colleague.

Instead, he took his mistress, Amber Frey, to a Christmas formal and, according to prosecutors, told her that he wanted a future with her and that he planned to get a vasectomy.

That day, the Petersons gave Brooks and her husband, David, more chains, some charms and some rings. In return, the Petersons got $110. It is unclear why the couple was selling the jewelry in a pawn shop instead of a venue where they were likely to get more money.

Peterson, 31, earned about $60,000 a year as a fertilizer salesman. His wife was a substitute teacher until late in her pregnancy.

'She always wore it'

When Laci Peterson was reported missing, police found several pieces of jewelry laid out on a bureau in the couple's bedroom as if she had removed them for the night. Arranged neatly between her jewelry box and a wedding photo of the couple were the sapphire ring she was wearing while her wedding ring was redesigned, a diamond pendant necklace, and a diamond and gold watch. All were bequests from her grandmother.

Felix said that, on the dozen or so times Laci Peterson visited her store, she was always wearing the pendant.

"Every day. She always wore it," said the jeweler.

When the jeweler recommended she have it cleaned, she refused, saying she didn't like to take it off, Felix said.

The defense contends Laci Peterson was abducted, likely while walking her dog in a nearby park the morning of Christmas Eve, but prosecutors seemed to be hinting that she would never leave the house without her watch and jewelry.

As prosecutor Dave Harris flashed photos of the jewelry onto a large projection screen, most jurors scrawled in their notebooks. At the defense table, Peterson appeared to be following the testimony closely, whispering to his lawyers and jotting down notes.

His lawyer, Mark Geragos, noted that, after Peterson's wife went missing, he never called the jewelry store asking about the diamonds they were holding. Schumacher, the jeweler, said he phoned investigators and the jewelry was later turned over to Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha.

"The only people who contacted you about getting the jewelry were the police and Mrs. Rocha?" Geragos asked.

"Yes," Schumacher said.

As the jeweler recalled giving the jewelry to Rocha, she looked on from the front row, nodding.

The baby's progress

Also testifying Thursday was one of the three obstetricians Laci Peterson saw during the course of her pregnancy. Dr. Tina Etraki said she and the baby were healthy when she came into the office in August 2002. She also recalled a November phone conversation in which Laci Peterson said she became dizzy and nauseous while taking a morning walk.

"My recommendation was either to not exercise because she was having symptoms or to exercise later in the day," said Etraki. Prosecutors have implied Laci Peterson was too weak in her eighth month of pregnancy to walk the family dog.

But on cross-examination, Etraki acknowledged that Peterson, known to be headstrong, did not follow her recommendation. Records indicate she phoned two days after the initial call and told a nurse practitioner that she experienced shortness of breath while walking.

"She didn't listen to your don't walk advice," Geragos asked. "Right," the doctor said. Etraki also said that the most accurate ultrasound one performed in July indicated a due date of Feb. 10, 2003. Laci Peterson was nearly 33 weeks pregnant when she disappeared, she said.

The age of the couple's unborn son is in dispute. The defense claims his remains are those of a full-term baby born alive. Testimony in the trial resumes Monday. The proceeding, now in its third week, is expected to last about six months.

Peterson faces the death penalty if convicted of both counts of murder.

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