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Laci Peterson: What Really Happened?

Aired April 19, 2003 - 20:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: Laci Peterson's body identified, Scott Peterson arrested. From the picture of happiness to charges of murder, what really happened? The legal battle ahead. Is the DNA evidence reliable? Will the prosecution seek the death penalty and can Scott Peterson get a fair trial? A daughter and grandson dead, a son in law in jail, a family's nightmare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We ask for your understanding during this difficult time and respect our need for this privacy. Please do not call any of our family members at their homes or on their cell phones.


ANNOUNCER: How is Laci's family coping? This half hour, live from the headlines, Laci Peterson, what really happened?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: That of course the question indeed, what really happened, a question many Americans were asking today to the couple's relationship, what happened, what happened to Laci, to her unborn child, what really happened to Scott Peterson when he got in that boat on Christmas Eve? In the next half hour, we'll be looking into those questions. We can't promise answers, just the facts, as we know them. For an overview, here's CNN's David Mattingly.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She was reported missing from her Modesto, California home on Christmas Eve. Laci Peterson, the pretty 27-year-old mother to be vanished without a trace. Husband Scott Peterson claimed he had gone fishing alone as Laci prepared to take the couple's dog for a walk in a nearby park. Nearly eight months pregnant at the time, the search for Laci attracted thousands of volunteers but public suspicion soon centered almost entirely on Scott. There were reports the couple had taken out life insurance policies. Modesto police searched his truck, boat, house and business. While not officially named a suspect, police refused to rule him out. Weeks later, a very public rift emerged between Scott and his in laws. Laci's family called on him to tell police all he knows.

BRENT ROCHA, LACI PETERSON'S RELATIVE: Scott has not been forthcoming with information regarding my sister's disappearance and I'm only left to question what else he may be hiding. MATTINGLY: Then one day short of a month after Laci's disappearance, police ended days of speculation and produced Amber Frey, a single mother who was romantically involved with Scott unaware he was married.

AMBER FREY, ACKNOWLEDGED DATING SCOTT PETERSON: When I discovered in the Laci Peterson disappearance case, I immediately connected the Modesto Police Department.

MATTINGLY: The revelation was a bombshell, but not a break in the case.

SCOTT PETERSON: I had nothing to do with Laci's disappearance.

MATTINGLY: Scott Peterson then went on local television, at times apologetic and emotional, saying he told his wife he was having an affair and that they were working through their problems. He also said he had cut his hand and that his blood could be found inside his truck. The police still refused to name as a suspect.

With Laci's due date approaching in February, vigils were held to keep the case in the public's eye. In all, police would receive thousands of tips but not one of them able to provide any solid clues.

Then last Sunday and Monday the separate discoveries of the remains of a woman and unborn baby just miles from where Scott Peterson went fishing set into motion a rapid turn of events. Friday in San Diego police arrested Scott Peterson. That evening a positive ID is made. DNA reveals the bodies are those of Laci Peterson and her baby boy.

BILL LOCKYER, CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: There is no question in our minds that the unidentified female is Laci Peterson. The unidentified fetus is the biological child of Laci and Scott Peterson.

MATTINGLY: Scott Peterson now in the custody of Modesto police awaiting murder charges and to find out if prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

David Mattingly, CNN, Modesto, California.


COOPER: Well, tonight we are going to take a look at this story a number of different ways. We're going to talk to -- we're going to talk forensics with an expert, Dr. Werner Spitz. We'll also find out about the local community interaction with Chris Filippi. He's a reporter who has been following this case for a long time.

We're going to start with the legal action. For that we go to Catherine Crier of Court TV. She'll be joining us also throughout the half hour.

Catherine, good to see you. You are joining us from New York. How tough a case is this for prosecutors? CATHERINE CRIER, COURT TV: Well, I'll tell you if I was back in the courtroom and that's what I did right out of law school, I'd be trying this case. I'd be prepared to do it with one hand tied behind my back. I think they've got an excellent case. I don't think of course the police have told us yet everything they have but let's say that most people were not surprised when the arrest finally occurred.

COOPER: You say it's a slam-dunk. I talked to a forensics pathologist last night who said they may never be able to find out the exact cause of death. Do you need that to get a -- to get a conviction?

CRIER: There have been so many cases in the last decade, in the last several years that we've covered on Court TV where there has been no body at all. So you certainly got circumstances you have to look at. If there was evidence that this woman was suicidal, that she had been threatening to hurt herself or her baby, you might have some questions but she talked to her mother the night before. This was a woman ecstatic about the birth of her first child, nothing to indicate that she would be tempted to take her own life. You also have a guy who's issued an alibi right the disappearance. He says I went to this marina 90 miles away from my home. We know Laci didn't drive off in her own vehicle because it was there at the house and all of the sudden her body and the body of Conner, the baby, was up three miles from where he said he was? That's not coincidence if I was arguing this case.

COOPER: And if you were arguing this case for the defense, for Scott Peterson, how would you do it?

CRIER: Well, if I -- if I hadn't been able to negotiate a plea in what could be a death penalty case ...

COOPER: And do you think we might see a plea?

CRIER: Well, I don't know that there would. That depends on the prosecutor and how they want to deal with this case but obviously you're going to have to stick with the story that this man has presented to authorities and that is, I have an alibi. I left her prepared to walk the dog. I went to the marina. How she happened to show up there, why those bits of information were on my computer that showed the tidal flow in that particular area, why there were cement particles on the bottom of my boat and I was talking about making cement weights for my -- for my anchors, see if I could conjure up more of an alibi than that but that's the only direction that some defense councils been given.

COOPER: Besides just trying to build an alibi, as a defense attorney would you also try to come up with an alternate explanation for what happened to Laci Peterson or is that not necessary?

CRIER: Well, it's not necessary, because ultimately the state has to prove the case. The defense has no obligation whatsoever but he has already made a statement. You'd expect the defense to come forward with some sort of affirmative response and in working on the alibi I guess you begin to look for other people in the neighborhood that might have threatened her. Were there burglaries or any other abductions or threats to women in the neighborhood at the time? The house was broken into after she disappeared. Might you have some sort of connection again conjuring this as a defense attorney with what happened to this woman but you've still got the extraordinary circumstance that for the first time according to Scott he goes to this marina that far away on the day she disappears and low and behold that's where her body and the baby's body wash up.

COOPER: And we've got murder but it's not just murder. It's murder with special circumstances and in California there's this fetal homicide law I believe it's called. Describe -- talk to me about that a little bit.

CRIER: Well, you've got the fetal homicide law. You've also got the double homicide. You've got it, as in the David Westerfield case, you could argue kidnapping so a felony murder, kidnapping and murder in the course of a kidnapping because even a husband can kidnap a wife. You have several different categories in which the special circumstances could be indicted such that it was a capital case meaning a request for the death penalty.

COOPER: All right. Stick around. We've got to take a short break but I know you're going to stick around for the rest of this half hour. I appreciate that. We're also -- when we come back, police say that they have positively identified Laci Peterson and her unborn child but what exactly can be learned from examining their remains? We're going to talk to Dr. Werner Spitz, a medical examiner.

Plus, there are nearly as many rumors as there are question marks. We'll talk to a local reporter to try to sort out fact from fiction.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: Well, the Laci Peterson case presents so many questions will the medical experts be able to answer them? Some insight on that, let's talk with medical examiner Dr. Werner Spitz. He has been a medical examiner half a century performing autopsies and analyzing forensic evidence. He joins us from Detroit.

Dr. Spitz, let me ask you, I've heard that you have said it may be very difficult to determine a cause of death. Why is that? Is that because there's only a torso for Laci Peterson or because of the effects of water?

DR. WERNER SPITZ, MEDICAL EXAMINER: Well, she's been in the water in warm temperature. She had been missing for four months and of course that takes its brunt not the tissues so at this time it may be very difficult to find any hemorrhages or any other types of injuries in the soft tissues of the body unless of course there are fractures. So at this time, I would say it is -- it requires a very experienced medical examiner to see what he can do.

COOPER: Is that the case if -- I mean if she was shot, if she was stabbed, it's still difficult?

SPITZ: If she shot or she was stabbed that may be have the problem but if she was suffocated, strangled or smothered or drowned that may be a different matter that maybe very difficult if not impossible to determine.

COOPER: Again, just because of the effects on the water and I guess also with strangulation you need marks on the neck and the like.

SPITZ: You need marks on the neck. You need marks on the musculature of the neck, which is difficult enough to determine in a fresh body so you're dealing with a body that spent four months in the water.

COOPER: I want to bring in Catherine Crier, legal expert here on this. Catherine, just to reiterate, you say it doesn't necessarily matter from a legal standpoint whether or not medical examiners can determine cause of death.

CRIER: In most cases you certainly want that, you desperately want that but in circumstances that indicate this sort of foul play, that homicide occurred and this has been ruled a homicide at least according to legal authorities at this point in time, you know, unless the defense can come around and counter that then what you're showing is that you know motive, opportunity, means to accomplish this. You hope to be able to prove that as a prosecutor against the specific defendant but if you cannot -- you cannot present cause of death, that doesn't mean that the jury cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt this individual was responsible for her death. As I said, there have been numerous cases; in fact we just finished one within the last month on Court TV, where no body was ever found at all. In that situation you can simply prove the circumstances, the circumstances of the disappearance, you know who the most probable suspect was and proceed on.

COOPER: Dr. Spitz, let me ask you, you mentioned what medical examiners may not be able to determine. What may they be able to determine? Now we already have a positive identification. What can they determine though by examining the remains further?

SPITZ: If the medical examiner finds no evidence of any injury at the post mortem examination, the chin will whether she drowned or whether she was smothered, a ...

COOPER: Can you determine time? I mean I know -- I know if a body's on land, you know, you examine, without getting too graphic here, you examine insects and the like. I guess with underwater it's not that simple.

SPITZ: No, it's not simple at all. If the -- if the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is now on dry land that doesn't mean that for the past four months she did not sustain tremendous deterioration and possibly mutilation by aquatic marine life further adding to the difficulty in making a diagnosis.

COOPER: All right. Dr. Werner Spitz, I appreciate you joining us. It was interesting to hear your expertise. And Catherine Crier, you're still sticking around. We're going to take a short break and after this, the question is what do we know or just think we know about the Laci Peterson case? We're going to try to separate the fact from the fiction in one of the most talked about crimes in recent memory. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Well, in the four months since Laci Peterson disappeared we have heard a lot of speculation and we have seen many possible leads, discussed, investigated and sometimes simply dismissed. Chris Filippi is a reporter for KFBK Radio in Sacramento. He's been covering this case since the very beginning. He joins us from San Francisco to try to help us separate some of the fact from the fiction.

Chris, I know you were out at the memorial, this makeshift memorial that has sprung up at the Peterson home. The community in Modesto, how are they reacting to all of this?

CHRIS FILIPPI, KFBK RADIO: You know, I think the only way you could characterize this weekend accurately is one of mourning for many people in Modesto. Clearly not a surprise for most folks, they expected this to happen. I think any thinking person who really looks at the way that this case is broken down especially considering that it was re-classified as a homicide a month ago knew that at some point this was going to happen but nevertheless, the reality of the situation really hitting home with the finality that we had that press conference yesterday announcing that this was in fact Laci and in fact her unborn son Conner (ph). It really cuts hard for a lot of folks.

COOPER: On your radio show do you hear anyone calling in defending Scott Peterson?

FILIPPI: Very, very rarely. There are a few. I mean, certainly there's a big interest in having a fair trial. Everybody wants this man to have his day in court, but they also want to hear all of the evidence and they want to know exactly how this went down, how in fact was Laci killed? Where did it happen? When was she taken from the home into the -- or if it was the Berkeley Marina, to the Bay Area? These are all questions that people have and certainly there's a lot of interest in seeing how this will play out in court.

COOPER: Catherine Crier, Court TV, any chance -- I mean is a fair trial possible for Scott Peterson at this point in Modesto?

CRIER: No, of course it is, and I mean that with all sincerity. Today we have cases telecast across the United States as they're investigated, as they develop even some virtually as they occur and what you've got to ask a juror as you're qualifying them to sit on the panel itself is not have you never heard a word about this or have you developed some opinions but can you set those aside, if in fact you are sworn in and put on this panel and listen only to the evidence presented in this courtroom and base your decision on that evidence alone so you don't have to come in with this vacuous mind. You simply have to swear under oath that you can put aside the news stories, the various reports, and take your case as presented in the courtroom. I wonder if Chris -- Chris has been so great with us on my show there at Court TV as well, that, Chris have they released any of the information about what has come out of the house in terms of trying to determine not only whether she was murdered there but this information we're hearing about his computer bearing, you know, title records, the tide there in the marina area and other such information?

FILIPPI: Yes. You know, at this point there has been no official confirmation on any of that. We have heard the same reports that you have about the possibility of these tidal records that perhaps he was looking into whether he could find out the tidal patterns in the bay, when there was a high tide, when there was a low tide. None of that information has come out yet. I think the big key there is that the search warrants involved with this have continued to be sealed. There was an appeal about a week and a half ago to try to open those up. It was denied so all the legal details at this point are still under wraps.

COOPER: Hey, Chris.

CRIER: Well, what about -- I'm sorry. Anderson, what have you heard about this tarp that also washed up shortly after the bodies washed up in generally the same area that apparently police are also taking in to see if they can tie that to Scott Peterson?

COOPER: Christopher, you...

FILIPPI: Yes. Well the latest on that is indeed East Bay Park's police did recover that near the area. It was a black tarp and at this point as of the press conference last night they told us that they were still looking into a possible connection but they had not been able to confirm one yet.

COOPER: Chris, what I don't get is we heard at this press conference yesterday from the police and from the prosecutor that they had not yet positively identified through the DNA of Laci Peterson and Conner yet they decided to go ahead and arrest Scott Peterson. Why did they -- I mean why did they go ahead when they did? Why arrest him at the moment they did?

FILIPPI: Yes. One of the most interesting aspects of this investigation is how this whole arrest went down because clearly they were keeping Peterson on a very close watch. When they did the search of the home back in February one of the interesting things is they took his truck. Well apparently one of the things that they did when they took that truck is they installed a tracking device on it so they could keep tabs on Peterson.

Not only that, we're finding out now that they tapped Peterson's phones so they were able to keep track of that. It's no coincidence that when he was arrested in San Diego you had state department of justice, you had San Diego county authorities and you had CHP all involved in tracking him and making that arrest. Everybody was involved and clearly they had a plan. I think the bottom line is they had a concern that he might try to flee the area. We saw it today from that video that clearly he looks a little -- not a little; a lot different than he did just a few months ago with the hair color so there was a definite concern there.

COOPER: All right. Now we're going to have to leave it there with both of you. Chris Filippi with KFBK Radio, I appreciate you joining us and Catherine Crier with Court TV, always good to talk to you. Thanks very much both of you.

Well finally to the person behind the headlines, Laci Peterson today being remembered as a vivacious young woman with a smile that never seemed to leave her face, perhaps the way she should be remembered. CNN's Rusty Dornin has more.


RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's rare to see a photograph of Laci Peterson where you don't see this, the 1,000-watt smile guaranteed to light a room. Stacey Boyers went to elementary school with Laci. In January Boyers told CNN that enthusiasm was Laci's middle name.

STACEY BOYERS, FRIEND OF LACI PETERSON'S: Laci is always smiling no matter where we are or what we're doing. She's always bubbly and talkative and she's usually the center of attention.

DORNIN: Like when she was a cheerleader at Downey High School in Modesto, California, always confident, always charming. Then it was on to San Luis Obispo to college. Her brother says she wasn't your typical college student. Forget the keg parties, Laci would take her big brother wine tasting.

Here at the Pacific Cafe in Morro Bay, Scott Peterson waited on tables. Laci was one of his customers. They dated and two years later were married. Cafe owner Abu Imani (ph) says the young woman always seemed very happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was sweet and always smiled and laughed every time they came and ate here after even they got married.

DORNIN: Married and still in college, Laci and Scott opened this burger joint then called the Shack. Blake and Christine Reed remembered Laci and Scott throwing gourmet dinner parties at their home. In this photo the Reeds say Laci crashed the guys' cigar smoking huddle on the patio and wanted to be part of the picture. According to the Reeds, Laci and Scott made no secret of the fact they wanted to move on.

CHRISTINE REED, LACI PETERSON'S FRIEND: They wanted to buy a home and they wanted to go someplace where their family was there to help support them.

DORNIN: Laci's hometown Modesto was that place. She was very close to her family especially her mom, Sharon, for whom Laci's disappearance was pure agony. SHARON ROCHA, LACI PETERSON'S MOTHER: I love my daughter so much. I miss her every minute of every day. I miss seeing her. I miss our talks together. I miss listening to the excitement in her voice when she talks to me about her baby.

DORNIN: The baby already had a name, Conner, and he had a small room painted bright blue in their home on Flabina (ph) Avenue. Ready and waiting just days before Christmas, that's when Laci last spoke to her mother.

ROCHA: She was fine. She was looking forward to Christmas Eve. They were coming to our house for dinner.

DORNIN: It never happened. What did was beyond any mother's nightmare. Now outside the house where Laci Peterson dreamed of a new family, a shrine to her and her unborn son. Tammy Krause, a family friend, felt she had to come.

TAMMY KRAUSE, FAMILY FRIEND: She was great for this neighborhood let me put it that way. She really was. She was involved in everything and she was just a great little girl and we're going to miss her a lot.

DORNIN: Laci Peterson, dead at the age of 28. Conner never had a chance. Her husband, Scott, in jail likely awaiting charges of double homicide.

Rusty Dornin, CNN, Modesto, California.


COOPER: I'm Anderson Cooper in Atlanta. I'll be back at 10 o'clock Eastern Time for a full look at today's events. A reminder, we're waiting for that military plane carrying seven former POWs to land at Fort Bliss, Texas. Should happen in about 15 minutes or so. We will of course bring it to you live. News headlines are next and then "LARRY KING LIVE."


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