Scott Peterson, True Crime Week

AP Photo/Justin Sullivan, file

To look at Scott Peterson before Christmas Eve in 2002 was to see a young, handsome family man, a 30-year-old fertilizer salesman living in Modesto, Calif., who was about to become a first-time dad.

To look at him at almost any time since is to see one thing: a murderer.

Peterson has been on death row for the last 12 years for the murder of his wife, Laci Peterson, who was 8 months pregnant with their son when she disappeared on Dec. 24, 2002. Though Scott is the opposite of what one might call a "sympathetic" character, and there's been no mainstream clamor for a Making a Murderer-style reexamination of the justice system that convicted him, the sordid specifics of the crime and the chillingly normal-seeming man who turned out to be a killer remain morbidly fascinating subjects 15 years after Laci's death.  

Not least because Scott insists he's innocent.

"I couldn't feel my feet on the floor. I couldn't feel the chair I was sitting in. My vision was even a little blurry," Scott, recalling the moment he was convicted, is heard saying on a previously unreleased audio tape in the A&E docu-series The Murder of Laci Peterson, premiering tonight. "And I just had this weird sensation that I was falling forward — and forward and down and there was going to be no end to this falling forward and down, like there was no floor to land on.

"I..I was staggered by it. I had no idea it was coming."

Which ultimately makes sense in light of the portrait painted of the man in the wake of his wife's murder.

When her stepfather reported her missing, Peterson said that Laci, 27, had been planning on walking their golden retriever at a nearby park when he last saw her. He had gone fishing earlier in the day at the Berkeley Marina, he said.

Laci's purse was at home. The dog, leash attached, had since been found by a neighbor and returned to the Petersons' yard.

By Dec. 28, family and friends were offering a $125,000 reward for Laci's safe return, missing person fliers papered the town, the FBI was called in to assist local authorities and the search had expanded to comb 4,000 acres of wetlands along the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers. On New Year's Eve more than 1,000 people attended a candlelight vigil in Laci's honor.

"Whoever has her could have some compassion," Brent Rocha, Laci's brother, told reporters. "She's a human being. She's pregnant. She needs to take care of her baby. She's a wife, a daughter, a sister. Please return her."

The baby had already been named Conner Peterson, and that's how Laci and Scott's families referred to him in interviews. Brent would later tell Scott in court, after his brother-in-law was sentenced to death, that he had purchased a gun with a mind to kill Scott himself but decided to let fate have its way with him.

Laci Peterson

Modesto Police Department

Scott theoretically should have been the distraught husband, pleading for any information about his wife's disappearance, tirelessly combing the area for her with the police and countless volunteers. But multiple accounts paint him as quiet, polite and oddly removed from the proceedings. "She will be giving birth real soon. We need to bring them home and I think that's the best way we can do it all," he reportedly told investigators at the time.

Reflecting on how they built a case against Peterson, Modesto Police Detective Jon Buehler told People in 2005, "We've been doing homicides for a while. When you compare Scott's demeanor with other people we've dealt with, he didn't even register on the scale as far as seeming concerned. And when [fellow detective Al Brocchini] played the tape of that lame-o message that Scott left on Laci's phone—'Hey, beautiful, I'm on my way back from fishing. Pick up the basket at Vella Farms. I love you, sweetie,' or words to that effect—it just seemed so insincere and false, like he was making this call to make us think he was in love with her.

"But anybody who has been married for five years knows there aren't too many people who talk to their spouse like that after that amount of time. It didn't mean that he did it; it just meant we needed to work him a little bit closer and clear him."

"That's the way he's been," his half-sister Anne Bird (who was promoting a book she had written about the case) told CBS News' Julie Chen after Scott was sentenced to death. "Even during the search for Laci. He was completely emotionless, could have cared less. And that's been really hard to deal with. He's a sociopath, and a sociopath does not have a conscience, which is a really hard fact to understand."

Scott and Laci met in 1995 in San Luis Obispo when she was a student at Cal Poly. She spied him while eating at the restaurant where he was working as a waiter and passed him her phone number. They married on Aug. 9, 1997. They ran a hamburger restaurant for a couple of years before selling the place and moving north to Laci's hometown of Modesto, where they planned to start a family.

Laci Peterson, Scott Peterson

Modesto Police Department

Within two weeks of Laci's disappearance came the reports that Scott had been having an affair, and that he had taken out a $250,000 life insurance policy on his wife. Peterson called the reports "a bunch of lies."  He said that he and Laci each carried the same amount of life insurance.

On Jan. 24, 2003, 27-year-old Amber Frey, a single mother, came forward to say she'd had a recent affair with Scott, and that when they met on Nov. 20, 2002, he told her he was unmarried. Days before Laci disappeared, he clarified: a widower, in fact. Frey said she contacted police on Dec. 30 after she saw her lover on TV. 

With every network angling for a piece of the story, Peterson picked ABC News' Diane Sawyer to sit down with, tearfully claiming that the affair had been "inappropriate," but that he had confessed to Laci, they had put it behind them and he had nothing to do with her disappearance. Scott's family joined him for the second half of Good Morning America's two-part exclusive. (A claim to Sawyer that Frey was his only indiscretion would come back to haunt him, as would his claim he told police about Frey voluntarily.)

Another candlelight vigil was held on Feb. 10, 2003—Laci's due date—in the park where she was supposed to have gone to walk the dog.

On March 5, police announced that they were treating the case as a homicide investigation. 

A little more than a month later, on April 13, 2003, the remains of a male fetus were found at the shore of San Francisco Bay in south Richmond. The next day, a woman walking her dog came across a portion of a woman's body lodged in the rocks at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline, about a mile south of where the fetus washed up.

On April 18, the same day California Attorney General Bill Locker confirmed that the bodies belonged to Laci and Conner Peterson, Scott Peterson was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. He was sporting a goatee, his dark hair was dyed a reddish-blond color and he had $10,000 in cash on him when he was picked up about 30 miles away from the Mexican border.

And though he certainly hadn't been free of suspicion before, overnight Scott Peterson became a downright pariah.

He pleaded not guilty to two counts of capital murder and hired high-powered defense attorney Mark Geragos, famous for representing Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder and, since then, Chris Brown. Geragos publicly called for witnesses who could help prove his client's innocence to come forward. Later the attorney floated the theory that Laci had been abducted by a satanic cult and he talked about a female witness who supposedly had important information about the case. Cult or not, "it's clear she was abducted—that's the only thing that makes sense," Geragos told Vanity Fair that August. "It's only a matter of time forensically and we'll find out who did it."

The trial wouldn't start until 2004, leaving plenty of time for the twisted story of Laci's death to grow ever more upsetting, with the resurgent tabloids and cable news networks—knowing exactly what readers and viewers wanted thanks to the days of wall-to-wall coverage of the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson's murder trial, as well as the disappearances of JonBenét Ramsey and Chandra Levy (who was also from Modesto)—moving in for the overkill.

Once he was arrested, Peterson was more or less immediately cast as the cold-blooded killer—a picture at odds with what most friends and family knew of him.

Laci and Scott "both seemed extremely excited, as we were," Greg Reed, a friend of the couple whose wife Kristen Reed was pregnant at the same time as Laci, told ABC News after Peterson's arrest. "We were both having our first babies at the same time or quite close to the same time. We were both planning on basically raising them together since we both lived here in Modesto and in the same neighborhood."

"I just think, what a waste," prosecution witness Karen Servas, a neighbor of the Petersons who spent an awkward Christmas dinner with Scott and his parents after Laci went missing, told the Modesto Bee in 2007. "Why would you do that? Why kill your wife and your child? If you're that unhappy, I mean, I got divorced, it wasn't that difficult."

"You have a district attorney calling this a slam-dunk before there's even an arraignment," Scott's mother, Jackie Peterson, told Time magazine. "I'm feeling like I'm living in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union."

The gruesome details would pile up before trial: MSNBC reported in May 2003 on leaked autopsy findings that suggested Conner may have been cut from Laci's body before mother and son were disposed of—a notion that actually gave temporary credence to the cult theory. Within 24 hours the cable and broadcast news shows were citing experts and sources who downplayed the initial take, saying that the fetus had probably still been in Laci's womb and was expelled by a progression of natural occurrences after she died.

The National Enquirer, which first reported the existence of Amber Frey, published a copy of a Christmas card she had sent out featuring a picture of her and Scott together. Sherina Vincent, a former friend of Frey's, sold photos she had taken of Amber and Scott at a Christmas party to People, and then sued the magazine for not cropping her out of a picture on the wall behind the duo after agreeing to remove Vincent's image. (The mag promised to defend itself "vigorously.") Per Vanity Fair, the Enquirer also reported in May 2003 that Frey—who hired famed attorney and women's rights advocate Gloria Allred as her legal counsel—had worn a wire for the prosecution while talking to Scott before his arrest, and that he told her he didn't kill Laci but knew who did. 

In June, a judge issued a broad gag order to cork the flood of leaks.

Amber Frey, Gloria Allred, Nate Goldberg

Kimberly White-Pool/Getty Images

"I even get requests to interview the inmate who cuts his hair," a Stanislaus Sheriff's Department spokesperson told Vanity Fair for an August 2003 article that was more about the media frenzy than the murder itself.

"Every time we put [the story] on, the ratings spike," Fox News' Bill O'Reilly also told VF. "It's the only thing keeping Larry King on the air. We do Laci Peterson every 15 minutes and see the numbers go up. It's a story that resonates with women particularly."

According to the Washington Post, by June 30, 2003, the Peterson case has been featured 79 times on (ready for a time capsule?) Greta Van Susteren's Fox News show, 40 times on MSNBC's The Abrams Report, 38 times on Fox's Hannity & Colmes, 38 times on MSNBC's Countdown, 37 times on Fox's top-rated O'Reilly Factor, 34 times on CNN's Larry King Live and 20 times on MSNBC's Hardball.

"They appeared to be a young married couple with their whole future ahead of them, and she disappeared. That got people hooked," MaryLynn Ryan, managing editor of CNN/US at the time, told the paper, rejecting the perception that the network was milking the case. "People have become invested in knowing the outcome of what happened to her."

Dean Cain, The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story, True Crime Roles on TV

USA Network

A few months after Dean Cain memorably played Scott Peterson in the Lifetime movie The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story, the trial finally began in June 2004. Geragos won a symbolic victory in getting the venue moved out of Modesto and to Redwood City after successfully arguing his client couldn't possibly get a fair trial in a city that had been consumed with Laci's disappearance and death.

The trial lasted nine agonizing months, including the penalty phase, and cost the city and county a reported $4.1 million.

It took the jury, after two jurors had to be removed and replaced with alternates, nine hours to reach a verdict: guilty on two counts of capital murder, for Laci and her unborn fetus.

Judge Alfred A. Delucchi sentenced Scott Peterson to death on March 16, 2005.

Scott Peterson, Pat Harris

Fred Larson-Pool/Getty Images

"You are going to burn in hell for this, you are," Laci's father, Dennis Rocha, yelled in court when given the opportunity to address Scott, the New York Times reported from the scene. "Your life is done."

Describing Scott's demeanor the morning of his sentencing, trial juror Mike Belmessieri told the NY Times, "Scott came in with a great big smile on his face, laughing, it was just another day in paradise for Scott, another day that he had to go through the motions. Scott had no emotion on his face. Scott was being Scott."

The judge rejected a defense motion for a new trial, Peterson was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution for funeral expenses and, with that, court was adjourned. Peterson was subsequently transferred to San Quentin State Prison's death row.

Scott Peterson

Modesto Police Department/A&E

And so he awaits execution in a 41-square-foot cell, where he eats his meals and spends most of his time, minus a a reported five hours a day for exercise and other recreation, such as playing basketball or board games. Prison spokesman Samuel Robinson told Fox News in 2012 that Peterson got along with other inmates and staff and had never been disciplined for "egregious behavior." He didn't take educational courses and had not been assigned to any work duties.

Just like Erik and Lyle Menendez, sentenced to life in prison for killing their parents, Peterson attracted his fair share of female fans. Prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon told CNN that, within a day of his arrival on death row, two women called San Quentin asking for their newest inmate's hand in marriage. He acquired the nickname "Scotty Too Hotty" for all the attention he received from the opposite sex, but Robinson said in 2012 that the number of letters had dwindled by then.

Asked if he felt Peterson was at risk of being attacked in prison, Crittendon said, "I don't believe that there will be many of them that will harbor any ill will because of his commitment offense, particularly those men on death row. As we know, most of them have been involved with murdering of children and women."

In 2012, his case was appealed to the State Supreme Court in accordance with a California law that guarantees every death row inmate an automatic appeal. His new team of lawyers argued that the judge, who had since died, had made several missteps and that the evidence was "anything but overwhelming."

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that justice was served," Laci's mom, Sharon Rocha, told the Modesto Bee last year. "Scott Peterson is guilty."

Team Peterson would disagree. At a Q&A following a screening of Trial by Fury: The People v. Scott Peterson at the 2016 American Documentary Film Festival (the movie hadn't found a distributor at the time), Geragos called the case a "media lynching."

"Scott is clearly...not guilty," the attorney declared. "Scott is innocent. I will believe that till the day I die. What happened in this case was one of the worst abominations of the criminal justice system I ever experienced."

The film's directors, Shareen Anderson and Elena Konstantinou, made it clear they felt Peterson deserved a new trial. They had written to him in prison and he put them in touch with people from the defense's side; they said they reached out but ultimately made the movie without anyone from the prosecution, Modesto police or the jury.

Meanwhile, Peterson's 2012 appeal is pending. The California Attorney General's office filed its response in 2015 and oral arguments before the California Supreme Court still may not take place for years.

And so, almost 15 years after Laci Peterson was murdered, the crime continues to be dissected for parts.

Series producer John Marks insists The Murder of Laci Peterson, made with the cooperation of members of Scott's family, isn't an attempt to argue the possibility of Scott's innocence. "I just want people to say, 'What actually happened here?" he says. Amy Savitsky, A&E Senior Vice President of Development and Programming, told People the docu-series "really does give this kind of fascinating full picture, not just of the case itself but set against the backdrop of what was happening in our culture at the time." And no, she reiterated, they're not trying to exonerate Peterson.

Detectives told NBC News for The Laci Peterson Story: A Dateline Investigation, which aired in April, that, despite there not being DNA or other forensics to explicitly tie Scott to the murder, circumstantial evidence plainly pointed to his guilt.

"He was just calm, like he always was, after they put the handcuffs on him," Detective Buehler told People about Peterson's arrest. "When we got him back to the offices, and he had his pool-dyed hair or whatever he said it was, we sat him down. He was not angry. He didn't ask a whole bunch of questions. The only thing he said was, 'Is that my wife and son?' At that point it was sort of like, 'Come on, Scott.' So I said, 'You know the answer to that question.' Then he did fake sniffles."

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