On March 16, 2005, Scott Peterson was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife Laci, who had been eight months pregnant with their son at the time of her death.The shocking saga of the seemingly picture-perfect husband who brutally murdered his wife began when Laci was reported missing on December 24, 2002, from the Modesto, California home she shared with Scott.
The case quickly made headlines around the nation, and the media became obsessed with the young, pregnant mother and the baby that Scott and Laci planned to name Connor.
Modesto police treated the case as suspicious within the first few hours after the missing persons report had been filed, but Scott had strong support from Laci’s friends and family following her disappearance, so they did not immediately make their suspicions public.
But police soon grew even more concerned about inconsistencies in Scott’s behavior — especially in January, when a massage therapist named Amber Frey came forward and told police that she had been dating Peterson for a few weeks. She revealed that her new boyfriend had told her he was a widower and that after he “lost his wife” he would be spending his first Christmas without her.This was 14 days before Laci disappeared. Frey was shocked to discover that her new beau apparently still had a wife, and that she was missing.
At this point, Laci’s mother Sharon Rocha and the rest of her family began to distance themselves from Scott and question his story. They began to believe that Scott had planned to kill Laci long before her disappearance.
Frey began to cooperate with police, and agreed to let the police tape her subsequent phone conversations with Peterson, in hopes of getting him to confess. During the trial, the audio recordings of his and Frey’s telephone conversations were played, and the transcripts were publicized.
The recordings revealed that in the days after Laci went missing, he claimed to Frey that he had traveled to Paris to celebrate the holidays — while in reality, he was in Modesto attending events including a New Year’s Eve candlelight vigil for his missing wife.
On April 14, 2003, Laci’s body was recovered, but due to decomposition the exact cause of death could not be determined. Her head had been removed. The FBI and Modesto Police Department performed forensic searches of the couple’s home, Scott’s truck, warehouse, and boat. However, nothing was found.
Peterson was arrested at a La Jolla golf course. At the time of his arrest, his hair was bleached blonde and he was in possession of items including approximately $10,000 in cash, water-purifying tablets, a dagger, his brother’s driver’s license, a map to Frey’s workplace, ropes, and a shovel. He claimed the lighter hair color was the result of chlorine from swimming in a friend’s pool, but its owner later testified that, to his knowledge, Peterson had never swam in it or made use of his hot tub.
Peterson’s trial began in began in June 2004 and was followed closely by the media. Peterson’s defense lawyers argued that the evidence against him was largely circumstantial, while the prosecution focused on Peterson’s affair with Frey and money problems as motives for the murder. They believed that he killed Laci because he was worried about debt and wanted to be a single man, not a father.
Members of the jury stated in later press appearances that they felt that his demeanor – specifically, his lack of emotion and the phone calls to Frey in the days following Laci’s disappearance – were strong indicators of guilt.
Peterson was found guilty and, on March 16, 2005, the judge sentenced him to death, calling the murder of Laci “cruel, uncaring, heartless, and callous.” He is serving his sentence at San Quentin State Prison.
The case had been the subject of at least two made-for-TV movies: Amber Frey: Witness For The Prosecution and The Perfect Husband, and was also reportedly the inspiration for the best-selling book Gone Girl.
Main photo: Scott Peterson listens during his pretrial hearing at Stanislaus County Superior Court in Modesto, California, Tuesday, May 27, 2003. [AP Photo/Al Golub, POOL]