Murder in the Family

Laci Peterson was pregnant when she vanished. Her husband is now accused of killing her and their child

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It's hard to imagine a more hellish crime than a man's murdering his young wife and their unborn son. But that's what California law-enforcement authorities believe Scott Peterson did. On Christmas Eve, his wife Laci, a mother-to-be with an infectious smile, disappeared from their home in Modesto. Last Monday, California police announced that the decomposed bodies of a petite woman and full-term male fetus had washed up on a shoreline some 90 miles northwest. Four days later, officials identified the victims as Laci and her child and arrested Scott for their murder. "The waiting this week has been horrific," said Kim Petersen, a spokeswoman for the dead woman's family. "I don't know if relief is the right word. They have answers." No doubt they also have painful questions. What happened? What darkness lurked beneath the happy surface of Laci and Scott's marriage?

Laci Peterson, a substitute schoolteacher, was 27 years old and eight months pregnant when she disappeared. The baby already had a name, Conner, and a blue nursery decorated with a nautical theme. Scott told police that his wife left the couple's three-bedroom home to walk the dog, while he drove to the Berkeley Marina for a fishing trip. In the early days of the search for Laci, her family described Scott, 30, a fertilizer salesman, as a loving husband and model son-in-law, and remained loyal even when Modesto police began searching his house, boat and car and saying in early January that he was cooperating only to "some degree."

The family unity was shattered when a Fresno massage therapist, Amber Frey, contacted police and told them Scott had been her lover; he had told her he wasn't married when they met about a month before Laci's disappearance. Police also revealed that Scott had taken out a $250,000 insurance policy on his wife when she became pregnant. "I'm only left to question what else he may be hiding," said Laci's brother Brent Rocha. "Because we have so many questions that he has not answered, I am no longer supporting him." The estrangement deepened when Scott sold Laci's Land Rover and considered selling their house.

Baby Conner's body was found first, by a couple walking their dog near the Richmond shoreline, less than five miles from the marina where Scott said he'd gone fishing on Christmas Eve. The infant corpse was "pretty bad," said a Richmond police official. "You would have to look closely to see that it had human features." Laci's remains, discovered by another dog walker the next morning, were partial and mostly skeletal. The state of the bodies posed a challenge to forensic scientists, who managed to extract DNA from Laci's tibia, or shinbone, and her baby's femur, or thighbone. They compared it with DNA in cheek swabs from Laci's parents and a blood smear from Scott, which authorities said was obtained under a search warrant.

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