The Laci Peterson murder case

Few in the horde of journalists covering the Laci Peterson murder case in Modesto, California, have ever set foot in Gervasoni’s bar, though it is just a few blocks from the Stanislaus County Courthouse, but this friendly, 50s-style saloon has become the hangout of choice for two of the story’s most prodigious propagators, David Wright and Michael Hanrahan of The National Enquirer. By liberally spreading cash all over this community of 203,000, the dapper, silver-haired operators, both in their 60s, have broken many of the scoops claimed by better-known reporters and newscasters weeks, even months later. In an increasingly frenzied and downscale tabloid-news era, Wright and Hanrahan finally see everything coming their way, for, if the weekly tabloids were once considered beneath contempt by the Establishment press, today they are must-reads for everyone in the media. Conversely, the highly organized pageants of grief and speculation that big criminal cases have become, particularly on cable television, are the perfect petri dish for Wright and Hanrahan to develop their stories in. “Every morning you wake up and think, What can I turn today?,” Hanrahan, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, tells me as we sit in Gervasoni’s on May 29. Wright, a Brit and a 27-year Enquirer veteran, adds, “The Peterson story has broken perfectly. The tabs kept Laci going during the Iraq war, and as soon as the war finishes, her body washes up.” Wright says he hopes that Judge Al Girolami will issue a gag order on the case, for then the tabloids would be in an even stronger position to offer money to entice information out of local people. “We love gag orders—they’re the best we can hope for.”

So far money has definitely talked in Modesto, and even if someone turns it down, there’s usually somebody else already in line. Willie Traina, for example, the previous owner of the Petersons’ ranch-style house, told me that he had twice been told that the tabloids were willing “to pay me $150,000 at a minimum” for pictures of the interior of the three-bedroom dwelling, in which Laci was allegedly murdered, but that he had refused. No problem: the Enquirer, which has local private investigators on its payroll and keeps at least two reporters in Modesto at all times, found another source and published the pictures in May. Laci’s father, Dennis Rocha, sold his story along with family pictures to the Enquirer’s sister publication Globe—which outbid the Enquirer—for $12,000. Wright and Hanrahan also do the old-fashioned kind of legwork that younger reporters often shun in favor of downloads from the Internet, and both of their methods have paid off, so to speak. According to Steve Coz, editorial director of American Media, Inc., which publishes The National Enquirer, Globe, and Star, every Laci Peterson cover has increased sales of each of the three weeklies by as many as 300,000 copies. After the Enquirer gleefully reported in May that it had “penetrated the ongoing investigation,” the Modesto Police Department began an internal scrutiny of the force. But, as Hanrahan explains to me, “if you say there are a half-dozen cops working on this … which one speaks to us, that’s not the way it works. Cops all have girlfriends, sisters, uncles, mothers.”

While giant satellite trucks outside jockey for curb space to broadcast every last tidbit of leaked evidence in the case, Hanrahan greets owner Gary Gervasoni as an old friend and orders his first vodka-and-soda at four p.m. This is a popular spot with locals; before the murder, Laci’s stepfather, Ron Grantski, used to drop in. And since the Peterson case, like the O. J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey cases before it, has everything to make it the No. 1 human-interest reality-TV soap opera in America—the pretty, young, pregnant wife goes missing on Christmas Eve, her handsome husband’s girlfriend reveals the affair they’ve been having, he heads south, the wife’s body and that of her unborn baby are later discovered a few miles from where her husband claims he was fishing when she disappeared, he dyes his hair and is arrested carrying $10,000 in cash—Gervasoni’s is just the sort of connected place the Enquirer reporters favor to find out which doors to knock on. They also trawl certain restaurants and churches. Today a tough-looking construction worker in shorts and sneakers pops in to ask whether something he has come across is worth anything. Hanrahan says the man has contacted the Enquirer, which routinely pays $500 per tip, because he believes he has uncovered a satanic mural in a house he is remodeling. Hanrahan leads him over to a booth, pulls a notebook out of his back pocket, and starts writing.

Anything smacking of satanic cults is big in Modesto these days, ever since Mark Geragos, Scott Peterson’s high-powered Los Angeles lawyer, not only promised to find the “real killers” of Laci and the baby she planned to name Conner but also announced that he was looking for a brown van seen in Laci’s neighborhood that had some connection to a satanic cult. He said he was also trying to locate a reluctant female witness who had valuable information. Whether the woman was part of the van story was not made clear at first. The Enquirer reporters, who are convinced of Scott Peterson’s guilt, tell me that Geragos is “all smoke and mirrors.” Globe had run a story earlier saying that the police had already checked out the brown van. As for the mysterious woman, she had contacted Globe as well as the police, and her ex-husband had told that tabloid that she had a history of mental illness and suffered from multiple-personality disorder. Nevertheless, because the prosecution has played the case so close to the vest, the defense has had ample opportunity to cast doubt on Peterson’s guilt by filling the void with alternative scenarios, and the strategy has worked, particularly since cable news channels have to fill the air 24-7.

That same day, May 29, about one p.m. eastern daylight time, NBC chief legal correspondent Dan Abrams had excitedly announced a bombshell on MSNBC: he had “exclusively obtained” a partial copy of the addendum to the sealed report on the autopsy of the remains of baby Conner—the authenticity was later confirmed by official sources to the Associated Press— and could reveal that the fully formed fetus had been found with a piece of plastic tape wound around its neck one and a half times, “with extension to a knot near the left shoulder.” There was also a “postmortem tear” going from the baby’s right shoulder to the right lateral abdominal wall. Up until then the baby’s separation from Laci had been assumed to be the result of “coffin birth,” where the built-up gas in the decomposing body of the mother expels the fetus, but now here was the tantalizing idea that the baby may have been cut out of Laci’s womb.

The combination of a knife and a satanic cult sent the media pack racing, and 30 minutes later the cult idea was being discussed on Fox cable by Linda Vester and Rita Cosby, who gave no credit to Abrams. Meanwhile, Abrams re-appeared with a lawyer who scored the case, as it now stood, like a tennis match: “Advantage defense!” At three p.m., Pat Buchanan and Bill Press abandoned national politics in order to focus “almost exclusively on the breaking news first reported here on MSNBC by Dan Abrams.” By then the prosecution had made a complete U-turn, and at four o’clock CNN announced that the prosecution had sent out a press release saying it would request that, due to “numerous leaks to the media today,” the judge make public the full autopsy report. At five p.m. both Wolf Blitzer on CNN and Lester Holt on MSNBC discussed the feeding frenzy. MSNBC editor in chief Jerry Nachman characterized the story as “crack for us in the business … we can’t stop ourselves.”

His words proved prophetic. Geraldo Rivera, who had appeared two hours after Abrams to say that he also had the full addendum, was back at eight p.m. on Bill O’Reilly’s show, going out of his way to pooh-pooh Abrams’s scoop. He said that the addendum did not support material “spun earlier by sources friendly to the defense.” “This cable thing is like Fleet Street in the old days,” David Wright told me. “One paper would have a scoop, and the other papers would trash it but be free to follow it up.” He was right: it was all Laci all the time throughout the evening—on Chris Matthews’s Hardball, Hannity and Colmes, Larry King Live, Scarborough Country, and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren—and into the next day, May 30, when Good Morning America announced that ABC had “seen in full exclusively” the autopsy report, and Charles Gibson noted that it indicated that Laci Peterson’s cervix was closed, adding that he had been assured by an expert that “this can happen.” Soon local newspapers in California were quoting coroners closer to home, who said that the plastic tape was most likely debris which had caught around the baby’s neck, and that the cut may have been made by a boat propeller.

That night the Enquirer reporters introduced me to a local criminal-defense investigator sitting at the other end of Gervasoni’s bar who was not working for either side in the case. Alan Peacock gave me his business card, which read, “Fruits and Nutz,” a play on Modesto’s largest cash crops—not counting sensational criminal cases such as the murder of Modesto native Chandra Levy in 2001 and the slaying in Yosemite National Park in 1999 of a mother, her daughter, and a friend, whose killer became the object of a search in Modesto. Absolutely free of charge, Peacock gave me his rundown on the defense’s satanic-cult theory, and it’s proving remarkably accurate as the story has played out since.

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