A Husband In Trouble

Scott Peterson was determined to play golf Friday morning, even as forensic scientists were still figuring out whether two corpses that washed up in San Francisco Bay last week were those of his missing wife, Laci, and their unborn son. The 30-year-old Modesto, Calif., fertilizer salesman had managed to avoid the media glare by lying low 450 miles south in San Diego in his newly sprouted goatee and dyed hair. But detectives were watching his every move, tapping his phone lines and tracking him with the satellite Global Positioning System. Scott knew he was being watched--he even gave a cocky wave to the undercover cops. What he didn't know was that the state attorney general's DNA lab had just come up with a positive match on the bodies and was now conducting confirmatory tests. Worried that their quarry might make a dash for Mexico as soon as the news broke, detectives decided to pounce. As Peterson pulled his golf bag from his trunk at the Torrey Pines links shortly before noon, detectives swooped down and arrested him at gunpoint.

Even with Laci's body recovered and Scott charged with a double homicide, the case is not necessarily open-and-shut. The decomposed corpses discovered after a spring storm last week may not yield nearly as much information as cops would like. Laci's body had been in the water for months; with much of the skin gone and the head missing, pathologists haven't been able to establish a cause of death. They can't even determine precisely when she died or how long she'd been in the water. Beyond saying that they believed Laci, 27, was killed in Modesto, law-enforcement officials were tight-lipped about just what may have happened. "This will be a hard case to prosecute," says Michael Baden, forensic pathologist for the New York State Police.

The bodies were found just two miles from where Scott Peterson went on a solo fishing trip the day Laci disappeared, and pathologists and forensic anthropologists will struggle to understand when and where and how she was put in the Bay. One key question: why was her body missing for nearly four months? Corpses often sink to the bottom but become "floaters" within days or weeks, when gases produced by bacteria make them powerfully buoyant again. If the killer had tied weights to Laci's body, scientists might find abrasions on remaining bones. They'll try to understand how the bodies of mother and child were separated: one possibility is that the bodily gases expelled the baby in a "coffin birth" at the same time the adult corpse floated up.

Laci Peterson was nearly eight months pregnant when she disappeared from her Modesto bungalow last Christmas Eve. Suspicion settled on Scott early, after a Fresno massage therapist reported that she'd begun a "romantic relationship" with him weeks before Laci vanished. (Detectives cleared the girlfriend, who believed Scott was single.) Doubts deepened when he sold Laci's SUV and queried Realtors about getting rid of the house. Investigators now believe Peterson killed his wife in Modesto, perhaps at home, either late on Dec. 23 or early on Christmas Eve. Scott, who has repeatedly denied killing his wife, has admitted driving 90 miles to go fishing at the Berkeley Marina on the day she disappeared. Mike Ilvesta, a gardener at the marina, told NEWSWEEK that he saw Peterson there at midday, and the cops talked to two men who saw him fumbling ineptly to get his boat--at 14 feet, rather short for a windy day on choppy water--off the trailer and into the drink.

But forensic evidence can also help the defense. Peterson's attorney did not return several phone calls, and there are few hard clues about how he'll proceed. But arguing that Laci committed suicide may be an option. Scott maintained that he told Laci about the affair weeks before she disappeared; the defense may argue that they'd fought or that she'd grown despondent. (If so, she never mentioned it to family and friends, brother Brent Rocha told NEWSWEEK in February.) Accidental drowning is a possibility--though it isn't immediately clear how she would have traveled 90 miles with her car in the driveway. The defense could conceivably argue that she was abducted by a killer who dumped her into the Bay to frame Scott. But jurors will need some evidence to buy that, too. Depending on the forensic story that the two corpses tell, Scott Peterson may have a lot to account for.