A New Amber Alert

On the tapes, Scott Peterson is cool and charming. He tells Amber Frey that he loves her and hopes to see her soon. Then he gets down to business. Could Amber please give him snapshots of the two taken at a recent Christmas party? During the first weeks of January, as the search for Laci Peterson became a national obsession, Scott called Amber three to four times a day, NEWSWEEK has learned, always asking for the pictures, always telling Amber that he loved her. But if Peterson thought he could get back in his girlfriend's good graces after neglecting to mention that he had a pregnant wife, he was mistaken. Acting on a tip from Amber, Modesto police had tapped her cell phone and were listening for evidence that Peterson murdered his wife and unborn son.

Amber seemed to blow in from tabloid Central Casting--complete with a tempestuous romantic past and the obligatory nude pictures--reviving cable interest in the story just when it seemed to be flagging. But is her time on the stage proportionate to her value as a witness? While prosecutors aren't talking much about their line of attack, Amber fits neatly into their scenario of a discontented husband panicked at his impending fatherhood. One police theory: that Amber's persistent phone calls to Scott during their four-week affair aroused Laci's suspicion and led to a marital confrontation on the evening of Dec. 23, when, police charge, she was killed. But the wiretaps, NEWSWEEK has learned, are inconclusive. According to people who have heard the intercepts, they reveal little more than Peterson's obsession with the potentially embarrassing photos. Scott never loses his composure with Amber, but does break down and sob later when police call his cell phone--also tapped--and dangle disturbing suggestions about what may have happened to Laci and the baby. (Last week, fed up with "rumors and gossip," the judge issued a gag order. NEWSWEEK obtained information contained on the tapes before the ruling was issued.)

Amber burst on the scene in January, when she appeared at a press conference with Modesto police, who at the time cleared her of any involvement in Laci's disappearance. Nervous and tearful, she insisted that she hadn't known Scott was married and expressed sympathy to Laci's family. Soon, her comments were overwhelmed by titillating photos and interviews peddled by erstwhile friends and relatives. Suddenly people ranging from Larry King to Larry Flynt all had something to say about Amber. Rumors surfaced about other entanglements with married men. That she gave massages for a living didn't help. And, as if on cue, nude pictures taken years ago found their way to market.

Amber's pleas for privacy raised eyebrows when she hired celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, who's hardly known for being camera-shy, to shore up her battered reputation. Amber's supporters say she's motivated by civic duty, not profit. Amber (who declined to be interviewed) has "never made a dime off of this," Frey's father, Ron, told news-week. He says the National Enquirer offered $100,000 for an interview and photos of Amber with Scott. Amber refused, he says. Ditto the book and movie offers that came her way.

Amber's fans paint a picture of a determined young woman who has always dreamed big, but fallen short. Her parents divorced when she was 5. After graduating from community college, she wanted to join the Peace Corps, but found work instead as a preschool teacher at a Fresno church. When she became a single mother two years ago, she went back to school and took more lucrative work as a licensed massage therapist, according to her father.

Despite her hard-knock life and a stream of boyfriends who've brought her grief, Amber remains tethered to her faith. At the evangelical Christian church she attends regularly, parishioners have formed a protective cordon around her. "Amber has a real desire to become the person God wants her to be," says her pastor, Bob Willis. If only she had figured that out before she met Scott Peterson.