They were a good-looking couple. But when the wife went missing, and the oddly calm husband was found to be having an affair, he was accused of her murder.
Sounds like the plot of Gone Girl? Yes, but it’s also the real-life story of Laci and Scott Peterson. When Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn was asked in 2012 if she’d based her novel on any particular real-life case, she mentioned the high-profile disappearance that had been splashed across the media a decade earlier.
"One could point to Scott and Laci Peterson – they were certainly a good-looking couple," she told Entertainment Weekly.
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Laci Rocha was a former high school cheerleader who was studying ornamental horticulture at university in California when she met Scott Peterson in 1994.
A talented golfer, he was also studying at university and working part-time at a café. One of Laci’s friends worked at the same café, and Laci often dropped by. One day she gave Scott her phone number, and before long, the two were dating.
"The moment he was with Laci, they just beamed at each other," Scott’s mother Jacqueline told The Modesto Bee. "No one else ever made my son smile like that."
Three years later, they were married. They opened a sports bar and ran it together, and also enjoyed entertaining friends at their house.
"Laci and I loved having people over," Scott wrote in a letter published in In Touch. "We were always happy when our pool was filled with friends, the grill was smoking, and the outside fridge was being emptied."
The couple sold the bar. Laci began working as a substitute teacher and Scott got a well-paid job as a fertiliser salesman.
In mid-2002, when Laci discovered one morning she was pregnant, she started ringing family and friends at 7am to share the exciting news. The couple decided they would call their baby boy Conner.
On Christmas Eve, Scott reported Laci missing. By then she was eight months pregnant. He said he had left the house earlier that day to go fishing at the Berkeley Marina, which was nearly 150km away, and Laci had been planning to walk their golden retriever, McKenzie. McKenzie was found by neighbours and returned to the couple’s yard. But there was no sign of Laci.
Modesto police detective Jon Buehler dropped around to see Scott that evening.
"I suspected Scott when I first met him," Buehler later told ABC News. "Didn’t mean he did it, but I was a little bit thrown off by his calm, cool demeanour and his lack of questioning."
A huge search began. Hundreds of locals turned out to look for the heavily pregnant woman. A reward of $US500,000 was offered.
Massage therapist and single mum Amber Frey saw an article about Laci’s disappearance and was horrified. She’d met Scott in November 2002 and they’d started a relationship, with Scott telling her he wasn’t married. Amber called the police.
"I was in shock," Amber told 20/20. "I was crying, I have no idea how long. I was just trembling, and I was like, 'It is him.'"
The police asked Amber if she would tape her phone conversations with Scott, and she agreed.
Laci’s family turned against Scott. They found out from the police that he’d been unfaithful, and also that he’d taken out a $US250,000 life insurance policy on her. But the couple’s friends were torn. Brian Argain told The Modesto Bee that he was going to support Scott, despite the rumours.
"Just because he may have had an affair doesn't mean he has anything to do with her disappearance," he said.
In April 2003, a couple walking their dog along San Francisco Bay found a late-term male foetus. The following day, a woman’s body, with the head and parts of limbs missing, was washed ashore nearby. It was close to where Scott said he’d gone for his fishing trip on Christmas Eve. Through DNA testing, police identified the remains as Laci and her unborn son Conner.
Scott was arrested. Police searched his car and found his brother’s ID, almost $US15,000 in cash, survival gear and a stash of Viagra pills.
Scott’s lawyers suggested that Laci may have been murdered by a satanic cult and that Scott could have been framed. But he was found guilty of first-degree murder over the death of Laci and second-degree murder over the death of their unborn child. He was sentenced to death.
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Juror Richelle Nice believes Conner was never given a fair shake at life.
"He was taken away by his father, somebody that should have protected him, somebody that should have taught him to play ball, taught him how to play golf," she said. "He could have left Laci to raise him. He just didn't give him a fair chance."
Scott says he was "staggered" by the verdict.
"I had no idea it was coming," he claimed in The Murder Of Laci Peterson.
On death row, Scott was a popular man. He was flooded with letters from women, some proposing marriage. The tabloids nicknamed him "Scotty Too Hotty".
Over the years, Scott’s lawyer Mark Geragos has continued to insist his client is innocent.
"Because once you do dispassionate analysis, you realise there was no circumstantial evidence, there was no crime scene, there was no time of death, there was no [conclusion as to] manner of death," Geragos told CNN.
But Laci’s mum, Sharon Rocha, has remained firm in her belief of Scott’s guilt.
"He murdered my child. So as far as I'm concerned, he's where he needs to be."
California Prosecutor Will Not Seek a New Death Sentence for Scott Peterson https://t.co/WRL3Y7nAbE— People (@people) May 29, 2021
Last week, however, Peterson was taken off death row.
After being granted a retrial last year, Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said that she won't retry the penalty phase of the trial, meaning Peterson will now be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
According to a family source, Rocha is "devastated" by the decision.
"She has been so strong for so long," the source said, according to People.
"But she can't go through reliving this again and again. It has taken such a toll on her. It's beyond painful for her. And as much as she wanted to see Scott be placed back on death row, she can't do it. No one in the family really can. It would be opening up old wounds."
This post has been updated with new information.
Feature Image: YouTube.