The devil went down to Modesto

The sordid Peterson affair made a great regional crime story. But why is this front-page national news?

Madonna, Lucifer and Jezebel: Laci Peterson, Scott Peterson and Amber Frey.

Madonna, Lucifer and Jezebel: Laci Peterson, Scott Peterson and Amber Frey.

Admit it. You got sucked in.

I certainly did. After years of consuming true-crime books, TV detective shows, suspense films and ancient murder ballads, when the real thing showed up, I couldn’t turn away.

At first, the breaking story that a pregnant woman disappeared from her home in Modesto on Christmas Eve didn’t seem all that compelling. Yes, Modesto had been all over the news because of Chandra Levy, another woman who vanished and later turned up dead—which lent the developing story an eerie touch of foreshadowing.

As details began to trickle in, it still looked like another all-too-familiar regional tragedy that most likely would play out with a grim denouement and would be mentioned, in passing, between J.Lo’s latest costume change and the saber rattlings du jour coming out of Washington.

Then I saw Scott Peterson give a televised interview. Suddenly, all bets were off.

The story of what happened between the Petersons might have made a great Alfred Hitchcock film. Unfortunately, it more likely will be butchered by made-for-TV hacks. The cast includes Laci Rocha Peterson, whose exit before Christmas and reappearance just in time for Easter gave her role a Madonna-with-child subtext. Conversely, watching her husband, Scott, grow horns while dissembling his way through a TV interview ignited a perception that there might be a slightly dark side to this clean-cut and well-dressed young fertilizer salesman. And when the story’s Jezebel, a blond massage therapist from Fresno named Amber Frey, showed up at Modesto Police headquarters to confess that she and Scott had been having an affair, the sordid saga became, at the very least, a tabloid home run.

The story may have resonated deeply with people because of its timeless quality and utter banality. Statistically, murder is a leading cause of death for pregnant women; most die at the hand of the man who impregnated them. And murdered women consigned to watery graves are nothing new; they’re an old, thematic standby in folk music, as the lyrics to such classic songs as “Banks of the Ohio” and “Omie Wise” will attest.

What separated Laci’s case from that of 24-year-old Evelyn Hernandez, a pregnant Salvadoran immigrant whose corpse was found in the San Francisco Bay last year, was that Laci lived what appeared to be a comfortable life in an interior California suburb. She watched Martha Stewart, baked cakes, walked the dog and waited excitedly for her baby to be born. In other words, she and her husband could have been that perfect yuppie couple next door.

Except for one thing: Laci went missing, and Scott had some splainin’ to do.

For a while, the war against Iraq wiped the story off the A-list: No body, no front page. But crime fans who’d picked up on Scott’s creepy David Lynch vibe knew where to check for developments: The Modesto Bee’s Web site, various blogs such as, and true-crime Internet bulletin boards. Many people posting on those sites engaged in what amounted to board-game speculation: “fertilizer- salesman Plum, in the kitchen, with the lead pipe.”

There were so many questions, you almost wished Peter Falk would show up in a trench coat: “Um, Scotty, let’s go over this again: You bought a 14-foot aluminum boat around December 1, but you didn’t tell your wife or anyone about it. You poured five concrete anchors in your backyard; three are unaccounted for. You researched tidal patterns off the Berkeley Marina on the Internet. On Christmas Eve morning, you drove 80 miles from Modesto to Berkeley to go fishing in crappy weather in the San Francisco Bay in your 14-foot boat, but you were back in Modesto late that afternoon to discover your wife was missing. Later, you sold her SUV and tried to sell the house, and then we found out about your girlfriend in Fresno. And she told us you told her that your wife died a year ago. Help me out here, because something’s not adding up.

“Oh, and one more thing: your wife and your baby she was carrying? They just washed up two miles from where you said you went fishing.”

It’s a classic human-interest story. Women identify him as a cad, somewhere between a smug narcissist and a calculating, heartless sociopath. Men see him as a guy who got caught with his pants down, did the worst possible thing to fix it and then thought he was so smart he wouldn’t get caught. Aside from the murder thing, he could be you or me.

So, why is this a huge national story, why do people put so much emotional investment in it, and why was this the lead item on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere? Watching a lynch-ready mob of 300 show up outside the Stanislaus County Jail at midnight on a Friday to welcome Scott’s involuntary return to Modesto was strange. Were these people bored or merely going through withdrawals because the Operation Iraqi Freedom miniseries was history?

I have a theory: People are angry—about losing jobs and savings, about paying more in taxes and getting less in services while billionaires get huge tax cuts, about a perceived loss of freedoms and a growing sense of unease in this country, about war and more war. We feel powerless to stop a runaway administration, arguably the most corrupt in this country’s history, and its corporate pals from backing their vans up to the Treasury and looting the contents. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop or the next wave of terrorism to strike.

We need an effective distraction. Give us a neatly packaged murder story for wall-to-wall TV coverage, with an over-the-top villain toward whom we can channel our outrage, to take our minds off why Osama bin Laden and “Kenny Boy” Lay are still running around scot-free.

So, Scott Peterson, you’ll do—until the next war comes along. Needle him, fry him, gas him or hang him high already. The gods demand a sacrifice.