Disappearance of ex-Ill. cop Peterson’s 4th wife central to prosecution in 3rd wife’s death

By Don Babwin, AP
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Missing 4th wife may be big part of Peterson trial

JOLIET, Ill. — As Drew Peterson heads to trial in the death of his third wife, it’s clear that prosecutors hope to make their case by trying to prove he also killed his missing fourth wife, even though he has never been charged in her disappearance.

That unusual strategy depends on whether a judge permits testimony about what Stacy Peterson allegedly told others before she vanished in 2007, including that she considered threatening to tell police her husband killed ex-wife Kathleen Savio three years earlier; that he came home dressed in black and with a bag of women’s clothes the night before Savio’s body was found; and that the former Bolingbrook police officer had bragged about being able to conceal a homicide.

“You still can win without Stacy, but it’s much tougher without it,” said David Erickson, senior law lecturer at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Will County Judge Stephen White still must rule on whether he’ll allow such hearsay — or secondhand — evidence at Peterson’s upcoming trial on charges of killing Savio, whose body was found in a bathtub in 2004. On Tuesday, White said jury selection will begin June 14.

Prosecutors have not said how much they would tell jurors about Stacy Peterson, but an extraordinary pretrial hearing revealed just how closely the circumstantial evidence against Drew Peterson in Savio’s slaying is tied to Stacy Peterson’s disappearance.

The hearing was the result of a new Illinois law that allows a judge to admit hearsay evidence — statements not based on a witness’ direct knowledge — if prosecutors can prove a defendant may have killed a witness in order to prevent him or her from testifying.

Prosecutors claim Peterson killed Savio to keep her from testifying against him in a property settlement hearing and prevent her from getting the hundreds of thousands of dollars such a settlement might cost him.

Savio’s divorce attorney testified at the hearsay hearing that Stacy Peterson asked him to represent her in her own planned divorce of Peterson and asked about extorting money out of Drew Peterson by threatening to tell police that he killed Savio. Stacy Peterson disappeared shortly after that — before she filed for divorce and got any of Peterson’s money.

Stacy Peterson’s disappearance also figures in another cornerstone of the prosecutors’ case: that Drew Peterson had the ability to kill Savio, not leave any evidence, and even make her death look like an accident.

“This is not somebody who just watched CSI,” Assistant State’s Attorney John Connor told White on the last day of the hearing in which prosecutors detailed Peterson’s law enforcement career, including his experience as an evidence technician. “This is somebody who’s been CSI.”

Peterson knew how to render someone unconscious without leaving any marks that would indicate a struggle, prosecutors said. Also, prosecutors said, he knew how easily crime scenes can be contaminated and made sure neighbors entered Savio’s house before he did the day her body was found.

One challenge in Savio’s case is convincing jurors there was a homicide at all; a coroner ruled her death an accidental drowning and police didn’t collect forensic evidence.

That might be easier if prosecutors could convince jurors he killed Stacy Peterson.

To do that, experts say prosecutors would have to zero in on what happened after Stacy Peterson disappeared: nothing.

That means presenting witnesses to testify that she was never heard from again after Oct. 28, 2007, never again used a credit card or her cell phone, and never wrote a letter to anyone she knew.

“And the biggest one: She never attempted to contact her children,” said DuPage County state’s attorney Joe Birkett, who has prosecuted a number of high-profile cases and has used the hearsay law.

Even if the judge does not initially allow anyone to testify about Stacy Peterson’s disappearance, the cases are so intertwined that there is always a chance a single question by one of Peterson’s attorneys could change that.

“When you’re doing cross examination you’ve got to be damn sure you don’t do something that trips into the other case,” said Erickson. “If there’s one phrase trial judges love it’s, ‘Counsel, you opened the door.’”

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