Friday, February 03, 2006

Peterson Case: One Trip or Two?

The prosecution presented at trial that Scott Peterson, having murdered Laci and Conner sometime between 8:30 pm on December 23rd and 10:08 am on the 24th, wrapped her body in a blue tarp, loaded it in the bed of his pickup, where he concealed or camouflaged it with similarly wrapped market umbrellas, and drove to his warehouse. There he placed her body in his boat, attached homemade concrete anchors to it, drove to the Berkeley Marina where he launched at approximately 1 pm, and submerged her remains in the shallow water between the Berkeley Marina and Brooks Island. Adherents to the more provocative and intriguing "Two-Trip Theory" greet this argument with disappointment and skepticism. They scoff at the notion that Peterson would transport Laci's body (with no more than a boat cover to conceal it) 90 miles, on a busy travel day and in broad daylight to dispose of in shallow water. For those unfamiliar with the "Two-Trip Theory", allow me to present it.

First, some pertinent details:
  • Scott's boat was equipped with auxiliary wheels that allowed the user to remove the boat from the trailer, trundle it down to the water and launch it without proper facilities.

  • On January 9th, the MPD received a tip that a truck driver named David, traveling westbound on highway 580 at approximately 3 am on December 24th, had seen a vehicle and boat matching the description of Scott's pickup and boat. David observed a large bundle wrapped in a blue Mexican-motif blanket in the back of the boat.

  • Prior to trial, there was an unconfirmed report that one of the Medina burglars would testify to seeing Scott engaged in suspicious activity in his driveway --possibly loading something in his pickup – at 2:30 am on December 24th.

  • Computer records indicate that while researching the tides and currents in the central bay, Scott zoomed in on an area that included the channel between Richmond and Brooks Island.

  • Scott entered the dates December 23rd and 24th on the two-day fishing license that he purchased on December 20th.

  • On the evening of December 23rd, Scott told Laci's sister, Amy Rocha, that he planned to play golf the following day and would be able to pick up a fruit basket at Vella Farms between 1 and 3 pm for her because he would be in that area of town.

  • In mid-March, side-scan sonar expert, Gene Ralston, located an object in the channel off Point Richmond that appeared to be the size and shape of a human body. Because of poor weather and water conditions, divers were unable to recover the object.* An ROV was sent down to get a better look. The object appeared to be a human body, covered in crabs, lying prone in the middle of the channel with noodle-like streamers of material floating up from the lower portion. Ralston first assumed that it was kelp or some other vegetative matter, but upon learning the condition of Laci's body when it washed ashore, he became convinced that the noodle-like material was the shredded remnants of her maternity pants.

Mr. Ralston's find is the most compelling potential evidence in support of a two-trip theory. Why, you ask? Because that location is nearly 5 miles from the Berkeley Marina. There's no way that Scott could have motored out to the Richmond channel from the Berkeley Marina, dumped the body, returned to the marina and re-trailered his boat in the 78 minutes (or less) that he was boating on the bay that Tuesday afternoon. Simply put, Scott's "fishing trip" will not accommodate Ralston's sighting. If you believe that the object in the channel was indeed Laci's body, then you must conclude that he made an earlier trip in the dark of night to launch near Point Richmond (possibly using the auxiliary wheels) and submerge Laci's remains in the 40 ft. depths of the ship channel. Proponents of the two-trip theory offer two explanations for Scott's return to the bay that afternoon. One account is that he needed to be able to explain why there was saltwater on his boat. The prior owner had used it only in freshwater lakes. The other is that he grew anxious about his success and returned to check up on his work. They also cite Scott's golf plans as the originally intended alibi. Scott wanted people to assume that Laci had been abducted during her walk with McKenzie while her husband played golf at the Del Rio Country Club. Meanwhile, he had already gotten rid of her the night before. For whatever reason, Scott abandoned his golf plans, neglected to pick up the fruit basket, and claimed that he'd chosen to go sturgeon fishing instead.

*By the time conditions at the bay improved, the object was gone and repeated efforts to locate it were unsuccessful.

Click on the graphic below for a satellite image of the recovery area. The overlay demonstrates where Dr. Cheng's model indicated the body would have been deposited. (An orange marker represents the nearby private mooring buoy mentioned in a previous entry.) Laci's body (green marker) washed ashore on Point Isabel and Conner's (blue marker)in a marshy area near Richmond. The channel wherein Gene Ralston made the sonar sighting is labeled as Richmond Channel and lies just to the north of Brooks Island, extending WNW around Point Richmond.

Click image to enlarge

I was once a subscriber to the two-trip theory. The similarities between Mr. Ralston's description of the body he found and the actual condition of Laci's remains when she washed ashore were quite convincing. However, as the evidence was revealed, I began to question the notion that Scott placed Laci's body in the Richmond channel.

  • Confronted with the allegation that a neighbor saw him loading a large object into the back of his pickup on the 24th, Scott admitted to Diane Sawyer and to Ted Rowlands that he loaded umbrellas, wrapped in a blue tarp, in the back of his pickup and specifically stated that he did so "that morning." The umbrellas were a cover for the large, bulky package that contained Laci’s body. If he had taken Laci’s body to the bay during the night, there would have been no need to load the umbrellas the following morning.

  • On several occasions, Scott drove to the bay to observe the search that took place between the Berkeley Marina and Brooks Island. (Several of those observation points are represented by red dated markers in the above image. He also observed the search from the Berkeley Marina on January 5 and 6, but there were no tracking devices on his vehicles on those occasions.) There is no indication that he showed the slightest interest in any searches between Brooks Island and Point Richmond, where Ralston sighted an object that he believed to be Laci’s remains. If Scott had placed Laci’s body in the ship channel off Point Richmond, he would have shown more interest in searches there. Any searches to the south of Brooks Island would have been of little to no interest to him.

  • Scott was very nervous when the sonar searchers found what they believed to be a body off the Old Berkeley Pier. He drove a rented car to the bay that day to observe undetected. He was extremely relieved, a few days later, when he learned via a voice-mail from Sharon Rocha that it was an old anchor instead, prompting the infamous whistle of relief. If Scott had placed Laci in the Richmond channel, a sonar find near the Old Berkeley Pier wouldn’t have caused him the least bit of concern. After this embarrassing incident, he thought he was free and clear for a little while. He was convinced that the investigators were imbeciles and that they’d never find Laci, and he immediately made phone calls to his father and friends to ridicule their search efforts.

  • Trimble detected Laci’s scent at the Berkeley Marina, following it from a point in the parking lot down to a pylon on the pier where Scott most likely would have tied his boat while moving his pickup from the ramp to the parking area and vice versa. This one’s a little tricky. I’m of the opinion that Laci was already in Scott’s boat before he left his warehouse. Therefore Laci’s scent had to have been transferred to that pier by Scott. However, I also believe that he had to have had very recent contact with Laci in order to leave enough of her scent for the dog to track several days later. In other words, he left her scent there immediately after having handled her body, not after having dumped it the night before (launching his boat near Point Richmond rather than at the Berkeley Marina), returning to Modesto, and making a return trip to the bay to check on his work or “put the boat in the water.”

  • Very early in the search, a blue tarp was found in the water off the shore of Cesar Chavez State Park. Cadaver dogs alerted on it and showed a lot of interest in it, even after it was stowed in one of the boat’s onboard compartments. Cesar Chavez Park is just north of the Berkeley Marina and southeast of Brooks Island. If Scott launched from Point Richmond and disposed of Laci’s body in the ship channel, north of Brooks Island, there is little to no chance that tarp would have made its way to Cesar Chavez Park. It is much more likely that the tarp became separated from Laci’s body where it was dumped, south of Brooks Island, just as the prosecution presented at trial.

  • There is no positive evidence indicating that Scott drove to the San Francisco Bay during the night of December 23/24 – no witness sightings, no gas purchases, no cell phone records. There is no evidence that Scott was absent from his home from the time that he and Laci returned home with the pizza that evening until he left for his warehouse at approximately 10:08 the following morning.

  • No clean-up of the warehouse, boat or pickup was done on the 24th. If he had already taken Laci to the bay during the night, why didn’t he use the time spent in his shop that morning to clean up rather than allegedly assembling a mortiser? In my opinion, he spent that time preparing Laci’s body for disposal – loading her in the boat, attaching the anchors, and concealing her for the trip to the bay in addition to emailing his boss in an attempt to establish an alibi. If he had had time to clean up that concrete mess (not to mention the boat), he surely would have done so.

  • At 8:40 am, before leaving home on the morning of December 24th, Scott checked the weather in the Bay area on the computer. He also checked his e-mail and viewed two items in Yahoo shopping – a fleece scarf and a sunflower motif umbrella stand. If Scott had already disposed of Laci's body and he planned to play golf in Modesto, why would he care what the weather was like in the bay area?

Absent Gene Ralston's sonar find and in light of the evidence at hand, I'm left to conclude that the prosecution presented the correct scenario and Scott Peterson made only one trip to the San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve, launching his boat at the Berkeley Marina and submerging Laci's body in the relatively shallow waters south of Brooks Island.