Tuesday, November 27, 2007
A Drew Peterson Reality Check
by Libby Hellmann
Now that his image has been splashed across the cover of People Magazine,
supermarket tabloids, and network news programs, (Can Law and Order be far behind?), former cop Drew Peterson’s face is becoming as familiar as that other “media sensation” who got away with murder.
For those of you not in Chicago, or who’ve been living under a rock the past month, Drew Peterson is the Bolingbrook cop whose 4th wife, Stacy, disappeared in October without a trace. His third wife, Kathleen Savio, it was revealed, accidentally drowned in a bathtub, according to the original coroner’s report. That’s being challenged now, and her body was exhumed recently for another autopsy.
Peterson has been named a suspect in his 4th wife’s disappearance, and, if Savio’s death is declared a homicide – Michael Baden, an OJ alumni and one of the most experienced forensic pathologists in the country says it is -- he’ll probably be named a suspect there, too. He was forced to resign from the Bolingbrook police in disgrace, although he’s still getting a healthy pension.
The guy has expressed no concern for his missing wife – he blamed her depression on PMS – and he persists in saying she ran away with another man. Despite multiple allegations of his physical and emotional abuse by both wives, he says he had nothing to do with either one’s demise. And, of course, he’s attacked the media for his problems. In other words, he’s the stereotype of an arrogant, controlling cop who thinks he can outfox everyone because he’s so smart.
Guess what? So far, he’s succeeding.
Although most people think he’s guilty as sin, (and, as my friend Judy Bobalik says, if he isn’t he should be, because he’s stupid) there is no evidence linking him to either crime – er, situation. None. There’s no crime scene. No body. Not much circumstantial evidence that we know about either, except a blue barrel and -- as of late Tuesday night -- the declaration of a relative who said he might have helped Peterson dispose of his wife's body. That relative is now in the hospital for attempted suicide. So while we're all waiting for the other shoe to drop, there is a chance it never will. We may never know what Peterson did or didn’t do. In other words, he might skate.
That isn’t the way I wanted the story to end, and in my novels, it probably wouldn't. There would be a resolution one way or the other. Justice would be served. But after talking to several people in law enforcement here in Chicago, I’m starting to think it might not happen.
Bill Lustig is the Chief of Police in Northfield,Illinois. Northfield,adjacent to Winnetka, is smaller and less diverse than Bolingbrook, but Lustig is the kind of cop I’d want on my side if I needed one. He’s smart, compassionate, and committed to protecting people. He said it’s clear we’re not being told the entire story, and that’s the way it should be. The Illinois State Police are up against an aggressive media; they can’t afford any leaks that could sabotage their investigation. When I asked how he thought it was being handled, he said, “They’re looking for a body, and they’re doing everything we would do. They’re reaching out – through volunteers, horseback riders, heat sensors, even borrowing water equipment.” But he acknowledged, “you have to connect the dots. The evidence has to be there.” And not just circumstantial evidence, he added. So far, we haven’t seen it.
Private Investigator and attorney Joel Ostrander agrees. He says no one really knows what the State Police are doing or what evidence they have. However, he believes there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. If Peterson did kill either wife, it will come back to haunt him sooner or later. Peterson didn’t do himself any favors, Ostrander adds, by going on the Today Show. His body language and eye movements were “consistent with someone who was lying”… especially when he asked his wife to “come home.” Still, Ostrander is at a loss to explain what happened. No mother would logically ever leave young children without letting them know where she was. Then again, was she “logical” when she left? Did she reach some kind of boiling point and just blow up? Is the family of Stacy Peterson telling us everything or just what they want us to know?
As for the 18 domestic calls to the Bolingbrook police by Stacy Peterson that the police apparently never followed up on, Ostrander says it might be a case of the “boy who cried wolf.” Or maybe not. The problem is we may never know.
Dan Franks, a prominent defense attorney who was involved in the David Dowaliby case as well as Jeanine Nicarico’s murder, tends to think that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” He was surprised to see a number of bruises on the original protocol of Kathleen Savio’s autopsy, as well as hair that apparently was drenched in blood. Although, he added, it could be explained.
I asked if the coroner system in Will County (Cook County has a medical examiner while Will County depends on a jury to make manner of death decisions) makes a difference. Franks is impressed with the ME system. “You can get a straight answer…” he says. Still, he has no reason to doubt Will County’s procedure. However, he did say that both the victim and her husband had a relationship with the community. (Savio worked for the city of Naperville, at least for a while). That might have generated political pressure in some quarters.
When I asked what he would do if he was Peterson’s lawyer, Franks said he should stop talking to the media. “You rarely help yourself when you do. If anyone does speak in public, it should be a spokesman.” Apparently his second lawyer followed that advice in a second Today Show appearance.
Robert Egan is the Deputy Chief of the Public Interest Bureau at the Cook County States Attorney’s office. He’s prosecuted a number of high-profile cases over the years, including John Wayne Gacy,
Monroe Lampkin, a triple murder on I-57, and James Nathaniel Davis, a Kenilworth man convicted of murdering his wife.
Egan believes, as a general principle, that a case is what the media makes it. He also believes the thoroughness of the investigation is directly proportional to the media interest, so he’s sure the Illinois State Police are pulling out all the stops on the Peterson case. Or cases. He did say there appears to be “dueling pathologists” in the Savio autopsy, and speculated that there’s probably a lively discussion going on between the two camps right now. While Michael Baden, who consulted on the JFK autopsy is “about as experienced as it gets”, Egan says the hardest thing in the world to find a dead person and figure out what happened.
He also said not to draw much from Peterson’s behavior. “Even cops are allowed to be weird…” (Among other things, Peterson shot pictures of the media with his video camera on Tuesday.) It might take years to build a case, Egan explains. He was assigned the James Nathaniel Davis in September, but didn’t arrest him until the following May.
He also said it’s not that unusual to try… and even convict… someone without a body. He mentioned the case of Ed Lyng who was convicted of killing his wife in Mt. Prospect although the body was never found. If probable cause is there, and the pieces of the circumstantial puzzle can be put together, a case can be quite solid. But Egan did point out that Stacy Peterson’s mother abandoned her kids when Stacy was quite young. Did Stacy do the same thing? “At this point,” he said, “Who knows?”
I wish I had a definitive, wise conclusion to wrap up this overlong blog. (Thanks for hanging in there…) I’m better informed – perhaps you are too – but I confess I’m still hoping the other shoe will drop. Even though it might not.
What about you? What do you think of the Drew Peterson case?
Btw, what is it with the name “Peterson” and crime? There’s Hans Peterson, the self-confessed murderer of Chicago dermatologist Cornbleet, a case that the Outfit’s Kevin Guilfoile’s been following… Scott Peterson, convicted of killing wife Lacey… and now Drew Peterson… Hmmm...