JOLIET, Ill. – The murder trial of former suburban Chicago police sergeant Drew Peterson began Tuesday with dueling explanations of his third wife’s death, clashes over evidence and a teary witness describing how she screamed when she discovered her friend’s body.
Prosecutors gave jurors an account that could have come from a 1940s pulp novel, in which a man does whatever he must – including murder – to keep his ex-wife’s hands off his money. On the other side, Peterson’s attorneys argued the former officer was a victim of something newer: 24-hour news cycle and cable TV’s talking heads, which together created a media frenzy that did not subside until prosecutors had charged an innocent man.
Peterson, 58, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio. He is suspected but not charged in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
The real-life drama inspired a TV movie starring Rob Lowe, and many speculated whether Peterson used his law-enforcement expertise to get away with Savio’s murder and make 23-year-old Stacy Peterson vanish.
The prosecution’s only witness of the day was Mary Pontarelli, a neighbor who discovered Savio’s body in a dry bathtub.
“I saw Kathleen in the tub, ran out, threw myself on the ground and started screaming,” she said, her voice cracking. Pontarelli testified that Peterson then ran up the stairs, took Savio’s pulse and declared somberly, “She is dead.”
“I asked him if we could cover her up,” a tearful Pontarelli recalled saying. She said Peterson responded they couldn’t because investigators would want the body untouched.
Jurors saw their first photos of Savio – one of her smiling with a friend; the other her lifeless body, a trail of blood running down the side toward her feet. Pontarelli described seeing a cut on Savio’s head, matted blood in her hair and bruises on her wrists and buttocks.
During Tuesday’s proceedings, Peterson appeared relaxed but engaged, jotting notes and occasionally glancing back at the crowded spectators’ benches. In a dry, dispassionate tone, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow told jurors that Peterson told Savio weeks before her death that he would kill her, and that she’d never see a divorce settlement or get his $300,000 pension. Glasgow also detailed what was at stake – two houses and a tavern the couple owned worth about $800,000.
“The evidence will show that Kathleen Savio was murdered and it was made to look like an accident,” Glasgow said.
In his opening, defense attorney Joel Brodsky told jurors repeatedly there was no evidence that Savio’s death was anything but a tragic accident.
“You will hear nothing but myth, rumor, innuendo and hearsay,” Brodsky said about the prosecution’s case. “You have a man’s life in your hands ... deal with facts.”SClB
And those facts, he said, will come in large part from three pathologists who will testify that — despite what prosecutors say and what the autopsy apparently revealed after Savio’s body was exhumed — her death remains an accident.
“The bathroom was in perfect order,” he said. “There is not one shred of evidence whatsoever that Drew Peterson or anybody else for that matter was in that house. ... Kathy slipped and fell in a household accident, case closed,” Brodsky said.
He also sought to knock down what prosecutors will certainly contend — that the investigation into Savio’s death was a shoddy one. Brodsky said Illinois State Police investigators were very experienced and conducted the investigation because the Bolingbrook Police Department wanted to make sure there were no questions, as Peterson was one of their high-ranking officers.
Brodsky also suggested that Peterson was the victim of a “media circus” after Stacy Peterson disappeared — he was charged in Savio’s death after his much younger fourth wife vanished.
The media rush to make Peterson out to be a killer was not about the truth, but “entertainment,” Brodsky said. He described how a national TV host had a pathologist on to determine if Savio had been murdered, teasing the results before a commercial break.
“If he (the pathologist) confirms it’s an accident, there’s no story,” Brodsky said.
Glasgow told the jury what has been widely known for years: There is no physical evidence linking Peterson to Savio’s death. A botched initial investigation will force prosecutors to rely heavily on hearsay evidence — statements not heard directly by witnesses that normally are barred at trials — as well as circumstantial evidence to convince jurors of Peterson’s guilt.
In his opening, Brodsky sought to short-circuit expected testimony that Peterson repeatedly threatened Savio, telling jurors that she had had penchant for exaggeration, had a “hot temper” and made false accusations against Peterson to gain an advantage in divorce proceedings.
It took less than 10 minutes for disputes to erupt over what evidence should be admitted. As Glasgow broached an allegation that Drew Peterson once inquired about paying a hit man to murder Savio, defense attorney Steve Greenberg leapt to his feet to object.
Judge Edward Burmila instructed jurors to leave the room and Greenberg moved for a mistrial.
Burmila eventually denied the request, saying Glasgow was just a few words into the allegation before the defense objected. But he left open the possibility of changing his mind and declaring a mistrial later.