One reason that moment stands out in my mind from covering one of the most sensational criminal cases in recent memory is because the courtroom where the trial was held is tucked so far back inside the San Mateo County Superior Court, you would never think you would be able to hear anything outside those courtroom walls. Once you clear security at the front entrance, you have to take an escalator up to the second floor and walk down a long hallway to the very back of the building, which gives you the sensation that you are deep inside a bank vault lined with large wood doors tall enough for a giant to walk through.
The jurors remember, too. Hearing cheers for the verdict they just delivered.
I spoke with two of them this week in Redwood City to discuss where we are today with this criminal case, as Scott Peterson was resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty they gave him in 2005 after finding him guilty.
I had many questions for Juror No. 4, Mike Belmessieri, and Juror No. 1, Greg Beratlis, whom I watched day in and day out during the double murder trial from the courtroom gallery. I remember always wondering what they were thinking during key moments of the trial as evidence was being presented and witnesses were giving their testimony.
I was reporting for KFI-AM 640 at the time, while also contributing to the ongoing coverage of the case with Fox News. That was 17 years ago, but returning to Redwood City this week with the new developments of Peterson’s death sentence being overturned, and talk of a possible re-trial due to alleged juror misconduct brought it all back like it was yesterday.
The first question I had for both Belmessieri and Beratlis was whether they had any doubts about the verdicts they reached.
Bertalis said it was important for the public to know how serious all jurors took this case, telling me, “Remember, this is a man’s life, and we can’t walk out here, you know, in a year or a week or 10 years from now, and say, ‘Man. I don’t know if he was really guilty.’ No, he– in our hearts, he was guilty, in our beliefs. No, there’s nobody else who did this. He committed these crimes.”
Belmessieri also had no hesitation with his answer, adding, “We went through a lot of work, and I think we gave him the benefit of every possible doubt that can be given because we understood that you could do no greater wrong than to convict a man or woman or a crime they never committed. We sat there and we went through every little bit of evidence and testimony that was provided in that courtroom. I couldn’t have voted guilty if I had any doubts, let alone any reasonable doubt.”
“So, yeah, again, he’s exactly where he belongs — in prison,” the juror said.
Those who believe police had tunnel vision on Scott Peterson — and there are many — believe that investigators only focused on Laci’s husband from the start. However, law enforcement sources tell me police investigated and cleared 309 sex offenders and parolees and 35 other persons of interest during their investigation.
Rewinding the memories of the trial came easy for both jurors we spoke with this week. Beratlis remembers observing then-defendant Scott Peterson from his vantage point in the juror box during what many would call the hardest part of the trial to go through. Viewing the autopsy photos of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, who both washed ashore in the very area where Scott Peterson had gone fishing the day his pregnant wife disappeared.
Beratlis recalls Peterson not showing any emotion, recalling, “During the part when the bodies were shown, I did look at Scott Peterson. I just remember him sitting there kind of in amazement. It wasn’t like he was traumatized at all.”
He added that if he were in Peterson’s situation — even if he and his wife were going through a tough time — he would still feel strongly about the child, in particular.
“That’s my baby. That’s my blood. I can’t imagine just sitting there staring without any feeling.” he said. “I mean, I think in my mind, I was playing it through it well. Is he is medicated? Is this why he can sit there? Because [Peterson] was almost in awe. Like, ‘Oh, that’s what a body looks like.’ You know, not, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my unborn son.'”
Jon Buehler, a retired Modesto Police detective who worked this case extensively from the start as one of the three lead investigators, remembers a striking detail when detectives arrested Peterson in San Diego.
It was April 18, 2003, as they were driving him back to Modesto to be processed for the murders after the bodies of Laci and her unborn son washed up along the shorelines of the San Francisco Bay five days before.
Buehler told me that they were waiting on final confirmation of DNA testing as they had Peterson cuffed in the car in the backseat when they got the call and broke the news to him. Buehler said he remembers looking in his rearview mirror to watch for Peterson’s reaction and there was a sniffle but not much more than that.
It’s important to note that most people who know Scott Peterson say he’s not an overly emotional guy or one to react strongly. Still, this was THE news everyone was waiting for, and Buehler thought he would have more than a sniffle knowing that his missing wife and unborn son were finally found and that they were in fact dead. It’s what happened next that really shook him, though, and added one more layer of suspicion to their suspect in the back seat as they pulled over to fuel up for the rest of the drive north to Modesto.
“So, we go up the road a little further. I open the back door of the car while I put in gas…and I said, ‘Hey, you know, Scott, I know we just gave you some bad news, but we’re going to get a bite to eat up here because we still got another three hours to go before we get back. We’ll buy dinner if you’re interested.'”
One would think eating would be the last thing a person would be able to do after hearing news like that.
Buehler continued: “And he’s asked me, ‘Well, Jon, where are you guys going?’ And I said, ‘I know there’s an In-N-Out, just up the road here.'”
Buehler said Peterson didn’t miss a beat.
“And he goes, ‘In-N-Out. I’ll have a double-double with cheese, a small fry and a vanilla shake.’ And I went, ‘OK, you got it,’ and I close the door, and I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘You’re going to order dinner, and we just told you [that] your wife and your kid are dead, and you’re ready to eat? To me, that was the one thing that they should have played for the jury because it was recorded. My car was wired. It told me that this guy did it.”
Buehler added that it “solidified” his “suspicions even more” that Peterson “wasn’t concerned” about his wife’s death.
The retired detective said the “Amber tapes” were another key point in their investigation, and jurors told me it was a key point for them during the trial. Beratlis and Belmessieri said the testimony and recorded phone calls played in court from Amber Frey, the woman Scott Peterson was having an affair with before Laci was reported missing, was a major turning point for them.
Hearing the conversations Frey recorded of Peterson pretending he was traveling abroad while the desperate search for his wife was underway and attending a candlelight vigil was devastating for the defense.
“I think at that point, if my wife had disappeared and with my unborn child, even if I was trying to keep the game going, I think I would have had to come clean and tell her, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, I’ve got to kind of focus. I screwed up. I’m … a pig, whatever you want to call me, but I got to take care of finding my family,'” Beratlis remembered. “He was able to compartmentalize…and it was just amazing.”
Belmessieri said the word “detached” keeps coming to his mind.
“Maybe he just didn’t care. You know, you don’t want to make too much of one bit of testimony. … I want[ed] to put the whole picture together, and that’s what we did,” he said.
Buehler added some further context, telling me, “Over the years…I’ve heard it all. Well, why would he kill Laci? Because, she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want to be a father, but Amber has a little child? Well, yeah, Amber has a child, but that little girl wasn’t Scott’s, and he could be gone on a Tuesday after having dinner with her on a Monday, so it wasn’t like he had an obligation or he had a long term commitment financially to this child. So I didn’t see that there was anything that suggested to me that Scott killed his wife because he was interested in Amber. Amber came along at a time where it was convenient for him, and he was enjoying what he was doing.”
Peterson’s affair and what many have called unusual demeanor have been recognized by those who stand by him, including defense attorney Pat Harris.
“Everybody thinks that they know how they would react when they’re accused of murder or even convicted of murder. There is no such playbook as to how you react. There is no such thing is as this is how you should do it,” Harris told me the day before the resentencing hearing.
Scott Peterson and his defense are hoping he will get a new trial based on alleged juror misconduct regarding one of the women who sat in judgment back in 2004 who did not disclose she was the victim of a domestic violence incident while she was pregnant, which would be a conflict during jury selection had it been revealed.
Harris believes in the years of continuing to gather evidence about the burglary that took place across the street from the Petersons on or around Christmas Eve of 2002, he has enough that will prove someone else took the lives of Laci and her unborn son, and he hopes to present this if, in fact, Peterson gets a new trial.
Juror Greg Bertalis said he doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t believe any of it. … This isn’t a robbery with a gun,” Bertalis said, noting that it would be unusual for burglars stealing jewelry to notice a witness walking her dog and escalate their crime by kidnapping and killing her.
While Harris and the Peterson team believe the burglary occurred on Dec. 24, the day Laci vanished, law enforcement sources say investigators believe one of the burglars rode his bike by the neighbor’s house on Christmas Eve, noticed it was unoccupied, went back the next day on Christmas and broke in, and came back the following day, Dec. 26, to complete the job through the back.
The burglars, police sources say, used the back alley in the rear of the home to finish the heist, even though the media and police were in the front of Scott and Laci’s home.
Harris is convinced that is not what happened.
“The theory was always that it was likely it had to do with a burglary,” the defense attorney said of the murder case. “But in the last trial, we were not allowed to present that. The judge didn’t feel like we had sufficient information under California law to be allowed to point the finger at the burglary, so most of what we knew then didn’t come in.”
“Now we know a lot more,” Harris continued. ” We have more evidence and we are absolutely convinced that not only did the burglars take and kill Laci, but that we can prove it.”
He said to “stand by for the retrial” when I asked him to specify what the new evidence is.