Drew Peterson, a former police officer charged with murdering his third wife and suspected in the disappearance of his fourth, joked that he'd rather see Denzel Washington play him than Rob Lowe when he heard there would be a television movie about him. Now, though, he wants to pull the plug on the project.
Walter Maksym, a lawyer for Peterson, sent letters Wednesday to Lifetime Entertainment Services, Lowe and others involved with the movie demanding that they stop production because they have no legal right to use Peterson's name, likeness or story without Peterson's approval.
"There are right to publicity statutes in every state that you have the right to use your name, persona, likeness, and life story for commercial purposes and nobody else can use that unless they get your written permission," said Walter Maksym, who said he sent out 18 letters. Peterson, he said, has never been asked for his permission.
Peterson, who was an officer in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, is charged with murder in the 2004 bathtub drowning of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. He is also a suspect, though he has not been charged, in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy, who is presumed dead by investigators.
Peterson has been in jail since he was arrested in May 2009. He maintains his innocence in both his third wife's death and fourth wife's disappearance.
Maksym also alleges in his letter that the movie defames Peterson, who has not been convicted, because it is based on a book that is "nothing more than a deliberate and calculated assemblage of falsehoods constituting a character assassination ... to falsely and intentionally insinuate that my client is a despicable wife murderer."
A spokesman for Lifetime Entertainment, Les Eisner, declined to comment on the letter.
But Joe Hosey, who wrote "Fatal Vows: The Tragic Wives of Sergeant Drew Peterson," defended the book as accurate, saying neither Peterson nor his attorneys have identified any errors. In fact, he said, his reporting was borne out by testimony during a lengthy court hearing regarding the murder charges in the Savio case.
"The testimony from several witnesses was word for word printed in my book well before that hearing took place," said Hosey. "Under oath, they gave the same account that I had when I thoroughly researched my book."
A judge ultimately ruled that much of that hearsay testimony could not be used at trial — a ruling that is now before an appellate court — but Hosey said that nobody has ever proven that the witnesses lied, that what they told him is what they told the court.
Kelli Sager, a prominent Los Angeles media lawyer who is not involved in the dispute, said it's unlikely Peterson's claim would hold up in court.
"The law's very well established on this — the First Amendment allows filmmakers, authors, TV producers, and the like to publish unauthorized biographies, and the "right of publicity" is trumped by the constitution," she wrote in an email Thursday.
Dave Heller, an attorney with the Media Law Resource Center in New York who also is not connected to the dispute, said the statute Maksym based his argument on is geared toward preventing the unauthorized commercial use of a person's likeness, and that it wouldn't apply here.
"Right of publicity claims are defined and intended to stop the use of celebrities or other people's names in commercial advertising, and movies, like the news, are not generally considered commercial advertising," he said, adding that unauthorized movies and books are produced all the time about people without their permission.
Heller said Peterson could have a legal claim if he can prove the film "departs from the known facts and is defamatory." But he said, "They don't have a claim over an accurate portrayal of real life events."
The movie has received a fair amount of publicity in recent weeks, including a People Magazine story, that includes a photograph of Lowe, made up to look like Peterson, which explains how the actor "goes through a nine-hour transformation every day" to make him resemble Peterson.
When first told of the movie, Peterson, through his attorneys, joked about Lowe playing him. At the same time, one of his attorneys, Joel Brodsky, said he hoped that Lifetime, which is making the movie, would not rely on Hosey's book, which he characterized as biased and inaccurate.
And Maksym said that the reason Peterson did not want to file a lawsuit over the book was because he did not want to be forced to testify in a civil case before his criminal trial "because the state would use what he said" when he ultimately stood trial.
"We will do that later," he said.
Maksym said that even if he cannot halt production of the movie, which, he said is already being filmed, he is confident that if those involved with the production ignore his letter and he ultimately files a lawsuit that he can prevent the movie from being aired. He said that if he does not receive an answer to his letter by the end of next week that he will file a lawsuit before the end of the month.