He stands accused of murdering his third wife, and is a suspect in the disappearance of his fourth. But through much of the allegations dating to 2004, ex-cop Drew Peterson has simply fanned the interest with his cocky confidence and attention-embracing behavior worthy of a red-carpet celebrity.
His kids — including two apiece with each of his wives in the twin mysteries — issued a statement of support when Peterson, now 56, was arrested in May ’09 and pleaded not guilty to killing Kathleen Savio, 40, whose bathtub drowning was staged to look like an accident, according to Illinois prosecutors. He had replaced the still-missing Stacy Peterson with a 24-year-old fiancée, although the woman later described the engagement as a stunt. Even his defense team has raised eyebrows, enlisting model-turned-lawyer Reem Odeh and issuing a news release headlined "Not Just Another Pretty Face," which states: "Reem wants the public to know that beyond her stunning good looks is a hard-nosed attorney who is detail-oriented and brings keen analytical skills to Team Peterson."
The families of Savio and Stacy Peterson have not laughed. But back in court last week for a hearing that will help decide his future (testimony resumes Monday), the smiles were gone from Peterson's face as well.
In an extraordinary court hearing, prosecutors are previewing their murder case by presenting witnesses who recall each woman's fears in the face of threats from Peterson. At issue is a legal milestone — the so-called Drew Peterson Law, adopted by the Illinois legislature after Peterson became a suspect — that allows previously inadmissible hearsay to be used in court against him. Will County Judge Stephen White will hear as many as 60 witnesses over three weeks to decide which statements ultimately may be presented to a jury.
"All it is, is rumor, innuendo and gossip," Peterson's attorney Joel Brodsky told the media after a previous hearing. "People had ulterior motives for saying what they said or are out-and-out unreliable people."
Even so, the allegations as Peterson's case regains the spotlight are riveting.
Knife to throatPeterson broke into Savio's house, tackled his ex-wife on a staircase and put a knife to her throat, telling Savio "he could kill her right there and then, but it would be too bloody," according to Savio's statements to a co-worker, Issam Karam. "He told her nothing she could say or do would make her safe," Karam testified.
Three months later, in March 2004, Savio's body was discovered in an empty bathtub. The medical examiner initially ruled it drowning by accident. Only after Stacy Peterson, then 23, disappeared in October 2007 — and suspicions again turned to Drew Peterson — did authorities take a second look, exhuming Savio's body and declaring the case a homicide.
Hoping to show a pattern, prosecutors hope to introduce Stacy Peterson's own fears and suspicions about Peterson into the Savio case — although no evidence of Stacy's whereabouts has been revealed, and no one has been charged in her disappearance.
Benefit of a doubt
Stacy's family doubted Peterson had a role in Savio's death because he told them his ex-wife was mentally unstable, Stacy's uncle Kyle Toutges testified. "We were told Kathy was on drugs and needed to be in a home," Toutges said. "Our family gave Drew the benefit of the doubt."
At a party, however, Toutges overheard Drew Peterson's friends tell Peterson "it looked bad for him, how convenient it was for him for his wife to die at this time." Toutges described Peterson's response as, "Let them prove it."
And repeating an earlier reported comment, Peterson's stepbrother told the judge he helped Peterson move a heavy storage container from Peterson's house on the day Stacy Peterson went missing. But in much more detail, Thomas Morphey testified his assistance followed a conversation in which Peterson had asked him, "How much do you love me?"
When Morphey answered, "I do," Peterson replied, "Enough to kill for me?"
Claims Stacy cheated on him
Morphey — who acknowledged his bipolar disorder, manic depression and treatments for substance abuse, and who tried to kill himself after helping Peterson — testified he told Peterson he couldn't live with that. He said he told Peterson, "I always assumed you killed Kathleen," adding that Peterson replied, "No, I would never kill Kathleen. She was a great mother."
But after claiming that Stacy was cheating on him and wanted a divorce, Peterson offered Morphey $200 to rent a storage unit for a container in Morphey's name, with instructions to check on it for six months "to make sure there was no odor," Morphey said. Peterson explained that if anything happened to him, Morphey should take the container and "drop it in the canal," Morphey said.
‘This never happened’
Even after Morphey declined to participate, Peterson picked him up the next day — Oct. 28, 2007 — to help haul the container out the front door and into Peterson's SUV. When they were finished, Morphey testified, Peterson told him, "This never happened."
Legal experts are waiting to see how many such statements a jury may eventually hear, noting that prosecutors have not identified any eyewitnesses or scientific evidence linking Peterson to Savio's death. A date for the murder trial has not been set.