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Southland Enlisted in Hunt for Laci Peterson

Volunteers take fliers and posters at an event attended by the Modesto woman's husband.

January 20, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

They had driven for miles to help in the Southern California search, and still they looked at the scene as something strange.

They gathered at the Doubletree Hotel in Westwood, which served Sunday as volunteer central in the case of Laci Peterson, the pregnant Modesto woman missing since Christmas Eve.

They came to pick up fliers and posters offering a $500,000 reward, hoping that someone, even 285 miles from Modesto, would know something about the disappearance of the brown-haired 27-year-old.

Sitting at a table, staring them in the eyes, dressed in bluejeans and a blue-and-white checked shirt, a wedding ring on his left hand, was Scott Peterson, Laci's husband. Police have not named him as a suspect, but attention has focused on him since police told Laci Peterson's family last week that they believed he was having an affair.

"There's a weird vibe around here," said Paul Yonet, who had driven from Santa Monica to help.

They drove to Westwood, many said, because this was about the missing woman. "We're not here for her husband," said Lorraine Magliano, 20, who came from Anaheim after deciding to pass out fliers instead of going to church. "We're here for her family and to help find her."

The case of the woman who disappeared from the Central Valley city has grabbed the attention of the national media for weeks. For the first several hours Sunday, reporters and TV camera crews filled the conference room, jostling to interview volunteers.

They dangled their boom mikes at Scott Peterson wherever he went, following him almost into the bathroom.

He spoke only about the search, nothing about the case, but his presence dominated the room.

"It's a little suspicious," said a pregnant and newly married Trista Newton, 18, who had driven in from Ventura to help. "You can't rule him out as a suspect."

Southern California was chosen as a target for the Laci campaign because of its huge population and because the company that owns the Red Lion Inn in Modesto and was host to the volunteer center there owns the Doubletree in Westwood and offered the room free of charge.

The media blitz seemed a bit much for Brad Saltzman, general manager of the Red Lion, who has become something of a spokesman for the volunteer efforts. "When I landed at LAX, there were eight TV crews there to meet me. I'm just a hotel manager," he muttered. "I'm just a hotel manager."

The Sunday event was just the latest development. First, the plans to blanket Southern California with posters about Laci were announced. Then they were canceled Friday because reporters kept asking questions about Scott Peterson's alleged affair.

Saturday afternoon, according to Saltzman, Scott Peterson himself decided the Westwood event was on. "He wanted to personally be here to head up the effort to get more posters up," Saltzman said.

On top of that, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department over the weekend said it was investigating a connection between Scott Peterson and the disappearance of Kristin Smart. Both were students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo when Smart disappeared in 1996.

On Sunday, Sheriff Pat Hedges backed off, saying there was no connection. He said the department is "aware that Scott Peterson, along with more than 15,000 other students," attended the university at the same time as Smart.

At the Doubletree, Scott Peterson's mother, father and brother were working with volunteers.

Joe Peterson, 39, said his brother Scott had lost 20 pounds since the disappearance. "Look into his eyes," he said. "You can see the pain."

He said the family continues to give him their support. "It's a shock every time I see my brother's picture on TV or the media in that negative light," he said. "Obviously we don't believe it."

Meanwhile, volunteers wandered into the conference room throughout the day. Noel Perez was dressed in an Oakland Raiders jersey, carrying his Chihuahua, ready for the playoff game.

"More than anything I want to be watching [the game]," he said, "but it's more important to take a few minutes to do this."

*

Times staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this report.

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