Nearly eight-and-a-half years after his ex-wife was found dead in a bathtub, Drew Peterson, a former Bolingbrook, Ill. police sergeant, is facing a jury on charges of her murder. But as opening statements got under way Tuesday, the proceedings quickly ramped up in intensity — the years had dulled very little of the pain. In their first sentences uttered in court, prosecutors abruptly accused Peterson of killing his wife, then trying to cover it up.
But it was an allegation from a former coworker of Peterson’s that nearly brought the trial to a halt. Prosecutors referred to the colleague’s claim that Peterson once tried to hire him as a hitman for $25,000, an allegation that prompted defense attorneys to move for a mistrial — and this was only in the first few minutes of the trial, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Judge Edward Burmila refused to allow the motion and demanded the case proceed.
Peterson, 58, formerly a ranking member of the police force in the town 30 miles southwest of Chicago, is answering to first-degree murder charges in the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, who died in 2004. She was found dead in an empty bathtub six months after her divorce from Peterson was finalized. At the time, her death was ruled an accidental drowning, but Peterson’s subsequent suspicious actions would bring the spotlight back on potential wrongdoing by Peterson. Upon her death, Drew Peterson was already remarried to his fourth wife, Stacy, 23. She was declared missing in 2007, and while Peterson insisted that she left him for another man, peculiar questions emerged about Kathleen Savio’s death when Stacy vanished, leading authorities to exhume Savio’s body for additional forensic testing. His attorneys say no evidence exists that will prove that Peterson killed her and that her death was, in fact, a household accident.
Peterson is also the only suspect in Stacy’s disappearance. His relationship history was strange enough to inspire a movie on the Lifetime network. While prosecutors considered charges in both cases, Peterson almost seemed to court attention from the media, even appearing on CNN‘s Larry King Live, all the while maintaining his innocence and even announcing his engagement to another young woman in 2008. But in May of 2009, he was indicted for Savio’s murder, with bail set at $20 million. In lieu of bail, he has remained in a Joliet jail awaiting trial until opening arguments began Tuesday.
The first witness called in the case was neighbor and family friend Mary Pontarelli who described being brought into the house by Peterson only to discover the woman’s body. Three others were called by prosecutors, including Mary’s husband Tom.
But defense lawyers said, even though Pontarelli described the gruesome scene, that still doesn’t place Peterson with Savio at the moment she died. They said it couldn’t even be proven that she was murdered because the bathroom in her home “was in perfect order.”
“There’s not one shred of evidence Drew or anyone else was inside of Kathy Savio’s house,” said defense lawyer Joel Brodsky, according to the Sun-Times. But prosecutor Stephen Glasgow painted a different portrait of their relationship, casting Peterson as a bully, particularly after he was ordered to pay $15,000 to Savio’s divorce attorney. He said Peterson went to his estranged wife’s home, “grabbed Kathy Savio by the throat and said, ‘Why don’t you just die? I could kill you and no one would know.’ “
The first day of testimony became increasingly emotional and intense, a switch from the tone of the beginning of the day. Savio’s stepmother Marcia was still hopeful for justice. “It seems like they’re trying to make Drew the victim instead of Kathy,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “Kathy was always a strong girl and the problem is, she wasn’t strong enough.”