The night before Christmas, December 24th, 2002, a California girl vanished, seemingly into thin air. Her husband returned to their house in Modesto through the darkening afternoon, expecting to find his wife in the final stages of preparing to head over with him to her mother’s house, where they would have a family gathering for dinner that evening. That house was five minutes away, and when he returned home to find the place empty, he assumed she had headed over to her mother’s house a bit early, and started cleaning himself up to go over there. He threw his damp clothing in the wash (he’d been trying out a newly-bought used boat) and took a shower. He looked for the dog and found him in the back yard. The dog’s leash was on, he discovered. That was the first hint something was wrong.
He called his wife’s mother’s house, and said, “Mom? Is Laci over there?”
Laci’s mother, and her partner Ron Grantski, hadn’t seen her.
And that was when it began.
The Official Version of the story says that Laci Peterson was never seen again. Her husband, Scott, was the person presumed to have seen her last, the morning of December 24th, as she worked in the kitchen and made holiday preparations. Scott said he left her that morning around 9:30 with plans to take his new boat to the Berkeley Marina, try it out, then return home for Christmas Eve dinner. She was mopping the kitchen floor, and planned to walk the dog, he told police.
The police asked the public for information. People in town, across the state, and even across the world had watched with horror from the warmth of their living rooms, while Laci’s family stood outside in the cold the night before Christmas wondering where she was. Everybody wondered. Surely every single person in Modesto knew a young woman, seven and a half months pregnant, had disappeared into thin air on Christmas Eve night. One person who claimed not to know about Laci’s disappearance was Amber Frey, who said she only learned of it December 30th, even though she was very good friends with law enforcement officers.
Law enforcement, charged with finding Laci, set up a tip line, and an operations center in a park near the young couple’s house.
But witnesses who saw Laci were ridiculed, then kept secret. And they did not testify at the trial. They are the hidden witnesses, though they tried to relay what they had seen to the proper people. The real mystery of the Peterson case is what happened to their testimony.
Martha Aguilar saw Laci the morning of December 24th, walking the dog in the neighborhood. Martha knew Laci because the two of them went to the same Ob-Gyn. They were neighbors.
Aguilar contacted police to tell them she spotted Laci walking the dog between 9:45 and 10:00 am on December 24th, while she drove on La Loma.
The police, Aguilar told defense investigator Matt Dalton, never called her back.
Matt Dalton, a former L.A. County prosecutor investigating the case for the defense, located six people, including Aguilar, who independently of each other claimed to have seen Laci walking in the neighborhood and whom he considered credible witnesses with no motive to lie. These were witnesses blown off by the police, some of whom had left multiple messages and attempted to visit the command post in person to convey what they saw. They were local residents and taxpayers.
Homer and Helen Maldonado;
Tony Frietas, who drove a bread truck in the neighborhood;
The Modesto police announced that they’d had a deluge of “Laci Sightings,” –a belittling label they came up with to effectively convey that people who thought they’d seen Laci were delusional, simply wrong, looking for their 15 minutes, playing pranks, or outright nuts.
Trial quote explaining why someone didn’t come forward who had seen Laci the morning of December 24th:
Mark Geragos: The one thing that wasn’t mentioned is that the reason that she was hesitant to call the police is that they were discrediting anyone who claimed they saw Laci, right?
Detective Craig Grogan: That’s what that report says.
EARLY AFTERNOON, DECEMBER 24th
Tom Harshman’s call to the police from a Modesto roadside went straight to dispatch, since there was no Laci tip line yet—no one knew she was missing.
Perhaps this is the reason the Modesto PD didn’t call Harshman back. But, perhaps not. Because Harshman tried again—and again.
And he was still ignored.
Harshman may have seen something important. But apparently police weren’t concerned.
Apparently they were sure Peterson did it—and so didn’t feel the need to follow other leads. This is one such lead. Please read about what Harshman saw and ask yourself if this was handled correctly. Harshman turned his car around because the expression on the woman’s face worried him. The lack of return contact from the police charged with finding Laci is disturbing. If Harshman did see an abduction in progress, the possibility of criminal negligence on the part of law enforcement is not a reach—-under what kind of rule of law may an investigator simply ignore potential witnesses?
2ND WEEK OF JANUARY, 2003
Plenty of people in California were talking about Laci Peterson during the weeks that followed December 24th, 2002. But the head of the investigative division at the NORCO Correctional Facility in Riverside County heard a conversation about Laci that troubled him.
It troubled him enough that he made a cassette copy of the conversation, caught on tape as per routine with inmate phone calls. He contacted the Modesto Police to let them know he had information that might be relevant to Laci’s disappearance.
On one end of the phone, the NORCO end, was Shawn Tenbrink; on the other, his brother Adam was calling from the outside. The Tenbrink brothers lived in Modesto’s Airport District. They lived near, and were friends with, one of the men who admitted to the major burglary across from the Petersons’ house the morning of December 24th. As the wheels of the cassette turn, Adam is telling Shawn that while Steven Todd was burglarizing the house, Laci walked up and confronted him, and Steven threatened her.
Lt. Xavier Aponte, the NORCO detective, felt this might open important doors to information about the Peterson case.
When the Modesto Police did not return his call, he tried again.
Aponte’s second phone call led to a followup investigation by the Modesto PD–an investigation that was to be kept secret from Laci’s family, the public, the media, and, significantly, the defense.
What did happen to Aponte’s information? Nothing was ever turned over to Peterson’s defense. And Aponte told two conflicting stories afterward to the defense and the prosecution. The tip came to light when an inmate in the Stanislaus County lockup contacted defense attorneys, who sent investigator Carl Jensen to interview him. The names Jensen collected during that interview led to the discovery of a cryptic and incomplete one-line tip buried within ten thousand other tips on a compact disc. Only upon finding this information did the names on the tip CD come into context.
On December 1st, 2004, Aponte gave a statement to the defense in which he stated he was 99% certain he made a separate copy of the cassette tape to give to the Modesto Police detective who came to NORCO to interview the inmate.
He said the inmate, Shawn Tenbrink, “appeared scared” when he entered the office. He denied having the conversation, and wouldn’t give any information.
Lt. Aponte did not recall the name of the detective who came to NORCO; however, when asked about the names Craig Grogan, Al Brocchini, Mark Smith and Owens, Lt. Aponte said Grogan sounded familiar. Grogan was the “lead” detective in the case.
On March 3rd, 2005, Aponte talked to the prosecution—and his story changed.
Here is part of that statement as reported on Newell’s site:
“I received a return telephone call from a Modesto Police detective a short time later. The detective asked that I arrange a telephonic interview between the inmate Shawn Tenbrink and the detective. I do not recall the detective’s name, but I do recall the voice of the detective sounded male in gender.
“I had Shawn Tenbrink brought to an office at the facility and met with him. I was dressed in plain clothes at the time and was not wearing a Corrections Department uniform. I monitored a telephonic interview between the Modesto Police Department detective and Shawn Tenbrink. Shawn Tenbrink denied any knowledge about Laci Peterson’s disappearance, and was not very cooperative with the detective.
“Shawn Tenbrink was returned to his unit at the prison after the interview. I do not recall mailing a copy of the audio tape recording of the conversation between Shawn and Adam Tenbrink, nor do I recall if the detective asked me to do so. I am not aware of any Modesto police officer visiting the California Rehabilitation Center to interview Shawn Tenbrink. The telephonic interview with Shawn is the only interview that took place to my knowledge.”
It seems curious that Aponte would specify his choice of clothing in his statement to the prosecution.
Almost as if he’s claiming to be a plainclothes police person who conducted an interview, though he says the interview was on the telephone–rather than in person, which the situation would have seemed to warrant, and as he told the defense investigator.
On March 9th, 2005, Detective Craig Grogan made the following statement:
“I have found no other reports mentioning Aponte or Tenbrink. I have not found any audiotapes in possession of the Modesto Police Department that contain a conversation recorded between Adam and Shawn Tenbrink. I sent an e-mail to detectives, officers and supervisors involved in the Peterson investigation requesting information about an interview between an officer or detective and Shawn Tenbrink. I have not received any information from any investigator as a result of that e-mail.
“I did not go to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco at any point during this investigation, nor did any other officer or detective to my knowledge. I have inquired with supervisors in the Investigative Services Unit and they do not recall any officers being sent to that facility for an interview related to the Laci Peterson case.”
What happened to the interview notes?
What happened to the cassette?
Under discovery laws, anything helpful to the defense must be provided to them by police and prosecutors. Yet the discovery turned over to the defense team only included the following tip buried on a compact disc.
From Grogan’s statement March 9, 2005 which was included in the Prosecution Opposition Response:
“Per a request by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office I searched the computerized files for the Peterson Case looking for the tip listing Shawn Tenbrink referred to by the defense in their motion. I found a tip dated 01/22/03 which included information from Lieutenant Aponte. The tip included the following information: Aponte’s telephone number, the fact he is an employed at “CRC Norco,” the inmate’s name and the name of the inmate’s brother. This tip was documented on a “tip Sheet.” The tip sheet which contained this tip is located at Bates stamp number 15311, and it was discovered to both the prosecution and defense.”
That means: nothing about Laci walking up during the burglary.
In the Defense Motion for a new trial, the Aponte tip is described in detail.
On March 16th, 2005, the defense motion was denied by Judge Alfred Delucci (who said at another time that the trial would be “an appellate lawyer’s petri dish”).
Delucci said the tip could not be trusted because it came from an inmate at a correctional facility.
But this is not correct. The tip came from Xavier Aponte, who headed the investigations unit at NORCO, and was subsequently removed from that job.
Who has reported on the Aponte tip?
Not Greta on Fox, not CNN, not NBC, not CBS, not ABC, not TIME, Newsweek, or Court TV. Not the New York Times, not the San Bernardino Sun, not the Los Angeles Times, not the Modesto Bee, not KTVU in San Francisco, which obsessively covered the Peterson trial; not a single media outlet has accessed the widely-available Defense Motion for a New Trial. Not Diane Sawyer, who made hay by suggesting to viewers that Peterson was weeping fake tears immediately before her interview with him aired; not Nancy Grace, who got juror Justin Falconer kicked off the jury by promoting lies about him on televison; not even Mark Geragos, who wrote it in his motion but has been strangely mum in the years that have passed since, while his former client sits on death row.
Who besides Peterson has been cast out of the media spotlight once exonerating evidence came to light?
And if this can happen in front of the whole world, what’s to stop it from happening to you, or someone you love?