“If I tried to leave him, he said he’d kill me.”
Those were the words allegedly spoken by 23-year-old missing mother of two, Stacy Peterson, to a friend and neighbor about a threat her 53-year-old husband Drew Peterson made.
On Oct. 26, Stacy told Drew she wanted a divorce. Two days later she was gone. Her policeman husband suggests that she has left for personal reasons in the past, and that he suspects she has either run off on her own or run away with an unnamed man. No evidence of either scenario has yet been discovered.
What is it, though, in Sgt. Peterson’s background that would make him any more of a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance than the statistical probability ascribed to any other spouse or partner of a missing person?
Common sense would support her husband knowing something more about her disappearance than is publicly known. Consider the following:
- Sgt. Peterson is 30 years his wife’s senior, having met and allegedly dated her when she was 17 and while he was still married to his then 40-year-old wife, Kathleen Savio. Stacy Peterson is Sgt. Peterson’s fourth wife and he has a total of eight children.
- A history of deceit: Sgt. Peterson allegedly told Stacy he was single when he was still married to his third wife. Other wife-killers have told similar lies concerning their marital status, like Scott Peterson who told Amber Frey he was a widower.
- Sgt. Peterson allegedly threatened and beat his third wife, Kathleen, who he married less than three months after his second divorce. Of the 18 individual reports of domestic abuse from their household, at least half were related to allegations of physical abuse by one or both parties to the marriage.
- After his divorce from Kathleen, who once had a domestic protection order against him, Sgt. Peterson attempted to have his $2,000-per-month child support payment reduced, to no avail. Kathleen continued to live in the house in which she, Sgt. Peterson and their two children resided at the time of her untimely death. At this point, she was in legal action to receive part of Sgt. Peterson’s anticipated retirement pension.
Kathleen Savio's death
On the weekend of her 2004 death, Kathleen is believed to have turned over her two children to Sgt. Peterson. When he later returned the children to his former residence, he was unable to get into the house. So he, an experienced police officer, went to a neighbor’s residence for help. The neighbor called a locksmith who responded and unlocked the door to the residence.
The neighbor entered the house and found Kathleen dead in an empty whirlpool-style bath tub. Her head reportedly showed signs of trauma and there was blood in her wet hair. Because her hair was wet and her fingers were wrinkled, the local medical examiner ruled her tragic death to be accidental, saying the water had probably slowly leaked away from the tub.
Kathleen had made notes concerning her fights with her former husband — just in case, according to her sister, something happened to her.
A pattern of behavior?
Stacy Peterson told relatives she was afraid of her husband. Sgt. Peterson had allegedly monitored and limited his current wife’s telephone and social contacts, “watching her every move,” even to the extent of allegedly following her as she went to class at a local college. He previously refused to allow her to visit her sister in a nearby community and had allegedly threatened her on more than one occasion. Stacy had told a number of friends that if anything happened to her it was not an accident; her husband, who had allegedly beaten her in the past, would kill her.
Stacy Peterson was said to be a good mother to her two children with Sgt. Peterson and the two children she was raising from his previous marriage to Kathleen. Family and friends say she would never run off and leave her children. She was, however, according to friends and relatives, depressed concerning the deaths of two of her sisters, one by SIDS and one in a fire.
Sgt. Peterson acknowledges a telephone call from Stacy on the day of her disappearance in which she allegedly indicates that she was leaving him. It is unknown if this call has been verified by independent investigation.
In an e-mail to a friend, Stacy described her husband as “controlling, manipulative and somewhat abusive,” asking her friend to pray for her for wisdom, protection and strength.
Some believe that had Drew Peterson not been a police officer, the alleged domestic abuse and subsequent death of his third wife, and his alleged abuse of his current wife, would have brought him to the attention of the criminal justice system.
In many police departments, allegations of domestic abuse and the issuance of a restraining order would have caused the officer to have his firearm taken away. His supervisors would have placed him on some kind of administrative duty until the allegations were resolved (the so-called “rubber gun squad.”)
In a recent media interview by his current chief of police, no indication was given of any type of such action ever being taken against him.
Sgt. Peterson was due to retire or had otherwise indicated his desire to retire in November 2007.
Love, honor, murder
A similar story in the news has been the case of Lisa Stebic, a Chicago-area wife and mother who, like Stacy Peterson, was alleged by her husband to have simply walked out of their home last April. She hasn't been found, either. Where have all of these runaway wives and moms gone, if, in fact, they really had the chance to run away?
Sometimes a crime represents the anger or rage of the perpetrator. In December 2006, 49-year-old Ellen Robb, wife of University of Pennsylvania Professor Rafael Robb, was bludgeoned to death. She died in her home as she made cookies for their children. Professor Robb has been charged with his wife’s murder and the suggested motive was their impending divorce. Somehow the words “love, honor and obey” seem to have lost their meaning, at least for some couples.
For others, these words have been hammered into a weapon, one that can be used by one against the other, often resulting in the death of a spouse or significant other. The children become the ultimate victim.
But with Stacy Peterson, we just don’t know. She grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father who reportedly used to tell her “you better be nothing like your mother.” Stacy's own mother disappeared a decade ago. Perhaps it was the desire for stability that made her to date and marry a man a year older than her father, another male authority figure.
Should Stacy have been able to squeeze in a extramarital relationship with all her responsibilities — her two biological children, caring for Sgt. Peterson's children, her schooling, and his alleged obsessive, stalking-like behavior — it could be expected that Sgt. Peterson would likely know the identity of her lover. He would have already provided police this information.
Now authorities take a new look at the death of Kathleen Savio and continue in their search for Stacy. Peterson has been seen wearing a cover on his face, indicating he didn’t want to be identified. This is perhaps why he's been absent from the ranks of those currently searching for his missing wife.
The challenge for authorities is to either find Stacy or prove that some type of crime has been committed. This is hard to do in the absence of any evidence. There have, after all, been runaway brides. Missing women have returned of their own volition or have been recovered from their kidnappers.
In Stacy's case, friends and relatives hope for the best while preparing for the worst. But in this case, the worst — like in the case of Lisa Stebic — may simply be the not knowing.
Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His web site, www.LiveSecure.org provides readers with security-related information.