JOLIET, Ill. — A pastor told jurors Thursday at Drew Peterson's murder trial that the former suburban Chicago police officer's fourth wife once tearfully recounted to him how her husband mysteriously disappeared from their home around the time of his third wife's death, then later coached her about how to lie to investigators.
The Rev. Neil Schori, offering the most dramatic testimony yet at Peterson's trial, told jurors about Stacy Peterson's description of events surrounding Kathleen Savio's March 2004 death. Prosecutors say Drew Peterson killed the 40-year-old Savio because he feared a settlement after their divorce would ruin him. Peterson, 58, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.
Peterson's fourth wife spoke to Schori – a counseling minister at Westbrook Christian Church in Bolingbrook at the time – on Aug. 31, 2007, just months before she vanished. Her disappearance prompted authorities to re-examine Savio's death, which was initially found to be the result of an accidental slip in her bathtub.
"She was very scared," Schori said about Stacy Peterson.
The slender, blond 23-year-old pulled her legs up and hugged her knees nervously as she told him Drew Peterson warned her police would approach her to interview her and coached her for hours about how she should lie to them.
She did lie to investigators, he said, after Savio's body was found in a dry bathtub at her home just blocks from the Petersons' house. Schori didn't go into detail about the lies, but they apparently involved Peterson's whereabouts.
Earlier in the trial, witnesses testified that investigators let Drew Peterson sit in on an interview with Stacy Peterson. He sat next to his visibly shaken wife, his arm around her shoulder and hand on her knee, and corrected at least one of her answers, according to those witnesses.
Schori was one of the last witnesses for prosecutors, who said they expect to rest their four-week presentation of evidence on Friday. Prosecutors have called about 30 witnesses in a challenging case where a lack of physical evidence has led them to rely on hearsay testimony such as Schori's. Hearsay, or statements not based on the direct knowledge of a witness, usually is not admissible in court, but Illinois passed a law in the wake of the Peterson case that allows it in certain circumstances.
Schori testified that Stacy Peterson told him how she and Drew Peterson had gone to bed together the night before Savio's body was found but that she woke up in the middle of the night with him no longer by her side. She searched the house and called her husband's cellphone, but no one answered.
He didn't reappear until dawn.
"She saw him standing near the washer and dryer ... dressed in all black and carrying a bag," Schori told jurors. "She said that he removed his clothing and took the content of the bag and put all of that into the washing machine."
Later, she peeked in the washer. What she saw, Schori said, were women's clothes that weren't hers.
Before Schori took the stand, prosecutors told Judge Edward Burmila that Schori could also testify that Drew Peterson bragged to his fourth wife about committing "the perfect murder." The judge barred that testimony on the grounds that it was privileged communication between husband and wife.
Prosecutors suspect Drew Peterson killed Stacy Peterson because she knew too much about Savio's death, though he has never been charged and her body has never been found. Drew Peterson contends she ran off with another man and is still alive.
The judge has prohibited prosecutors from mentioning Stacy Peterson's disappearance to jurors.
Defense attorney Joe Lopez pressed Schori about why he didn't go to authorities or try to stop Stacy Peterson from going home to her allegedly menacing husband.
"You didn't stop her because you didn't believe her," Lopez said.
"Not true," Schori shot back. He said Stacy Peterson had asked him not to tell anyone what she had said and that he felt obliged to adhere to her wishes.
Lopez also asked why Schori decided to meet Stacy Peterson at a coffee shop rather than in private, blurting at him, "You knew that she was trying to seduce you!" Schori denied that and said he normally met in public with those he was counseling.
Several spectators gasped at the question, prompting an admonishment from Judge Burmila, who said he didn't want observers' reactions to influence jurors.
After prosecutors rest, defense attorneys will have a chance to present their case. They could also choose not to call any witnesses and argue before jurors that prosecutors failed to prove the murder charge.
Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm