JOLIET, Illinois (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday would not allow testimony to be used from a man who said former Chicago area policeman Drew Peterson offered him $25,000 to find a hitman to kill Peterson’s third wife, dealing a blow to prosecutors on the first day of the murder trial.
Peterson is charged with the murder of third wife Kathleen Savio, who was found dead in a dry bathtub in 2004. Her death initially was ruled an accident. But when Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared in 2007, suspicions were raised and the Savio death was ruled a homicide. Stacy Peterson has never been found and is presumed dead.
The Peterson case has drawn national attention and was the subject of a popular Lifetime television network movie “Untouchable” starring Rob Lowe as Drew Peterson.
Prosecutor James Glasgow began his opening statement on Tuesday by telling the jury that Jeffrey Pachter, a man Peterson worked with at a cable television installation company, has said under oath that Peterson offered him $25,000 to find a hitman to kill Savio.
Defense attorney Steve Greenberg immediately called for a mistrial. Judge Edward Burmila cleared the jury out of the courtroom and allowed Greenberg to make his case for a mistrial.
Burmila rejected the mistrial motion, but ruled that the prosecution could not use anything from Pachter during the trial.
The ruling was a blow to the prosecution because there is little physical evidence to link Peterson to Savio’s death and prosecutors hoped to use the testimony of family and associates as evidence of Peterson’s guilt.
The judge also admonished defense lawyer Joel Brodsky for launching into a story of Peterson’s early life rather than focusing on the facts of the case.
“Mr. Brodsky, you’re testifying to the jury about Mr. Peterson’s life story, which is completely inappropriate,” Burmila said.
Brodsky then focused on Savio’s character, calling her a liar who had a nasty temper and had attacked Drew Peterson.
Following opening statements, only one witness took the stand Tuesday.
Mary Pontarelli, a close friend and next-door neighbor of Savio, told the jury about discovering Savio’s drowned body in a dry bathtub in March 2004.
Pontarelli was the second person to see Savio dead. She went into the bathroom right behind Steve Carcerano, another of Savio’s neighbors.
Peterson had asked Carcerano and Pontarelli to go inside the house ahead of him because he was concerned Savio would be angry if she saw him in the house. Peterson wanted to go in the house because he had his and Savio’s sons for weekend visitation and had been unable to return them for two days.
He called a locksmith to break in and then had Carcerano, Pontarelli, and Pontarelli’s husband and son, go look for Savio.
Pontarelli sobbed at one point when she was shown a photograph of Savio curled naked and dead in the bloody tub. The image was flashed on a large courtroom screen for the jury to see. Peterson stared at it without emotion.
Peterson’s first and second wives have remarried.
Editing by Greg McCune, Mary Wisniewski, Andre Grenon and Lisa Shumaker