On this day in 2012, in a case that generated national headlines, former Illinois police officer Drew Peterson is found guilty in the 2004 murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Savio’s death originally was ruled an accident after her body was discovered in an empty bathtub at her suburban Chicago home; however, the 2007 disappearance of Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, led authorities to reopen the Savio case and eventually label her death a homicide.
Peterson, who was born in January 1954, joined the police department in Bolingbrook, Illinois, in 1977. In May 1992, several months after divorcing his second wife, Peterson married Kathleen Savio, with whom he went on to have two children. In the fall of 2002, while embroiled in contentious divorce proceedings, Savio wrote a letter to an Illinois prosecutor stating that Peterson had threatened her life and that she was afraid of him. The couple’s divorce was granted in October 2003, and later that same month Peterson, then 49, wed 19-year-old Stacy Cales, who became known as Stacy Peterson. The pair had two children together. On March 1, 2004, Savio, age 40, was found dead in a bathtub in her Bolingbrook home. She had a gash on the back of her head, leading investigators to believe she had drowned after slipping in the tub. Three years later, on October 28, 2007, Stacy Peterson went missing. Also a Bolingbrook resident, she had failed to show up after arranging to help a friend paint a house.
In early November of 2007, police named Drew Peterson a suspect in Stacy’s disappearance and also announced they were re-opening the investigation into Kathleen Savio’s death. Savio’s body was exhumed for further examination, and in February 2008 authorities officially declared her death a homicide. In May 2009 Peterson was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the drowning death of Savio. Prior to his arrest, Peterson, who resigned as a sergeant with the Bolingbrook Police Department in late 2007, appeared arrogant in public, seemed to court media attention and made flippant comments about Stacy’s disappearance. His case made headlines and garnered public interest, even inspiring a 2012 television movie, “Drew Peterson: Untouchable,” in which he was portrayed by Rob Lowe.
During Peterson’s trial, which began in July 2012, prosecutors claimed the former police officer had killed Savio and staged her death to look like an accident, fearing the couple’s pending divorce settlement would ruin him financially. The prosecution had no physical evidence directly linking Peterson to the crime. Instead, the case was built on “from-the-grave” testimony in the form of statements Savio made to friends and relatives before she perished, alleging Drew Peterson had threatened to kill her and make it look like an accident. Other testimony included that of Stacy Peterson’s pastor, who recalled that, two months before she went missing, Stacy told him that Peterson left their house around the time of Savio’s death, returning home dressed in black and carrying a bag of women’s clothing that he put in their washing machine. According to the pastor, Stacy said Peterson spent hours coaching her on how to lie to police and provide a false alibi for him on the night of Savio’s death. Additionally, a divorce attorney contacted by Stacy Peterson just days before she vanished testified in court that Stacy intended to divorce Peterson and wondered if her knowledge of the fact that he murdered Savio could be used against him in divorce proceedings.
Normally, such hearsay would be barred at trial. But in 2008, Illinois legislators passed a law tailored to the Peterson case (and nicknamed “Drew’s Law”) that allows judges to admit hearsay evidence into court for first-degree murder cases if prosecutors can prove a defendant might have killed a witness to prevent that person from testifying.
Peterson’s defense team, meawhile, argued that Savio accidentally fell in her tub, hit her head and drowned. However, pathology experts for the prosecution testified that the injuries Savio sustained—a wound on the back of her head and more than a dozen bruises on the front of her body—could not have been caused by a single fall. On September 6, 2012, a jury in Joliet, Illinois, found Peterson guilty in Savio’s murder, and on February 21, 2013, he was sentenced to 38 years behind bars. Stacy Peterson has never been found. Drew Peterson has asserted that she left him for another man, but authorities suspect Peterson murdered his fourth wife because she could have implicated him in his third wife’s death. No charges have been filed in that case.