By Steve Schmadeke, Matthew Walberg and Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO — Hugging her knee to her chest, Stacy Peterson cried as she told a Bolingbrook, Ill., minister about the night her husband coached her, hour after hour, on how to cover up his slaying of his ex-wife by lying to police, the pastor testified Thursday.
The Rev. Neil Schori’s dramatic testimony about the 2008 counseling session at a patio outside a Bolingbrook Starbuck’s is considered by prosecutors to be a linchpin in their murder case, which is expected to conclude Friday.
There is no physical evidence tying former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson, 58, to the bathtub where his third wife, Kathleen Savio, 40, was found drowned in 2004.
And the manner of Savio’s death, which was initially considered an accident, is also in dispute, with defense attorneys arguing her death resulted from a simple fall.
If the jurors believe Schori, his testimony could help prosecutors clear those two major hurdles in what is otherwise a largely circumstantial case. Jurors kept their heads down and took notes during Schori’s testimony Thursday morning.
Schori, dressed in a black suit with a tailored fit and a white dress shirt left open at the collar, leaned forward slightly in his seat on the witness stand as he recounted what Stacy told him in August 2007, just two months before she vanished.
Her disappearance led authorities to re-examine Savio’s death. Savio’s body was exhumed a few months later and Peterson was charged with her murder in 2009. Prosecutors believe Peterson also murdered Stacy, but he has not been charged.
Jurors have seen Stacy’s picture but have not heard any testimony that she is missing.
When Stacy woke late at night to find Peterson gone, she unsuccessfully tried to call him, then went downstairs and saw him dressed in black emptying a bag of women’s clothing into the wash machine, Schori said. He then put his own clothes in the washer, Schori said Stacy told him.
“He told her that soon the police would be wanting to sit down to interview her, and he told her what to say to the police,” Schori testified. “It took hours (for him to tell her what to say).
“She said that she lied on Drew’s behalf to the police,” he said. “She continued to cry. She was very scared.”
Jurors did not hear the full extent of what Stacy allegedly told Schori, which Judge Edward Burmila and a prior judge ruled was largely barred by marital privilege, which keeps conversations between a husband and wife private.
In a sealed hearing two years ago, Schori testified that Stacy told him Peterson said “you know what I did” and smirked at her as they stood together in the laundry room that night, records show.
Peterson then told Stacy he’d hit Savio in the back of the head to make her drowning death look like an accident, Schori said at the 2010 hearing. He also testified that Peterson then said he was going to tell Stacy what to tell police so Savio’s murder would be the perfect crime.
Stacy’s comments to Schori during a half-hour talk came while she was contemplating divorcing Peterson, but the minister said he believed her story.
“I believe she was telling the truth,” he said on the witness stand Thursday.
Defense attorney Joseph Lopez primarily attacked Schori’s failure to act on Stacy’s revelation, which Schori said was a result of Stacy asking him to keep quiet.
He also questioned why Schori did his counseling sessions in public, telling Schori he had “embarrassed” Stacy.
Lopez also asked why Schori had asked another man, who sat about 10 feet away, to accompany him to the session. The man couldn’t hear what was said but was there as a precaution because Schori was meeting alone with a married woman, Schori said.
“You felt like that because you knew she was trying to seduce you,” Lopez said, eliciting gasps from the courtroom gallery.
Burmila rebuked the gallery immediately and followed up with further admonishments after the trial recessed for lunch. He has previously admonished the gallery for reacting to questions by defense attorneys.
“I can’t allow those outside influences to impact the jury in this case,” Burmila said.
Prosecutors expect to finish putting on their case Friday. Defense attorneys will ask the judge to find prosecutors have failed to present enough evidence to support their two-count murder indictment against Peterson.