The story of Tom Harshman and his tip is one of the most outrageous examples of the failure by MPD police detectives to follow leads that could have found Laci Peterson alive and that were totally exculpatory for Scott.
Tom Harshman, who lived in Modesto, saw something that really concerned him near the corner of Scenic Drive and Claus Road as he was driving with Elizabeth Harshman between 2 and 4 p.m. on the afternoon of December 24. He saw a young pregnant woman being forced into a van. After driving past this scene, Harshman was so upset that he turned around and went back to the spot hoping to find the van still there and hoping to get more information about the license plate number.
He called the police on the same day he saw this. Calls before December 26 did not go to the Laci tip line but instead to 911 or to the main number at the MPD.
When Harshman’s call was not returned by MPD, he tried again. By December 28 when Laci’s disappearance had become public knowledge, he was sure that the woman he had seen was Laci Peterson.
On December 28, Tom Harshman called the Laci tipline twice. His first call on this date was listed incorrectly under the name Harsh and was given Bates Stamp number 14789. The call was given to Detective Holmes. Harsh(man) said that he had called 3 or 4 days earlier on the day that he had seen a pregnant young woman being pushed into a van. There had been a man standing over her as she squatted to urinate with her back up against a chain-link fence. The man was described as 30’s, tall, thin, with ponytail, dirty blonde to gray hair, scrubby looking. When she finished, the woman was shepherded back to the driver’s door of the car, where another man’s arm was seen pulling her into the car. He said the young woman was wearing black pants and a red shirt. He said she had a scared look on her face.
Harshman called back on December 28 with additional information, and this time his name was listed correctly under Bates stamp number 14791. This call also was given to Detective Holmes. Harshman said he had been driving on Scenic east of Coffee when he saw the woman being forced into a van. The van was an older white van with 3 windows and a tan stripe on the side, approximately a foot wide. The woman had dark hair, was wearing black pants and a red shirt. He added that the man was a white male, forties, and was wearing a ball cap.
By January 3, 2003 Harshman still had not received a call back from MPD. He knew that his information was significant; and so he tried again. On January 3, he went to the Command Post at the park and spoke to the officer on duty there. The officer made notes about his information. Harshman described the location of the sighting as the south side of Scenic near Claus Road. He repeated the information mentioned in previous contacts.
Harshman believed his report would reach the detectives and they would do something about it. He was wrong. He did not receive any followup calls during the investigation. Nothing in the 40,000 pages of discovery provided to the defense included anything about Harshman’s report to the Command Post. Only during the trial was Sergeant Cloward able to find this report in one of his binders.
About a month later, sometime in February 2003, Harshman’s wife spoke to a relative of hers who lived in New York about the sighting of Laci Peterson near the corner of Scenic and Claus. Mrs. Harshman’s relative shared this story with an NYPD detective. This NYPD detective was so concerned that he contacted the MPD and spoke personally to Detective Grogan on February 14, 2003. What did Grogan do with the information? Nothing at all. Only the tip number and a brief notation were provided in the discovery.
More than a year later during the pre-trial hearings in May of 2004, DA Investigator Kevin Bertalotto noticed the Harshman tip and insisted that Grogan call Tom Harshman and speak to him personally. Grogan did this on May 18, 2004.
Grogan provided an audiotape and a transcription of his conversation with Harshman to the defense on May 20, 11 days before the beginning of the trial. This was the first time that the defense was made aware that a woman resembling Laci Peterson had been forced into a van near the corner of Scenic and Claus on the same day that a similar van had been seen by Diane Jackson in front of the Medina’s house. Harshman specifically said in this interview with Grogan that he had seen the woman’s face when she was up against the fence. That’s what he had concentrated on. He said there was a scared look on her face.
On May 24, 2004 Mark Geragos filed a Defense Motion for Sanctions Against the Prosecution for the use of an unqualified hypnotist with Diane Jackson and also for hiding the details of the Harshman tip. On May 27 the Prosecutor filed his response and hearings were held. The prosecution motion contains this misleading paragraph:
The defense neglects to tell the court that the alleged sighting took place on December 28, 2002 (four days after Laci Peterson disappeared) and that the witness had previously spoken to Modesto Police Detective Denis Holmes on that same date. Further, the witness's description of the woman's clothing did not match the clothing Laci Peterson was wearing when she was ultimately found. Finally, the witness's name, address, telephone number and a description of his statement were previously provided to the defense on May 14, 2003 in the initial discovery.
Ruling that these incidents together constituted exculpatory evidence and to exclude them would be a Brady violation, Judge Delucchi allowed the prehypnosis interviews of Diane Jackson along with the Harshman information into the trial. However, he did not impose sanctions on the prosecution. Judge Delucchi concluded that the van seen by Jackson and Harshman could have been the same vehicle.
GERAGOS:... Both people initially say they think it's a white van but it's a little darker and they describe it as tan.
DISTASO:...Miss Jackson says a white van, and she changes it then to say a beige or tan van.
GERAGOS:...He says it looked white but it was really a little darker, it was kind of cream. They both are describing the same thing.
As far as the descriptions of the men associated with the van, consider this. Diane Jackson did not see the driver of the van. She saw only the 3 dark-skinned men outside the van. Harshman saw only the driver of the van and another man’s arm. There could have been other men inside the van that he did not see; or the other men may have stayed behind at this point.
The timing of these sightings can be explained in this way. Diane Jackson saw a van, 3 men, and a safe in the front yard at Medina’s at 11:40 a.m. on the 24th. She was witnessing the final step in a burglary which had started approximately an hour before, shortly after Medina’s left home and around the time Laci was abducted and taken away, probably in this same van. Apparently Laci was held in another location in Modesto for a while, probably some place in the airport neighborhood, and then a few hours later was being transported in the van at the time Harshman saw her near the corner of Scenic and Claus. She was probably being taken out of town. Claus Road is a good alternate route leading out of Modesto to points north.
During the trial Mark Geragos decided to bring information about the Laci sightings in through the testimony of Detective Grogan. Grogan’s testimony about Tom Harshman and his tip verges on perjury. He claims that he did not know that the tips from Harsh and Harshman on the same day were from the same person even though they contained the same call back number and similar information.
Grogan also backtracked after saying that red dot #41 on prosecution exhibit 267-8 (far right on the map) was Tom Harshman’s tip even though the location and the time of day are exactly the same. Grogan said #41 could not be Harshman because Harshman did not witness this incident until December 28, and #41 was a tip for a sighting on December 24. Grogan said that the dot for Harshman’s tip could be found on the United States map. When Harshman made the call to MPD on the 28th, he specifically stated that this was something he had seen 3 or 4 days before and that he had initially called in with the information shortly after he saw it. Grogan misrepresents this by saying that Harshman said he called in on the same day he saw this incident and that because he called in on the 28th, he must have witnessed the event on the 28th.
Many concerned citizens tried to get the Modesto Police Department to listen to their valid sightings of Laci Peterson. Even one credible sighting of Laci after Scott left home is proof of his innocence. There are several credible sightings. Tom Harshman’s tip is one of the most compelling and the most disturbing because of MPD’s failure to respond to it and their subsequent decision to cover it up. Tom Harshman was persistent. He tried and tried again. His repeated efforts were met with silence.