When Steven Todd and Donald Pearce were arrested for the Medina burglary on January 2, 2003, the Modesto Police Department still had time to rethink its pursuit of Scott Peterson. There may even have been time to save the life of Laci Peterson. They chose not to do this. Instead they accepted an obviously false version of the burglary at the home of Rudy and Susan Medina. The Medinas lived almost directly across the street from the Petersons, and the burglary occurred during the same time period that Laci disappeared.
When Todd and Pearce were found in possession of the Medina safe at the property where both lived, MPD could have followed a very obvious connection. The residence of Todd and Pearce was in the airport district approximately 2 blocks from the Gallo Winery. After Laci’s disappearance on December 24, 2002, a trailing dog named Merlin led his handler Cindy Valentin from Laci Peterson’s house on Covena to the Gallo Winery property on Santa Rosa Avenue in the late night/early morning hours of December 26-27. The handler stopped the search at the dead end inside the Gallo property even though she admits that more could have been done there. On the day that Todd and Pearce were arrested, MPD could have sent Cindy Valentin and Merlin back to Gallo and could have allowed the dog to pursue the trail in the airport neighborhood. They chose not to do that.
There was another opportunity to do things the right way once they knew that Todd and Pearce were the burglars. Diane Jackson, who lived in the Covena neighborhood, reported to MPD that she saw 3 men with a van and a safe in Medina’s front yard on the morning of December 24, the same morning that Laci disappeared. MPD could have pressured Todd and Pearce to reveal the names of these 3 men who presumably transported the safe from Medina’s to their residence, and they could have questioned the known acquaintances of Todd and Pearce in the airport neighborhood. MPD chose not to do this. Instead they accepted the story given by the burglars and continued to focus exclusively on Scott Peterson.
THE APONTE TIP
In late January 2003, MPD had yet another chance to conduct an honest investigation and perhaps even one month after her disappearance, to save Laci Peterson’s life. Lt. Xavier Aponte, who worked in the Investigations Unit at the California Rehabilitation Institute at Norco east of Los Angeles, called MPD with important information. A phone call between an inmate and his brother had been recorded. Aponte’s memory of that information was later given to both defense and prosecution in separate statements.
From Lt. Aponte’s Statement to the Defense: (12/1/04)
Lt. Aponte first became aware of [Shawn Tenbrink] talking about Laci Peterson within a couple of weeks of her missing. Shawn was talking about Laci missing while he was out in his housing unit. A housing staff person left a message on Lt. Aponte's voice mail and he immediately called the Modesto Police Department Hotline. He called a second time within the same week because he did not receive a call back from his first telephone call. Lt. Aponte said it was at least a week before anyone got back to him. Lt. Aponte said a detective called him back and arrangements were made for the detective to interview [Shawn]. Lt. Aponte believes that it was after he spoke to the detective that he listened to the recorded conversation between [Shawn] and his brother [Adam Tenbrink}. To the best of his recollection, [Shawn/Adam] talked to [Adam/Shawn] about Laci Peterson missing and [Adam] mentioned that Laci happened to walk up while Steve Todd was doing the burglary and Todd made some type of verbal threat to Laci.
From Lt. Aponte’s Declaration to the Prosecution: (3/3/05)
During January of 2003 I was contacted by a dorm officer at the prison, who was one of several people responsible for monitoring recorded collect telephone calls by inmates within a particular dorm. I do not recall who that officer was any longer. The dorm officer brought to my attention a recording of a telephone conversation between an inmate, Shawn Tenbrink and a male believed to be his brother, Adam Tenbrink.
I listened to this recording and heard Adam Tenbrink tell Shawn Tenbrink something about the Laci Peterson case. Adam said he was told by someone, presumably Steven Todd as his name was mentioned during the call, that Laci Peterson had seen Todd and others committing a burglary in the neighborhood……………
I made a recording of the conversation and contacted the Modesto Police tip line. I left a message on a recording for the tip line. After a period of days I received no return telephone call from the Modesto Police Department. I telephoned the tip line again and left another message.
Information this significant surely was reported to the officer in charge of the investigation, Craig Grogan, but Lt. Aponte’s first call was not returned. He placed another call the same week, and some time later his call was returned.
There are 2 versions of what happened after that.
RESPONSE TO THE TIP
From the signed statement given by Lt. Xavier Aponte to defense investigator Carl Jensen on December 1, 2004:
Lt. Aponte did not recall the name of the detective, however when asked about the names Craig Grogan, Al Brocchini, Mark Smith and Owens, Lt. Aponte said Grogan sounded familiar.
The detective from MPD came down to Norco [California] Rehabilitation Center and interviewed [Shawn] within the first couple of weeks from his first call to the MPD hotline. Lt. Aponte did not recall the date of the interview. When [Shawn] walked into Lt. Aponte's office for the interview he appeared scared. In retrospect, Lt. Aponte does not know if it was the environment [Shawn] was in the made him afraid or something else. By environment, Lt. Aponte was referring to [Shawn] being interviewed by the police in his office. Lt. Aponte specifically recalls [Shawn] denying having a conversation with his brother [Adam] and denying knowing Steve Todd. The detective asked if there was anyway in which [Shawn's] activities could be monitored. Lt. Aponte said they monitored his phone calls and mail more closely.
Lt. Aponte said that to his recollection the MPD detective listened to the recorded telephone conversation. Lt. Aponte is 99% positive he made a separate recording onto a cassette tape of the telephone conversation between [Shawn] and [Adam]. He did this thinking it would be important at some date. Lt. Aponte does not recall if the detective took a copy of the tape or at a later date received a copy of the taped telephone conversation………………
From the statement signed for the prosecution by Lt. Xavier Aponte on March 3, 2005:
I received a return telephone call from a Modesto Police detective a short time later. The detective asked that I arrange a telephonic interview between the inmate Shawn Tenbrink and the detective. I do not recall the detective’s name, but I do recall the voice of the detective sounded male in gender.
I had Shawn Tenbrink brought to an office at the facility and met with him. I was dressed in plain clothes at the time and was not wearing a Corrections Department uniform. I monitored a telephonic interview between the Modesto Police Department detective and Shawn Tenbrink. Shawn Tenbrink denied any knowledge about Laci Peterson’s disappearance, and was not very cooperative with the detective.
Shawn Tenbrink was returned to his unit at the prison after the interview. I do not recall mailing a copy of the audio tape recording of the conversation between Shawn and Adam Tenbrink, nor do I recall if the detective asked me to do so. I am not aware of any Modesto police officer visiting the California Rehabilitation Center to interview Shawn Tenbrink. The telephonic interview with Shawn is the only interview that took place to my knowledge.
From the signed declaration of Detective Craig Grogan (3/9/05):
I have found no other reports mentioning Aponte or Tenbrink. I have not found any audiotapes in possession of the Modesto Police Department that contain a conversation recorded between Adam and Shawn Tenbrink. I sent an e-mail to detectives, officers and supervisors involved in the Peterson investigation requesting information about an interview between an officer or detective and Shawn Tenbrink. I have not received any information from any investigator as a result of that e-mail.
I did not go to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco at any point during this investigation, nor did any other officer or detective to my knowledge. I have inquired with supervisors in the Investigative Services Unit and they do not recall any officers being sent to that facility for an interview related to the Laci Peterson case.
How can it possibly be true that no interviews were conducted with the inmate at Norco? The officers at MPD surely knew who the Tenbrink brothers were. These were habitual criminals who lived in the airport district with an address about 2 blocks from the residence of Todd and Pearce and who were known to associate with Todd. It must have raised a red flag for MPD to hear the names Adam and Shawn Tenbrink, Steven Todd, and Laci Peterson contained in the same tip. But they tried to ignore it at first and then to cover it up. The 2 signed statements of Lt. Aponte make it clear that there was an interview of some type done by MPD. The change in Aponte’s statement indicates that he may have been pressured to change his story. It’s obvious that something happened to him between the time he gave the statement to the defense and the time he signed the one for the prosecution. He was removed from his job in the Investigations Unit on February 18 of 2003 and reassigned.
It is also possible that Aponte’s statement was altered. A close look at the PDF version of the statement indicates two different type fonts, one for the heading material, the last couple of sentences of the statement, and the signature line. Another font is used for the body of the document. Could it be that the body of the document was added after Aponte signed what he thought was a simple verification of the tip sheet? It is the standard for each page of a legal document to be initialed. In Aponte’s declaration only the third page has a signature.
In early February, in spite of Aponte’s information about a connection between Todd and Laci, Todd, a three strike plus felon, was sentenced to serve only 8 years and 8 months in jail for the Medina burglary. Pearce was sentenced to only 180 days.
By mid February MPD was committed to their prosecution of Scott Peterson. There was no turning back. By mid February Laci and her baby were dead. For MPD, the bodies if they were found, had to be in the San Francisco Bay, or questions would have been asked about their investigation. On February 18-19, they again searched the Peterson house, looking in particular at Laci’s clothing. If she was found in the black pants that Scott had described there would have been a loss of credibility for them. People would ask why they failed to investigate all the sightings in the Covena neighborhood by people who reported seeing Laci in black pants.
If Aponte’s tip had come to light at any point before Scott’s conviction, embarrassing questions would have been asked; and so Aponte’s tip was hidden in a list of 10,000 other tips on a CD. No reports about the interview with Shawn Tenbrink or any followup with his brother Adam were ever given to the defense. The tape recording of the conversation between the brothers disappeared. It appears that MPD, once committed to convict Scott Peterson, did not reveal any information that pointed to someone else as the perpetrator. It was evident that a conversation took place between Adam and Shawn Tenbrink that placed Laci Peterson and Steven Todd at the site of a burglary at the same time. Todd and the Tenbrinks, convicted felons, habitual criminals, were given a pass.
The connection between Todd and the Tenbrinks and December 24 as the date of the burglary were confirmed by defense investigator Jensen in a conversation with Adam Tenbrink. Tenbrink acknowledged that Stephen Todd was a close friend. He said that Todd had approached him on the evening of December 24, 2002, asking for help with a burglary already in progress. Tenbrink refused to talk further when Jensen began questioning him about the prison phone calls and about Todd confronting Laci.
How did the defense miss the tip notation? It appears there was some kind of deception involved in what was provided to them.
From Grogan's statement March 9, 2005 which was included in the Prosecution Opposition Response:
Per a request by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office I searched the computerized files for the Peterson Case looking for the tip listing Shawn Tenbrink referred to by the defense in their motion. I found a tip dated 01/22/03 which included information from Lieutenant Aponte. The tip included the following information: Aponte’s telephone number, the fact he is an employed at “CRC Norco,” the inmate’s name and the name of the inmate’s brother. This tip was documented on a “tip Sheet.” The tip sheet which contained this tip is located at bate stamp number 15311 and it was discovered to both the prosecution and defense.
This comes from the Prosecution Opposition to the Defense Motion for a New Trial:
The tip states: “RECEIVED INFO FROM SHAWN TENBRINK (INMATE) HE SPOKE TO BROTHER ADAM WHO SAID STEVE TODD SAID LACI WITNESSED HIM BREAKING IN. COULD NOT GIVE DATES OR TIME. APONTE HAS FURTHER INFO.” The date of the tip was January 23, 2003. This tip was located at Bates page number 15311, and was provided to the defense on May 14, 2003 (EXHIBIT 1, date signed as being received by the defense.)
Both tips were filed under #15311, but Grogan refers only to the notation for January 22, 2003. That is the notation that Aponte was asked to verify. This notation includes only Aponte’s phone number, his place of employment, and the names of the inmate and his brother. It does not mention Todd or Laci.
In the Prosecution Opposition Response, Rick Distaso refers to the information provided on January 23, 2003. It would have been on a different page in the tip sheet. The defense must have searched for Todd’s name, but they did not find this tip.
MR. R. CONFIRMS THE APONTE TIP
Probably no one would have been the wiser except that some time before the end of the trial, the prosecution received a letter from “Mr. R.” an inmate at the Stanislaus County Jail.
From the signed statement of Pat Harris in the Defense Motion for a New Trial.:
Near the completion of the prosecution's case against Scott Peterson, I received a report and a letter from the Stanislaus District Attorney's Investigators about an inmate in Stanislaus County jail who allegedly had information about the abduction of Laci Peterson.
Defense Investigator Carl Jensen and I traveled to Modesto and met with the inmate. He provided us with several names of people he felt would be of interest. When the names were run on the computer database, it led to the discovery of a tip buried in the hundreds of pages of discovery. This tip was a very brief notation of a phone call from the state prison in NORCO to Modesto Police alerting them to a potential lead in the Laci Peterson investigation.
Mr. R. confirmed the information about Todd’s confrontation with Laci during the burglary and identified the Tenbrinks. Shortly before Mark Geragos began his CIC, the information which had been hidden in the tip sheet was brought to light. Unfortunately, it was too late to prevent the conviction of an innocent man and his subsequent death sentence.
Lt. Aponte was interviewed at Norco on December 1, 2004 and his signed statement was included in The Defense Motion for A New Trial. His declaration to the prosecution was signed March 3, 2005 and was included with the Prosecution Opposition Response. Grogan’s declaration, signed March 9, 2005 was also included with the Prosecution Response.
On March 16, 2005, the Defense Motion was denied by Judge Delucchi without serious consideration. Scott Peterson was sent to death row in order to preserve the careers of certain MPD detectives and the Stanislaus County prosecutors.
Defense Motion for a New Trial
Prosecution Opposition to Motion for a New Trial