Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Karen Servas - The Real Story


Karen Servas lived at 517 Covena Avenue, directly to the south of the house where Laci and Scott Peterson lived. On December 24, 2002, as she backed out of her driveway on her way to do errands, she found the Peterson’s dog, McKenzie, standing in the street with his leash attached. She parked her car and took hold of the dog’s leash, walked across Peterson’s front yard to the north gate, put McKenzie back inside the yard and closed the gate which had been ajar. She went back to her house to wash her hands, and then got in her car and continued on the way to do her errands. This could have been a very ordinary event in the neighborhood, except that this happened to be the morning when Laci Peterson disappeared.

What Karen Servas did, and when she did it became crucial information in this case. Her timeline became a major factor in the conviction of Scott Peterson. Her story, however, is based on invalid or unverified time sources. There is nothing to support her claim that she found McKenzie on December 24 at 10:18 a.m.

• When Karen Servas was first interviewed by Detective Jon Buehler on December 25, 2002 around 11:30 a.m., she said she found McKenzie at approximately 10:30 a.m. on December 24. Buehler testified that Detective Allen Brocchini had been the first to interview Karen Servas on the night of December 24, but we do not know what she told him because he destroyed all notes that he took before December 25th or 26th.

• Karen Servas changed her story. On the morning of December 28, while she was on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as she was doing her laundry she found a receipt in the pocket of her jeans from a purchase she had made at Austin’s Christmas store on December 24. She contacted Detective Buehler by phone about this. On January 3, Servas gave the receipt to Detective Buehler, and also provided a handwritten note with the details of her newly constructed timeline. (People’s Exhibit 30) http://scottisi.ipower.com/Trial/Trial/Guilt/prosexhibits/P30.htm

This is our transcription of that note:

Detective Buehler:
Enclosed is my rec(ei)pt from Austin’s on 12/24/02.
After I found the Peterson’s dog and put it back in their yard, I went in briefly to wash my hands at my house. I then went to Bank of America, couldn’t find a parking spot; then drove to Austin’s.
I have retraced my trip; timed it from the time I found the dog to parking at Austins. I approximated the time it took was about 11 minutes.
I was in Austin’s for five minutes before I made my purchase. I went to the second cash register furthest away from the front door.
So I estimate I found the dog at 10:18 a.m., based on the receipt and working the timing backwards.
If you need any more info, please call me at 480-1744.
Karen Servas

During Servas’ trial testimony, Distaso questioned her about the receipt. (People’s Exhibit 28):

DISTASO: Okay. What time was it that it shows you made a purchase at Austin's Christmas Store?
SERVAS: It says 10:34 am.
DISTASO: Ms. Servas, this is so faint that I don't think that it's going to show up on the document camera, so can you just read where it's from and the date and the time.
SERVAS: It says Austin's Christmas Store, 12/24/2003, 10:34 a.m., Clerk No. 1.
DISTASO: Let me see the date, I think you said 2003.
SERVAS: I said, oh, no, I said, did I say 2003?
DISTASO: That's what I heard.
SERVAS: 2002. 12/24/2002.

Because the receipt is barely readable, Buehler wrote the time and date in ink on the paper next to it. He did virtually nothing to verify that the time was accurate. He received Servas’ receipt early in January of 2003 and did not go to Austin’s to check the time source until September of 2003. Buehler stated that Servas had gone to the only computerized register. This may not be accurate. Servas says in her note “the second cash register furthest away from the door.” Her receipt says “Clerk Number 01.”

When Buehler questioned William Austin, the store owner, Austin told Buehler that he checked the computerized register to see if the time was accurate. He didn’t say when he did it, or how often, or how he verified that the time was correct. Geragos pointed out that Austin did not set the computer, and Jared Jensen who did set the time was never interviewed by the police.

On January 14, 2004, Mark Geragos sent his investigator, Carl Jensen, to Austin’s store. Jensen asked to see the computerized register which had to be taken out of storage. William Austin, in his testimony, grudgingly admitted that he ran 2 receipts for the defense investigator on that day. These receipts, according to Geragos, were run within 10 minutes of each other. The time and date on the receipts indicates that they were run 49 minutes apart and on 2 different days. (Defense Exhibit H) http://scottisi.ipower.com/Trial/Trial/Guilt/Dexhibits/H.jpg

There’s also another curious fact. The format of the receipt from the computerized register is different from that of Karen Servas’ receipt, indicating that her receipt was probably run on one of the other two registers in the Christmas store. Those registers were never checked by anyone.

• Karen Servas used 2 additional time sources to back up her new story. However, neither one of these sources proves anything.

First, she provided the MPD with her phone records for the month of December (Prosecution Exhibit 29-sealed). This included the record of a call she made on the morning of December 24 at 10:37 a.m. In her revised story, she claimed that she made this call after the 10:34 purchase at Austin’s. We know that the Austin’s time does not verify her story, and neither does the time of this phone call. No followup was done by MPD to determine where she was when she placed this phone call. Cell phone tower records, which could have given general information about her location, were not checked. No witnesses were called to confirm her account of where she was when she made this call.

Second, she says she went to Bank of America and made a deposit on the morning of the 24th after she had been to Austin’s. However, no deposit slip or bank statement verifying a transaction at Bank of America on the morning of December 24 was ever entered into evidence by the prosecution.

Rick Distaso: The, regarding the, when she called you about the ATM bank records that, when she went to the bank at 10:53, she was calling to tell you that those records, I mean that those records confirmed her testimony here in this trial, correct?
Mark Geragos: Where is that in the report?
Kevin Bertalotto: I don't know if she's,
Mark Geragos: There's an objection. Assumes facts not in evidence. It's certainly not in the police report.

However, Prosecutor Distaso improperly argues this in his closing. No one has testified to the truth of this information, and there is no documentation to verify it.

Distaso: …….If you remember at the end of the trial the defense asked Investigator Bertalotto about that additional record that she just got, which was at 10:53, completely supporting exactly everything that she said. ……


• Karen Servas’ timeline, although tenuous at best, was used by the Modesto Police Department as an excuse for its failure to investigate the Medina burglary even though there were credible sources to confirm that the burglary and Laci’s disappearance were directly related.

On the morning of December 24, Susan Medina and her husband were getting ready to leave home to visit their children. A city inspector had been to their house that morning and around the time the inspector left, Mr. Medina made a phone call. (9:32 a.m.) After that time, the Medina’s continued getting ready to leave for their trip. They left home around 10:32 am. At the end of the block before they made a right turn on Encina, Susan Medina made a phone call to her son (10:33 a.m.)

During the time that Karen Servas says she found McKenzie, the Medinas were packing their car, going back and forth inside and outside, getting ready to leave on their trip. Surely, if Karen found McKenzie at the time she said she did, the Medinas would have noticed the activity in the street, and she would have seen them. Their driveways are almost directly across the street from each other. Karen Servas found McKenzie in the street right in front of Medina’s house. She walked across her yard and Peterson’s yard and back again as she returned McKenzie to his yard, but she said that she did not see the Medinas that day, and they did not see her.

Neighbors Amie Krigbaum and Terra Venable (one house north of Medinas) heard two dogs barking at 10:38 a.m. One they recognized as Sage, the dog who lived just north of their house. A couple of days later they realized that the second dog they heard barking aggressively at that time was the Peterson’s dog McKenzie. They said that the barking continued for a few minutes. Mike Chiavette, another neighbor, saw a dog fitting McKenzie’s description in the park at the north end of Covena at 10:45 a.m.

It is reasonable to believe that Karen Servas found McKenzie after the Medinas left home at 10:32, after she made a phone call at 10:37, after Sage and McKenzie stopped barking around 10:40 (testimony of Amie Krigbaum), and after Chiavette saw McKenzie in the park at 10:45. It is also reasonable to believe that the burglary at Medina’s started shortly after the Medinas left home on December 24, and that the disappearance of Laci Peterson is directly related to that burglary.

• The Modesto Police Department also used Servas’ faulty timeline after the fact to cover up its failure to investigate the numerous credible sightings of Laci Peterson walking her dog in the Covena neighborhood on the morning of December 24.

FLADAGER: All right. Detective Grogan, I'd like to take you back to December 24th one more time. The sightings of Laci Peterson on December 24th that are indicated on that particular diagram, which is People's Exhibit 267, you indicated earlier that you had ruled out essentially in your mind ruled out those as being viable of Laci's sightings, correct?
GROGAN: That's correct.
FLADAGER: Now is there a time frame that was available for Laci Peterson to be out walking, according to the defendant's statements and physical evidence and phone records on December 24th?
FLADAGER: What was that time frame?
GROGAN: From approximately 10:08 to 10:18.
FLADAGER: And on either end of those time frames prior to 10:08 subsequent to 10:18 are there factors that would indicate she could not have been out walking?
GROGAN: On these sightings in particular?
FLADAGER: No, just in general.
GROGAN: In general. Well, there is the information that we had from her medical records that said that she was supposed to walk later in the day, that she had been getting nauseous, and then those reports to the doctor stopped, so you can read maybe something into that. The fact that cuts down some on the time line is she is, she's supposed to be in the house in a pair of black pants and a white shirt and mopping the floor when he leaves at 10:08, and so for in order for her to, to go for a walk, she would need to, based on the defendant's statement and the clothing, she would have to change her clothes, put on her shoes and socks, put the leash on the dog and then leave the house.
FLADAGER: And at 10:18 end of time period, the end of that time frame what, what caused that 10:18 time frame?
GROGAN: That's when Karen Servas finds McKenzie with his leash attached in the street one house south of 523 Covena Avenue.

• Judge Delucchi, when presented with credible information about the involvement of the Medina burglars in Laci’s abduction (Aponte Tip), used Karen Servas’ imaginary timeline as his rationale for denying the Defense Motion for a New Trial. http://scottisi.ipower.com/Research&Analysis/evidence/burglary/aponte.htm

………………………What we've here is this conversation of, of this inmate, I'm not going to identify who it is, that somebody told him, and they believed this Todd had told him, that he had confronted, or Laci Peterson had confronted these burglars during the course of this burglary that took place at the Medina residence. The court's not too impressed by that evidence. I don't think it has much credibility or value to it. And the reason being is that there is evidence in this trial that the dog, McKenzie, was recovered at 10:14 or 10:18, I don't remember exactly what happened, and the Medinas didn't leave until after 10:30 in the morning. So the burglary must have occurred after the Medinas left their residence, and by that time Laci Peterson, under one interpretation of the evidence, was already missing……………..


The damage caused by Karen Servas’ reconstructed timeline can not be overstated. Scott Peterson has been convicted and sentenced to death by a story that has no basis in fact. Karen Servas did not find Laci’s dog, McKenzie, on December 24, 2002 at 10:18 a.m. There is nothing at all that confirms her timeline. The Austin’s receipt is invalid, there is no verification of her location when she was making the 10:37 phone call, and the bank deposit information, even if it exists, would not prove when she left home and when she found McKenzie.

The Modesto Police Department and Judge Delucchi capitalized on this false information and used it to excuse a terrible injustice, the wrongful conviction of Scott Peterson.

The original version of this article appears on SII. This revised version has been updated and modified for the blog.


Lynn said...

Ok, first, I always had a problem with the discrepancy in the time-lines of the neighbors.

Second, I disagree with those who believe she wouldn't be walking around because she was late in pregnancy and feeling it, heck, I had eight children....don't tell me what a woman does during her final months esp. the 9th even she doesn't know what she will do. You get a burst of energy, you do so much you can't believe it yourself. If it was her habit to walk the dog then I'm sure she did or went to.

Third, I never liked the police investigation. I believed (and still do) they used the media to spin things their way. It was the worst example of an investigation in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

This is pretty interesting. Why wasn't this all disclosed when it should of been, even if it was so late in the trial. That's doing and half A$$ job. The modesto police department didn't do a very good job.

Haridas Pal said...

Inconsistent treatment at the best.

If Karen Servas' timeline cannot be taken at face value, why take Medina's stated timeline at face value? What makes Karen's credibility any lesser than Medina's? The author is clearly biased and out there to prove a point.

Marlene Newell said...

Haridas Pal -- because Karen Servas changed her timeline and is largely based on unverified records. However, the Medina timeline stayed the same and is based on verified records. That's a big difference. I wish Karen's story had remained consistent and that all of the records she said verified her time had been properly checked out. The not knowing exactly what happened that morning is much worse to work with than any time that she would have actually found McKenzie. If you have read the habeas petition, filed a few months ago, you know that Servas is challenged again by newly disclosed information from the mailman -- the information was known to the Modesto Police 3 days after Laci's disappearance, but it was just made known to the appellate attorneys. The State has not yet responded to the habeas, but will they again change Karen's time for finding McKenzie?