Witness: Peterson offered $25K to kill 3rd wife

August 22, 2012 - 8:47 PM
Drew Peterson Trial

FILE - In this May 8, 2009 file photo, former Bolingbrook, Ill., police sergeant Drew Peterson arrives at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill. for his arraignment on charges of first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his former wife Kathleen Savio, who was found in an empty bathtub at home. A witness on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 testified at Drew Peterson's murder trial that the former Illinois police officer offered him $25,000 to hire a hit man to kill his third wife just three months before she was found dead. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — A witness testified at Drew Peterson's murder trial Wednesday that the former Illinois police officer offered him $25,000 to hire a hit man to kill his third wife just three months before she was found dead.

Prosecutors allege Peterson, now 58, ended up killing Kathleen Savio himself because he feared a settlement after their divorce would ruin him. They presented the hit-man testimony in a bid to establish that Peterson had thought seriously about her murder in advance.

Jeff Pachter told the jury that during a late-night ride in Peterson's squad car, the then-Bolingbrook police sergeant asked him to find a hit man. Savio was found dead in a bathtub in her suburban Chicago home with a gash on the back of her head three months later, on March 1, 2004.

"He asked if I could find someone to take care of his third wife," said Pachter, who worked with Peterson at a side job Peterson once had at a cable company. "He indicated that he would give me the $25,000 and if I could find someone to do it for less I could keep the remaining balance."

The two agreed on a code word that he would use to let Peterson know when the deed was done. Pachter couldn't remember the exact word but told jurors it had something to do with cookies.

Prosecutors, who say they could rest within several days, have no physical evidence, so they are trying to build a compelling circumstantial case — one that will lead jurors to conclude the only plausible explanation for Savio's death was that Peterson killed her.

Her death was initially ruled an accident but was reclassified a homicide after Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007. Peterson is a suspect in her disappearance but hasn't been charged.

Peterson hunched forward in his Joliet courtroom seat and appeared to listen intently to Pachter, 38, who spoke in a firm, monotone voice.

Pachter said Peterson also told him to let him know when the hit was scheduled so he could arrange an alibi. One idea Peterson mentioned was that he would start a fight 60 miles away at the Six Flags Great America amusement park so there would be a record he was there.

And he told the jury Peterson warned him to keep the plan quiet.

"He told me at the end of the ride along that, 'This is something you will take to your grave,'" Pachter said.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Joe Lopez pressed Pachter on his criminal record, which includes a conviction for sexual abuse, and accused him of inventing his story for personal profit.

"It's hard to remember things when you are making them up, isn't it?" Lopez snarled when Pachter said he couldn't recall details of an earlier statement.

Lopez accused Pachter of seeking the limelight surrounding the notorious case, asking, "You want your 15 minutes of fame, don't you?"

Pachter shot back: "No, I do not."

Pachter conceded he had a hard time telling if Peterson was serious about a hit man, agreeing that Peterson often joked around and was typically calm, no matter the situation.

Peterson never provided a picture of Savio, didn't tell Pachter her address or offer suggestions about how to kill her, Pachter said during cross-examination. Pachter also said he took no steps to act on the request.

Pachter hadn't heard that Savio was dead when he called Peterson in July 2004 to ask how his newest wife, Stacy, and their kids were doing.

"He said his family was doing good," said Pachter. "After that, he said, 'The favor that I asked you — I don't need it anymore.'"

Peterson has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's death. If convicted, he faces a maximum prison sentence of 60 years.

Other witnesses Wednesday included Nick Pontarelli, a neighbor of Savio's who was 14 when he helped his parents search her house the night she was eventually found dead in her bathtub. He described how it was Drew Peterson who rang their doorbell to ask for help looking for Savio.

Pontarelli, who described Savio as a second mother to him, told jurors he heard his own mother scream after walking into Savio's bathroom. He then went in himself, briefly catching a glimpse of Savio's lifeless body.

"I was in shock," Pontarelli, now 22, told jurors.

Minutes after Pontarelli took the stand, one juror indicated he recognized the witness. After discussing the matter with attorneys in his chambers, Judge Edward Burmila said the juror would remain on the panel.

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