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Drew Peterson accused of murder, but ex-wife also on trial

Updated: September 2, 2012 6:08AM

Ex-cop Drew Peterson is the one charged with murder, but it was Kathleen Savio -- the former wife he’s accused of drowning -- who seemed to be on trial Tuesday.

When Peterson’s long-awaited trial opened, his attorneys immediately went on the attack, describing Savio as “bonkers” and contending she concocted claims Peterson threatened to kill her so she could win a more lucrative divorce settlement from him.

“She’s a very, very angry woman. She makes up all sorts of stories about Drew,” defense attorney Joel Brodsky said of Savio in the months before her 2004 death when she was fighting Peterson over their financial assets.

Meanwhile, Brodsky described Peterson -- who sat calmly, dressed in a conservative gray suit -- as a career cop who “always wanted a job where he could help people.”

Peterson might not have betrayed emotion on the day his trial finally began in earnest, but Savio’s parents teared up when they saw a photo of her lifeless body in her dry bathtub. Neighbor Mary Pontarelli also choked up at the sight of her friend’s dead body, and Judge Edward Burmila handed her a box of tissues.

Brodsky recounted for jurors repeated clashes between a “livid” Savio and Peterson after she learned through an anonymous letter her husband was having an affair with a teenage Stacy Cales, who later would marry Peterson ­-- but go missing in 2007. The altercations even included a fight with Stacy Peterson that resulted in Savio being arrested for battery -- a charge that ultimately didn’t stick.

“She goes bonkers, she charges at the car,” Brodsky said, describing Savio as acting “like a mad woman” during the confrontation in April 2002 when Stacy arrived with Peterson to pick up his sons for a weekend visit.

It was after that run-in that Savio filled out a police report claiming Peterson held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her -- a key bit of evidence Will County prosecutors hope to use to convict the one-time Bolingbrook police sergeant of murdering his third wife.

Prosecutors came out swinging as well, including presenting jurors with the graphic photo showing the 40-year-old Savio lying curled in the bloodstained bathtub where she was found dead on March 1, 2004.

Despite years of pre-trial maneuverings, it’s the first time the photo -- which shows Savio curled up on her left side, her hair covering her face -- has ever been made public.

Peterson glanced up calmly at the image, as he had while other photos were displayed, then looked away.

“He told her he was going to kill her,” Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow said in his low-key opening statement. “And the evidence is going to show Kathleen Savio was murdered and it was staged to look like an accident.”

But prosecutors stumbled at points during the first day, including when Glasgow started to tell jurors about a claim that Peterson once offered a co-worker $25,000 to kill Savio.

Defense attorneys objected before Glasgow completed the statement, then sought a mistrial, claiming jurors still would be prejudiced against Peterson because of what Glasgow started to say.

Burmila refused to stop the trial, but barred prosecutors from bringing up that allegation again, a setback in their efforts to show Peterson was determined to kill his ex-wife to keep her from collecting a large chunk of his pension and assets from a bar he had owned.

Pontarelli recounted how Savio so feared for her safety during the divorce proceedings that she installed new locks on her front door, even putting a deadbolt lock on her bedroom door.

But Pontarelli acknowledged Savio and Peterson had largely stopped feuding about their divorce in the weeks before Savio died.

“Things were going well,” Pontarelli said.

She wept as she described finding her friend’s body in the dry bathtub. Peterson had asked her that night to check the house when he said he was unable to find Savio to return their children after a weekend visit.

Peterson’s defense team contends the photo of Savio in the bathtub simply bolsters their claims that she died in an accidental fall while alone in the house.

The stunning image will resonate with jurors who must decide whether Savio was slain or died in an accidental fall, a spokeswoman for Stacy Peterson’s family predicted outside the courtroom.

“When you take one look at that photo, the lightbulb goes off in your head,” Pamela Bosco said. “She’s wedged in the tub. There’s no way that’s an accident.”

During her testimony, Pontarelli described going into Savio’s darkened home with her husband, son and neighbor after a locksmith called by Peterson opened the door.

Peterson, she said, waited in a downstairs foyer while the others combed the house, searching for Savio.

When she saw her friend lying unmoving in the tub -- illuminated only by the glare of a streetlight through a skylight ­-- Pontarelli said she ran from the bathroom, threw herself on the ground “and started screaming.”

Pontarelli said she wanted to cover Savio up, but Peterson -- who had run into the room -- warned her not to touch anything.

Questioned by defense attorney Joe Lopez, she agreed Peterson seemed upset by the discovery.

“He said, ‘What am I going to tell my children?’” Lopez asked.

“Yes,” Pontarelli said.

Lopez prodded her about differing testimony she’d given about the discovery at other hearings, including an earlier claim that she took Savio’s arm to feel for a pulse.

Tuesday, she testified she didn’t do that after Peterson examined Savio.

“He told me she was dead, so there was no reason to take her pulse,” Pontarelli said.

Pontarelli testified she was surprised because Savio’s hair was hanging down when she saw her in the tub. Savio typically pulled her hair back with a clip before bathing, she said.

Prosecutors have contended some circumstantial evidence, including the lack of a hair clip and clothing near the tub where Savio died, are indications her death was staged to look like an accidental fall.

Defense attorneys repeatedly blasted that claim inside and outside the courtroom.

“They’re trying to frame him for an accident,” defense attorney Steve Greenberg said.

Testimony is scheduled to continue Wednesday before the seven-man, five-woman jury selected last week.

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