Illinois' murder trial of the century

Peterson Jurors Hear Hit Man Testimony

By Michael Tarm and BJ Lutz
|  Thursday, Aug 23, 2012  |  Updated 9:11 AM CDT
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Peterson Jurors Hear Hit Man Testimony

Tom Gianni

Former cable installer Jeff Pachter testified Wednesday that Drew Peterson offered him $25,000 to hire a hit man to "take care of" Kathleen Savio.

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Jurors hearing the Drew Peterson murder trial on Wednesday heard a witness say the defendant offered a former cable installer $25,000 to hire a hit man to kill his third wife just three months before she was found dead.

Jeff Pachter said the conversation with Peterson occurred during a November 2003 ride-along in the former sergeant's Bolingbrook Police Department squad car.

"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.

Pachter said Peterson also told him to let him know when the hit was scheduled so he could arrange a plausible alibi. One idea Peterson mentioned was starting 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.

The witness said that was the only conversation the pair had on the matter. It wasn't until July 2004, four months after Kathleen Savio was found dead in her bathtub, that Pachter said he learned of the death.

"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.'"

Prosecutors allege Peterson, now 58, ended up killing 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.

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 also 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.

Speaking to reporters at a midday break in the proceedings, Lopez again attacked the credibility of the witness.

"That was ridiculous. The whole story is ridiculous. You got a sergeant in a police uniform in a police car asking somebody to commit a murder?" said Lopez. "I'm unaware of anybody being able to take convicted people on ride-alongs. How do you pass security at the police department with that?You're going to let people -- sex offenders -- in cars with uniformed police officers?"

During his testimony, Pachter said he filled out some sort of identification form or release at the Bolingbrook Police Station prior to getting in Peterson's squad. Prosecutors apparently weren't able to obtain that form. Defense attorneys assert it doesn't exist because the ride-along never happened.

"Where is it? It's the state's duty. They've got the burden of proof. Where's the document?" Peterson attorney Joel Brodsky asked aloud outside the Will County Courthouse.

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 Peterson must have killed Savio.

Savio's 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. He's 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.

NBC Chicago has reporters in the Will County Courthouse for the trial. During proceedings, follow along with our Drew Peterson Trial Live Blog or follow @bjlutz on Twitter.

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