MODESTO, Calif. - Nazi Low Riders named Dirty and Skeeter, and an old satanic cult called the Order of Lion. These are among the latest surreal elements in the Laci Peterson murder case.
Who could have guessed that the death of this pregnant homemaker who watched Martha Stewart Living each morning and had a wine-of-the-month club membership would be intertwined with such images?
But no theory, it seems, is too far-fetched for a case that feeds tabloid headlines and talk show debates. Two especially macabre scenarios have bubbled to the surface as the Oct. 20 preliminary hearing approaches.
One centers on a jailhouse informant who passed a lie-detector test after claiming two gang thugs were hired to kill Peterson. The other resurrects a decade-old quadruple homicide outside Modesto by devil worshipers who believed the purest sacrifice is the killing of a newborn baby.
One scenario could send Scott Peterson to the death chamber. The other could set him free. Could either be true? Or has a thirst for the sensational spawned titillating tales when the reality might be something far simpler: a cheating husband killing his wife to be with his mistress?
The prosecution is expected to push that more simple theory when it lays out its case for the first time at Peterson's preliminary hearing in Modesto. But until then the focus has shifted to bald, tattooed gangsters and robe-clad Satanists.
It was only two weeks ago that Cory Carroll, a Fresno, Calif., jail inmate, issued a startling statement: Scott Peterson used him to set up a murder-for-hire.
According to Carroll's lawyer, Frank Muna, it started in early November last year at a Fresno strip club called City Lights. After seeing Carroll's prison identification card when he paid for a drink, Peterson struck up a conversation. They spent the next several hours together watching the dancers, shooting pool and bar hopping.
"Scott mentioned he would like to buy his wife a new car for Christmas," but if he sold the old one he didn't think he would get much money for it, said Muna, who grew up in East San Jose, Calif. "He asked my client if he knew anyone willing to steal the car so he could claim it on his insurance."
Peterson offered him $300 to make an introduction, Muna said. A couple of weeks later, on Nov. 29, Carroll brought Peterson together with Dirty and Skeeter, members of the Nazi Low Riders, a notorious prison gang known for murder, extortion and drug running.
The foursome gathered at Best Budget motel, where Carroll lived and worked as a maintenance man, Muna said. There, Peterson made a far more sinister proposal.
"He solicited the two guys, Dirty and Skeeter, to get rid of his wife - first to kidnap his wife, then to get rid of her," Muna said. "My client didn't want any part of that so he left. He ran into Dirty and Skeeter a half-hour later, and they told my client they were going to take care of what Scott wanted."
Carroll didn't hear from any of them again.
Carroll was back in jail by late December on a parole violation and said he didn't watch much television and didn't know about Laci Peterson's killing. He came forward late last month after he began to worry that he could somehow be implicated if the investigation turned to the Nazi Low Riders.
"I have no reason to disbelieve my client. Everything he has told me has checked out," said Muna. "The polygraph examiner is one of the best in the business. He's convinced my client is telling the truth."
Peterson's family said, however, that Scott couldn't have met with the hoodlums because he was traveling with Laci from Southern California back to Modesto on Nov. 29 after Thanksgiving weekend.
In 1990, members of a satanic cult, the Order of the Lion, killed four people in the Modesto suburb of Salida. Five members of the ragtag group were convicted and sent to prison. Three, including the "master," Gerald Cruz, are on death row, and two are serving life sentences. The victims, some of whom were formerly involved with the cult, had a running feud with the group.
Could it be possible that remnants of such a satanic cult kidnapped and murdered Laci Peterson? It's a theory floated by Peterson's defense team but downplayed by Modesto authorities. Some who were involved with the Salida case, however, aren't willing to rule it out.
"I don't think it's far-fetched, given the history of this county with regard to these kinds of groups," said Ramon Magana, who defended one of the murderers.
"There were 20 to 30 members of this cult. We can only account for roughly five that are in prison. The rest are on the outside. Whether they continued in this direction or not, I can't answer that."
The 1990 case brought to light chilling initiation and punishment rituals among the members, who lived in a compound of trailers behind an old house in Salida and kept daily diaries.
In them, the members detailed torture and called the sacrifice of newborns the "most pure thing you can do," said Magana, who read the diaries.
Fresno police Sgt. Bill Grove, an expert in occult crimes, said groups like this are often disorganized. "After you remove the hierarchy," he said, "the group just dissolves."
If there were satanic activity in the Modesto area, he and the Modesto police would know about it, Grove said.