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JOLIET, Ill. (AP) – From nearly the moment the lead investigator stepped into the suburban Chicago area home where former policeman Drew Peterson’s third wife was found dead in a dry bathtub, he treated her death as a tragic accident.
Illinois State Police Sgt. Patrick Collins collected no forensics evidence from the scene – not fingerprints, unfinished drinks or clothes. Most disturbingly, say experts, Collins let Peterson sit in on what may have been a vital interview.
Six years later, as prosecutors and defense attorneys prepare for Peterson’s trial on charges of murdering Kathleen Savio, one thing has become clear: Police blew the initial investigation, undermining prosecutors’ ability to prove their case.
“The incompetency that comes out is somewhat unbelievable,” said Richard Brzeczek, a former Chicago police superintendent who now works in private criminal defense. “It seems that, pretty fundamentally, what should have been done was not done.”
Among the litany of mistakes: Collins said he never asked anyone whether Savio’s body had been touched or moved, he never tried to account for her body being bent forward, and he never interviewed her relatives. And when he left the house, he didn’t seal it, meaning someone could walk in and take, move or even clean something.
“They could have had the evidence with a proper investigation,” Brzeczek said. “A prosecution’s extremely more difficult now.”
The now-retired Collins testified Thursday and Friday at a pretrial hearing meant to determine what, if any, “hearsay” evidence prosecutors can use during Peterson’s murder trial.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys hit Collins with tough questions, with prosecutors trying to show he could have gathered evidence pointing to Peterson’s involvement in Savio’s death. The defense, which has long claimed Savio’s death was an accident, argued that even if someone had killed her, the investigation was so shoddy it would be impossible to determine who that was.
Peterson has pleaded not guilty in Savio’s 2004 death. Officials exhumed her body and ruled her death a homicide only after Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared in 2007. He hasn’t been charged in her disappearance, but authorities say he’s the only suspect.
Brzeczek says one of the glaring examples of Collins’ poor judgment was permitting Peterson to attend an interview of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, in which she was asked about her husband’s whereabouts the day Savio died. Peterson and Savio had divorced and Peterson married Stacy Peterson before Savio died.
Collins testified that Peterson not only sat in on the interview, he answered a question put to his wife about what they ate for breakfast that day.
“Collins should have said, ‘I’m sorry there are serious considerations here, we have a death investigation, and at this point there will be no profession courtesies,'” Brzeczek said. “You just cannot do those kind of things.”
The spokesman for the Illinois State Police office where Collins worked didn’t immediately return a message for comment Saturday. Attempts to reach Collins at listed phone numbers weren’t successful.
Savio’s death was the first homicide investigation for Collins, a more than 20-year police veteran who previously had taken part mostly in narcotics and gaming industry crimes. But Chicago attorney Michael Helfand said Collins’ apparent blunders don’t necessarily point to incompetence. They may have more to do with an entrenched police culture in which cops, almost by reflex, trust and protect each other.
“Within the profession, it takes a lot for a cop to go after another cop,” Helfand said. “I don’t think it’s corruption. I don’t think they would purposely cover a murder up. They just think, ‘That’s just the police way (to watch out for each other).'”
If one of Peterson’s other wives had under died mysterious circumstances before Savio, it’s likely Collins and other officers would have taken the possibility of murder more seriously, Helfand said. As it was, investigators likely assumed Peterson was telling the truth.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if, what happen was – with Drew’s reputation as a smooth talker – he says to investigators, ‘Gosh, I’m all broken up about this, and if you find out there’s foul play, please let me know. But here’s what I think happened,'” Helfand said.
Collins testified it wasn’t so much that Peterson was a police officer that led him to believe the death was an accident, but the opinion of a far more experienced crime scene technician, who told Collins shortly after he arrived that Savio’s death appeared accidental.
“I relied pretty much on his judgment and his opinion,” Collins testified.
But good homicide detectives, Brzeczek said, always gather everything that could conceivably be evidence if a death turns out to be a homicide. When a cause of death isn’t obvious, as in Savio’s case, that’s all the more reason to do a thorough examination, he said.
Fingerprints are nearly always a must, even if investigators expect to find a husband or ex-husband’s prints because he once lived in the home or came by frequently.
“Maybe they say Peterson’s would be there because he came there a lot,” Brzeczek said. “But why not dust for prints to see if anyone else’s were there?”
Collin’s conceded in court Friday he didn’t do all he could have. Under questioning from one of Peterson’s attorneys, he acknowledged he didn’t recover or even examine bedding, a glass of orange juice left on the kitchen counter and other items that might have revealed clues.
“Looking back now, everything could be important,” Collins conceded.
Ironically, Peterson may have been the one person in the house who knew that. Peterson’s career as a police officer included time as an evidence technician, according to prosecutors. But Collins, who didn’t interview any of Peterson’s fellow officers, did not know that.
Collins testified he didn’t try to verify someone else’s suggestion that Savio got a gash on her head when she accidentally hit the back of the tub. He also said it never occurred to him the scene in the bathroom might have been staged.
After Stacy Peterson disappeared, authorities said they believed Savio’s death was a homicide staged to look like an accident.
Collin said one thing that led him to believe the death was accidental was that he found no defense wounds on Savio’s body.
He stopped short of admitting he was wrong to believe Savio’s death was accidental but conceded his investigation could have been more thorough.
“If I had to do certain things over, yes,” he said, “I would.”