Big murder trials: morbid, but lucrative for host towns

The Scott Peterson trial, set to begin Monday in northern California, could be a boon to local hotels and restaurants.

Early one recent afternoon, Lito Salazar lit the neon "vacancy'' sign in a window next to the doorway to the Pacific Euro residential hotel he manages on Main Street, thereby firing what he hoped would be a preemptive economic salvo in the battle for wallet share of the Scott Peterson murder trial.

"This is a big case. I have been watching on the television,'' says Mr. Salazar. "I know there will be many people from television and the newspapers here. There will be people who want to get a look at this."

The murder trial of Mr. Peterson, a 31-year-old fertilizer salesman accused of killing his wife Laci and their unborn son, was recently relocated to Redwood City to stave off the media frenzy building in Modesto, the heart of California's farm belt and Laci's hometown.

The result is an economic windfall that will last several months, giving Redwood City unprecedented media exposure. The case, scheduled to begin monday, may be as unsavory as two other current megatrials - those of singer Michael Jackson and basketball star Kobe Bryant - but for the host communities such cases offer the financial equivalent of an ongoing convention.

That may explain why, at the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the news was greeted with paroxysms of glee. "Everybody screamed,'' says Anne LeClair, the organization's president and chief executive, who sent packets of promotional materials to court officials in Modesto. "We're all very excited."

This brought to some minds comparisons to bidding for a major sporting event, rather than the trial of a man accused of killing his pregnant wife on Christmas Eve 2002 and dumping her body into San Francisco Bay.

Ms. LeClair says she fielded subsequent phone calls that compelled her to some qualification: "We feel terrible about the circumstances that brought this case to our county and our hearts go out to the family of Laci Peterson,'' she said after the switch to Redwood City was announced.

Some 500 accredited media personnel are expected to descend on this low-slung, modest city of 75,000 this week. Thousands are expected to vie for the 102 theater-style seats in the San Mateo County Courthouse.

The county is home to Menlo Park, Atherton, and Woodside, among the wealthiest enclaves in the nation. From this demographic group, 4,500 jurors are seated every year. Twenty-five jury trials are under way at any time. Last week Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Girolami said Peterson would receive a fair trial and impartial jury in Redwood City.

"I have no trouble with San Mateo County,'' says veteran criminal defense attorney Tom Nolan, who has presented numerous high-profile cases to San Mateo County jurors. "They are diverse, educated, and fair minded, generally.''

Modesto and Redwood City are strikingly different. Modesto's largest employers are Gallo, the wine giant, Del Monte foods, and Blue Diamond almond growers. Redwood City has attracted United Airlines, Oracle, the database software behemoth, and Electronic Arts, the world's largest developer of interactive entertainment software.

BUT Redwood City itself is a blue- collar anomaly within the county, and many here are hoping the spectacle of the trial will help the city's economic revival, not only in the shortterm. Across from Salazar's hotel on Main Street are a string of consignment shops. On one intersection a block from the courthouse two large corner offices stand vacant. And a block-wide hole in the heart of downtown will soon be the site of an underground municipal garage, a street-level retail arcade, and a 20-screen cinema complex.

"Visitors will see Redwood City on the move upward,'' says Larry Buckmaster, president of the city's Chamber of Commerce. He estimates the take for county businesses will be between $6 million and $12 million. "Did we lobby for the trial? Absolutely not. Is it an opportunity to prove we can accommodate people? Absolutely.''

Mr. Buckmaster says Redwood City has no track record with large-scale events: The city's biggest crowd gatherer is its annual 4th of July parade. "That draws 70,000," he says, "but only for a day.''

On Jan. 23, San Mateo County deputy sheriffs delivered Scott Peterson from Modesto to the Redwood City Jail adjacent to the courthouse. Back in Modesto, Sheriff's Deputy Tom Letras, who had handled press relations during the investigation and Peterson's pretrial hearing, bade good riddance. "We had a rolling mob. Our phones were ringing off the hook. We couldn't keep up with voice mail.''

The Modesto police had been working overtime to handle the investigation, and expenses were piling up for the county. In fact, while spectacle trials bring in revenue, they can also be costly. And some towns can't accommodate the demand of press and other outside visitors.

But many in Redwood City are focusing on the benefits. Crowds will filter in this week, and when they do, Bob Bryant of Bob's Courthouse coffee shop will be ready - tending the counter and cash register and trading news and gossip with his loyal customers.

"This is going to be good for downtown. This is where they all come - either for breakfast or lunch or coffee in between,'' he says. "Oh, I expect we'll get some celebrities here. They can't miss us. We're the perfect image of a local joint ... So when Larry King comes in, you know what I'm going to do? Hand him a menu. Ask him: 'Medium or rare?'''

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