Drew Peterson: How his murder case upended a quiet community

When police Sgt. Drew Peterson was charged with murdering his third wife, it brought an intense media glare to Bolingbrook, Ill., a Chicago suburb. His conviction doesn't mean the community will slip back into obscurity any time soon.

Paul Beaty/AP
Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow speaks outside the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., Sept. 6 after a jury convicted former Bolingbrook, Ill., police officer Drew Peterson of murdering his wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. He faces a maximum 60-year prison term when sentenced on Nov. 26. Illinois has no death penalty.

Drew Peterson’s guilty verdict drew a sigh of relief, not just from the victim’s family and supporters, but from people in the area where Mr. Peterson lived his life as a police sergeant for 30 years.

Bolingbrook, Ill., a community of about 74,000 on the far reaches of Chicago’s southwest corridor, became the focus of public attention in 2009 when Peterson was arrested in connection with the bathtub drowning of Kathleen Savio, his third wife.

An otherwise nondescript village bordering cornfields and filled with quiet cul-de-sac subdivisions, retail and entertainment strips and light industry, Bolingbrook got pushed into the media spotlight in many of the same ways other communities are when tied to salacious trials that drag on for years.

Village board meetings became cable news fodder, cable network personalities like Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren camped out on front lawns for weeks, and the town was depicted in a TV movie featuring a mustachioed Rob Lowe as the in-your-face suburban police sergeant.

Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder related to Ms. Savio’s death, which was first ruled an accident in 2004. Her body was exhumed and her death ruled a homicide after Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared in 2007.

In the two-year lapse before he was formally charged with Savio’s murder, Peterson appeared to relish his moment in the sun – taunting authorities through the media and making light of his situation, even suggesting that Ms. Peterson was not dead, but had left him for another man and then gone into hiding to make his life miserable.

His celebrity, coupled with the pulpy details of his case, only encouraged the attention of media gawkers, which, over time became a liability to the village’s reputation and the integrity of its police force, says Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar.

“It was almost taken out of a soap opera. People here couldn’t believe that happened with one person. It was so bizarre,” says Mayor Claar. “All the people I talked with were concerned and we agreed that this could happen anywhere. But to pick on our [police] department and pick on our community is ignorant and unfair.”

Claar says the continual media presence in his town “upset everyone” as the village struggled to accommodate the onslaught of satellite trucks parked along streets that were normally have little traffic. Compounding the burden was the case itself: It involved neighbors people knew, respected and lived their lives alongside.

“It was a nuisance” for Peterson’s neighbors, Claar says. “They all knew Drew and knew his wife and certainly know his kids.”

Claar, who is in his 26th year as Bolingbrook’s mayor, says he routinely receives email from people calling the police department corrupt or demanding his resignation for not doing enough to stop Peterson, an allegation that stings, he says. When it was discovered that Savio was married to Peterson, Claar handed the investigation to the Illinois State Police, a decision he said was warranted and judicious.

“Does one corrupt police officer make an entire department corrupt? That’s offensive,” he says.

Business development in Bolingbrook has remained largely insulated from the Peterson saga, says Michael Evans, president and CEO of the local chamber of commerce. Because of its prime location near two interstate highways, the village is home to large distribution centers and shipping services for major food chains in the Midwest

“People are happy to have it all over with … but I don’t think the average person correlates our business community with Drew Peterson,” Mr. Evans says.

Peterson is currently in Will County jail until his Nov. 26 sentencing. His saga may not be entirely over as the family of Stacy Peterson, his fourth wife, is demanding a separate investigation into her disappearance. Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday they “are going to aggressively review that case with an eye toward potentially charging” Peterson.

Even if that case remains unsolved, it may be a long time before Bolingbrook gets its good name back.

“It’s almost like it will never be forgotten,” Claar says.

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