• History

This Case Is the Real-World Version of Gone Girl

4 minute read

This weekend, the much-anticipated movie adaptation of the New York Times bestseller Gone Girl hits theaters, and though the thriller is fictional, it turns out there may be a kernel of truth at the heart of the story: author Gillian Flynn said in a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly that, though she didn’t base the novel on any true-crime tale, she did see a parallel between her story and the Laci and Scott Peterson case.

We’re not going to spoil any of the plot twists for those who haven’t yet read the novel or seen the movie, but here’s the real-life case, as reported in 2003 by TIME, that at least partly inspired the novel. (Again, for those avoiding spoilers, not everything in the Peterson case has a parallel in Gone Girl, so you can safely read up on the real-life mystery without ruining the fictional one; if you don’t want to have even a fuzzy idea of the set-up, stop here.)

On Christmas Eve of 2002, 27-year-old Laci Peterson went missing from the home she shared with her husband, Scott, in California. Laci, a substitute schoolteacher, was eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child. Before she went missing, Laci had already picked out a name for the baby — Connor — and painted the nursery blue with a nautical theme.

Scott, 30 at the time, said that he had last seen her leaving their home to walk their dog, a golden retriever named McKenzie, as he departed for a fishing trip to the Berkeley Marina. The next morning, a neighbor found the dog wandering the neighborhood and returned it to the house where Laci’s car was still in the driveway. Scott reported her missing to the police after returning from his trip that evening.

Laci’s family organized a vigil and search for her, and in the first days search parties of hundreds of people hunted for her. The Petersons were an attractive couple, as Flynn pointed out to EW, and the case quickly drew media attention.

In the early stage of the search, Laci’s family told the media that Scott was a loyal and loving husband. They even supported him after he stormed out of a press conference in response to a reporter’s question about whether he was a suspect. They stood by him as the police began to search his home, his boat and his car, and as authorities told the press that Peterson was not being fully cooperative in their investigation.

That changed when Amber Frey, a massage therapist, told the police that she and Scott had been having an affair. Scott, she said, had not told her he was married when they met about a month before Laci disappeared. Soon after, police discovered that Scott had taken out a $250,000 insurance policy on his wife after she became pregnant. Meanwhile, Scott sold Laci’s car and contemplated putting up the house for sale as well.

“I’m only left to question what else he may be hiding,” said Laci’s brother Brent Rocha, after hearing about the affair. “Because we have so many questions that he has not answered, I am no longer supporting him.”

In April of the next year, police found Laci’s body, carrying a full-term male fetus, washed up on the shoreline 90 miles from where the couple had lived.

Police tracked down Scott, who had since dyed his hair, grown a goatee and moved to San Diego, where his parents lived. Fearing that he would flee for the Mexican border, authorities arrested Scott before DNA tests were completed on Laci’s body.

Scott Peterson was convicted of first degree murder for Laci’s death and second degree murder for the death of their prenatal son in 2005. He is currently on death row at San Quentin State Prison.

Read Lev Grossman’s Sept. 25, 2014, TIME profile of Gillian Flynn: Gillian Flynn’s Marriage Plot

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com