By Danya Hooker
A Will County Judge confirmed Thursday that Drew Peterson was the subject of a court-authorized surveillance operation.
The revelation bolsters claims made earlier by two of Peterson’s former friends, Len Wawczak and Paula Stark, who said they wore police-issued wiretaps to secretly record seven months worth of private conversations with the former Bolingbrook police officer suspected in his wife’s disappearance.
Peterson and his attorney, Joel Brodsky, had previously doubted the existence of such tapes, saying Wawczak and Stark’s allegations were simply a money-making scheme. But Judge Richard Schoenstedt, after listening to Brodsky argue that the state was required to turn over the results of any surveillance operation if one took place, said there are surveillance tapes and that they are in his possession.
“The state can’t give you that information,” Schoenstedt told Brodsky. “The list is extensive and I have been in the process of going through this information.”
The exchange was part of a hearing to discuss several motions filed by both state prosecutors and Peterson’s attorneys in the lead up to a trial on charges that Peterson possessed an AR-15 assault rifle that was too short under state law and that he illegally transferred the weapon to his son. Brodsky and co-counsel Andrew Abood asked the state to turn over the results of any surveillance of Peterson to determine if they contained information relevant to the upcoming trial.
The state provided Brodsky with a list of dates specifying when surveillance operations were requested and authorized, but did not say what type of surveillance was used or what information investigators gathered.
Schoenstedt said he could not turn over the information until he had reviewed the tapes, CDs and DVDs to ensure they complied with the court order issued when the wiretaps were granted approval. Brodsky said he could not comment about what exactly the dates on the list referred to and did not comment on the length of the surveillance operations.
“We don’t know and I doubt we’ll ever be able to talk about the extent of the surveillance,” Brodsky said.
In July, Wawczak and Stark said they had worn wires for seven months to help gather information as part of the investigation into the Oct. 28 disappearance of Peterson’s wife, Stacy. Peterson is the sole suspect in the case, which police are calling a “potential homicide.” Police are also investigating the March 2004 drowning of Kathleen Savio, which was recently reclassified as a homicide. No suspects have been named in the death.
Peterson has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
But the investigations have led to two felony weapons charges against Peterson. While carrying out a search warrant on Peterson’s home in November, police seized about a dozen firearms. Among the weapons was the AR-15, which police say is illegal.
Jury selection and the trial are scheduled to begin Dec. 8. On Thursday, Schoenstedt heard arguments regarding motions each side had filed, including Brodsky’s request to have additional safeguards in place to ensure an impartial jury and the state’s request to issue a gag order preventing anyone involved in the case from speaking to reporters.
“This case is a court case that should be argued in court, not in the press,” Assistant State’s Attorney Gregory DeBord said.
Schoenstedt denied the gag order after Brodsky and Abood said the public had a right to hear the facts of the case. The judge also deferred all questions relating to jury selection until an Oct. 23 hearing. Brodsky said he is proposing providing potential jurors with a detailed questionnaire to determine their impartiality and questioning jurors in private to prevent their answers from biasing others.
The defense is also considering requesting the trial be moved outside of Will County.
“Everybody is making efforts so that (change of venue) motion can be avoided if possible,” Schoenstedt said. “But I understand it’s out there.”
Schoenstedt said he is open to a variety of ideas to ensure a fair trial and said he plans to call as many as 100 potential jurors for selection, compared to the 35 he usually calls for non-homicide felonies.
“(A change of venue) is something to consider but we’re a long way from deciding that,” Abood said. “I’m certain this judge is going to do everything possible to make sure (Peterson) gets a fair trial.”