This month, a jury found Drew Peterson, a former Illinois police sergeant turned flamboyant criminal, guilty of the 2004 murder of his ex-wife Kathy Savio. Now, hundreds had gathered to celebrate. Dateline NBC’s Hoda Kotb reports.
By Andrew Mach, NBC News
As a former police officer, Drew Peterson may have a tougher time behind bars than other inmates, according to prison experts.
But as the one-time “Police Officer of the Year” awaits sentencing for the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, one ex-cop who spent time behind bars says Peterson’s brash personality could be at least as big a liability.
“When he gets in there, those people are going to eat him alive. Absolutely,” says Bill Pederson, a former Drug Enforcement Administration officer who served time in prison. “He’s got such a big ego, and if you go in and you’re cocky, they’re going to wail all over you, and there’s no safe place in prison.”
Peterson, 58, was found guilty of first degree murder of Savio last week, and faces up to 60 years in prison when he is sentenced on Nov. 26. While he is far from the first police officer to be staring down decades behind bars, he is among the most high profile, with his story catalogued in countless TV shows and tabloid magazines.
“[Inmates] know everything. They know your background, what you’ve done, where you work. There are televisions, there are newspapers, and they probably cheered when he was found guilty,” said Pederson, who served 15 months in the federal prison in Oxford, Wisconsin, on a 1992 conviction for theft of public records.
Much of Peterson’s experience will be driven by whether prison officials decide to incarcerate him with the general inmate population or alone in segregation. In making that decision, a board will weigh the pros and cons of both options for Peterson.
“All offenders received by IDOC are evaluated for placement within a facility on a case-by-case basis, based on several factors,” the Illinois Department of Corrections said in a statement regarding Peterson. “These factors include the nature of offense and the offender’s criminal history as well as any safety and security needs of the offender. When appropriate, an offender’s prior employment may be a factor in determining whether they should be placed in protective housing.”
However, because Peterson has not yet been evaluated by the department, IDOD spokesperson Kayce Ataiyero told NBC News that there is no way of determining at this time whether he will be housed with or segregated from the general prison population.
But experts say there’s a strong likelihood that the prison will err on the side of safety.
“They’ll take precautions because it is a former law enforcement person who may have dealt with these individuals that may be in there or they have friends or families of people in there,” Frank Bilecki, Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff spokesman, told NBC News. “You don’t want to put them in harm’s way of being around any of those individuals. My guess is that he’ll be in protective custody and he may have requested that.”
Peterson was kept in segregation at the Will County Adult Detention Center in Joliet, Illinois, for the duration of his trial due to the high-profile nature of the case and will continue to stay there until his sentencing.
Former Bolingbrook, Illinois police sergeant Drew Peterson arrives at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Illinois, for his arraignment on May 8, 2009.
“We have a lot of people here that are in protective custody that didn’t want it,” Bilecki said. “They wanted to be with the general population but it wasn’t in their best interest or ours. Each case needs to be looked at closely.”
Jeff Shannon, a police officer and psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, said prison can cause great mental strain for former officers.
“When a person who has a super strong identity as a police officer goes from a position in society that he is very proud of and that he earned to all of the sudden being in handcuffs in the back of a police car and in jail, it becomes a psychological crisis,” Shannon said.
Shannon, however, believes Peterson’s brash public demeanor might actually help him in prison.
“You don’t want to appear to be a victim, and if you hold yourself in a confident manner, physically, and you’re assertive and tough, you’re going to fare better than if you walked in and you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Additionally, Shannon says, as a seasoned police officer, there’s no denying Peterson’s awareness and understanding of the prison system.
“Officers spend their entire careers dealing with people in prison,” Shannon said. “They’re familiar with how they think and how to communicate with inmates. There’s this whole kind of lingo that he’ll be comfortable with that will serve him well in prison.”
Peterson began working with the Bolingbrook, Illinois, Police Department in 1977. He served on the Metropolitan Area Narcotics Squad, and he was named “Police Officer of the Year” in 1979 by the department.
Peterson was fired in 1985 from the Bolingbrook Police Department after a board of police and fire commissioners found him guilty of disobedience, conducting a self-assigned investigation, failure to report a bribe immediately, and official misconduct. Indictments alleged he solicited drugs in exchange for information. The charges were later dropped and he won reinstatement with the department in 1986.
The murder trial for Peterson began years after Savio, 40, was found dead in her dry bathtub on March 1, 2004. Her death was initially ruled an accidental drowning, but investigators reclassified it as a homicide after Peterson’s 23-year-old wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing. Peterson was indicted on May 7, 2009 by the Will County Grand Jury and arrested for the murder of Savio. Stacy Peterson has not yet been found.
If he winds up being charged with a crime in Stacy’s disappearance, Peterson could face even more time behind bars.
“I don’t think that just because you’re the police, you’re in danger,” said Pederson, the ex-DEA agent. “There might be some froggy guys in there who say I’m going to get the copper, but for the majority of the inmates, it will depend on how he conducts himself in there, not because of what his job was out here.”
“Wherever he’s going, police would have been there before,” Pederson said. “It’s not that unique of a situation. But he’s got to start eating some humble pie.”