A Murder Trial to Die for ; They Seemed an Ordinary, Happily Married, Small-Town American Couple - until Laci Peterson Was Washed Up Dead on a Beach, Alongside Her Unborn Son. Now Husband Scott Is Awaiting Trial for the Killings, amid a Media Frenzy and a Cast of Colourful Supporting Characters to Rival Even the OJ Simpson Case. RUPERT CORNWELL Reports on a Lurid Tale That's Gripping the US

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In retrospect, the moment when the Iraq war ended for US cable television is clear. Not when that statue of Saddam was pulled down in Baghdad, or when George Bush did his Top Gun routine and landed on an aircraft carrier to proclaim that major combat operations were over - but on the weekend of 12-13 April, when the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn son washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay.

Laci Peterson, you may ask - who on earth is she? But in America, every now and then, a crime case comes along that creates its own separate universe. For readers of America's supermarket tabloids, for addicts of cable television and the vapid morning shows on the networks, her tragic story is a daily happening, divorced from normal human considerations of decency, grief and privacy. To this obsessed audience, every available particular of Laci's life and death is second nature.

A few years ago, there was the OJ Simpson affair. Then we were regaled with the story of Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old Capitol Hill intern whose disappearance from a Washington city park obsessed the country that distant pre-September 11 summer of 2001. And now, terrorist attacks, anthrax scares and two wars later, the Laci Peterson case is set to join that company. And, in however unedifying a fashion, this made-in-California tale of love, betrayal and murder somehow marks a country's return to normality - far more than any lowering of the national colour-coded terror alert from scary orange to humdrum yellow.

Its beginnings, when Peterson disappeared last Christmas Eve, were nothing to raise the eyebrows. She was a 27-year-old substitute teacher, apparently happily married and eight months pregnant, living with her husband Scott, a fertiliser salesman, in the quiet agricultural town of Modesto. That 24 December, Scott went on a fishing trip to San Francisco Bay, 90 miles away. It was the last time, by his account, that he saw his wife. When he returned home in the evening, Laci had gone.

From the outset, however, police had their eye on Scott, though they never named him as a suspect and he denied any involvement in his wife's disappearance. They tapped his phone and discovered that, the previous autumn, he had had an affair with another woman. Scott Peterson told them that Laci knew about his transgression and had forgiven him.

But three months ago the case cracked wide open. On 12 April, the remains were found of an infant, with its umbilical cord still attached, on the bay shore near Berkeley. The next day, the mostly skeletal remains of a woman were washed up on the beach a short distance away - a few miles from where Scott had told the police he went fishing. Television and the local press excitedly carried the news of the gruesome discoveries, dutifully cautioning, however, that it might be several weeks before DNA tests permitted the two bodies to be identified. In fact, confirmation that they were Laci and the unborn Conner came just six days later - and the police took no chances with the man they were increasingly sure had committed the crime.

Having been under intense media as well as police surveillance for the best part of three months, Scott Peterson was arrested on 18 April as he was driving just 30 miles from the border with Mexico. He had $10,000 (pounds 6,100) in his pocket and sported a goatee beard, while his dark brown hair had been dyed reddish-blond. He was charged with murdering his wife "around December 23 or 24, 2002", a formulation implying that he may have killed Laci at home and then taken her body to be dumped in San Francisco Bay.

The sensational news of the identification of the mother and child, and the arrest of the father, went out on the evening news. When Scott Peterson arrived at close to midnight at Modesto's county jail, a crowd of dozens had gathered, some of them shouting "murderer". And an already hyperventilating media went into a frenzy. …