CHICAGO – Twelve weeks of combing woods and construction sites on foot and horseback, diving into ponds and canals, and retracing Stacy Peterson's last contact with family and friends have shed little light on the 23-year-old mother of two's whereabouts.
Neither investigators nor volunteer searchers have reported finding any trace of the woman — not a shred of clothing, a piece of jewelry or, most significantly, her body. And they're facing the very real possibility they never may.
So although authorities labeled Peterson's disappearance a possible homicide and named her husband, former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson, a suspect less than two weeks after she vanished, the question is whether anyone could ever be charged or tried in the case.
"Without a body, the average U.S. citizen would probably tell you that it is impossible," said Daniel Bibb, a former New York assistant district attorney who helped prosecute Dr. Robert Bierenbaum, a plastic surgeon convicted of killing his wife and dropping her body into the ocean from a small plane.
Suspects have been brought to trial — and convicted — in cases where not only is the body missing, but physical evidence linking the suspect to the crime doesn't exist.
"A body is such a critical component of a homicide case ... but it is something you can overcome," said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who has researched so-called "no-body cases." With or without a body, she said, "you need circumstantial evidence."
Trying no-body cases can be very different than those in which a pathologist explains in minute detail how a victim was killed and police officers testify about weapons, blood stains and fingerprints.
Prosecutors who have won convictions in such cases say they first must overcome the suggestion the purported victim is alive and simply walked away from his or her life.
"We brought as many friends and relatives as we could find to show she was making plans," Bibb said of Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, who was killed in 1985. That included presenting evidence about her preparation for college examinations and excitement about graduation.
And to head off defense attorneys suggesting the woman committed suicide, "we put her gynecologist on to show she recently had an IUD placed," Bibb said. "She's not going to get an IUD, thinking about being sexually active if at the same time she's going to commit suicide."
Before successfully prosecuting Steven Sherer for the murder of Jami Sherer in 2000 in Washington state — 10 years after she vanished — prosecutor Marilyn Brenneman contacted every state in the country to make sure nobody using Jami Sherer's name, birth date or Social Security number had ever applied for a driver's license.
During trial, Brenneman presented evidence the woman didn't use a credit card, cash a check or do any of the countless things people do every day to leave some kind of trail.
She called family and friends who testified the woman never once contacted them and told jurors about her devotion to her young son and how much she enjoyed her job.
"You have to show she's not somewhere else," Brenneman said. "It's a process of elimination."
The Will County State's Attorney's office won't discuss the Peterson case, but if it does come to trial, there is little doubt that Stacy Peterson's life will take center stage. Much that has been discussed since she disappeared — from her own devotion to her children to her nursing school attendance to her comments to her sister that she was about to see a divorce lawyer — likely would be used by prosecutors to demonstrate she is not a woman who would voluntarily disappear.
Prosecutors also appeal to jurors' common sense.
"There's a reason that after seven years someone is declared legally dead in this country," Brenneman said. "If you have a close relationship with your parents, your siblings or your child, you might take off for a week or two if you're terrified but you'd make contact. You'd have to make contact."
Drew Peterson has long maintained his wife left him for another man and that he believes she is alive.
His attorney, Joel Brodsky, said Thursday that a message sent to Stacy Peterson's cell phone in September shows she was having an affair, which he said lent credence to his client's theory.
In the text message, the anonymous author referred to Stacy Peterson as "my love" and thanked her for a sexual encounter the previous evening, according to a transcript provided by Brodsky. But a family friend said the message could have been sent by anyone, even someone who didn't know Stacy Peterson.
Brenneman and Bibb say the more time that passes, the less willing jurors are to believe missing persons left on their own.
"Ultimately, jurors don't believe that disappearing and starting a new life is possible," said Bibb, who prosecuted Bierenbaum 15 years after his wife disappeared.