On May 7, the 55-year-old Peterson, who had served as a policeman for almost 30 years in the town of Bolingbrook, Ill., was finally arrested on a charge of murdering his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio, who was found face down in her own bathtub on March 1, 2004. It was Peterson, still on duty with the Bolingbrook police force at the time, who found his ex-wife's body. He had gone through a nasty divorce with her to marry his fourth wife, Stacy, who was 30 years younger than him.
Peterson had two children with Stacy. On Oct. 28, 2007, Stacy Peterson, 23, disappeared without a trace and has never been seen since. Peterson's own stepbrother, Tom Morphey, has since repeatedly said publicly that he helped Peterson remove a large blue barrel from the house that day that felt warm and weighed about 120 pounds. He is now convinced it contained Stacy's body. Drew Peterson has been named by police as a suspect in Stacy's disappearance.
So far, Peterson has not been charged with anything in connection with his fourth wife's disappearance. Since she vanished, he has been lionized by the national media tabloid roadshow. He has been on the cover of People magazine and has enjoyed long, supposedly serious interviews with hit ratings with Greta Van Susteren on Fox, Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" and on other TV shows that masquerade as serious journalism. He has clearly reveled in every minute of it.
Even when he was arrested at last on Thursday, Peterson found time to crack a joke that it must be because his library books were overdue.
However, that kind of behavior does not signify cool courage or witty grace under pressure, as Peterson clearly imagines that it does. It is more like the delusion of the egocentric narcissist who jumps off a building and remains convinced until the instant he hits the pavement that it will never happen to him and that he can actually fly.
The Peterson case has a long way to go, and it will generate thousands of hours of prime time and millions of tabloid sales yet. In macroeconomic terms, it might even be argued that Peterson is therefore a timely blessing for the embattled U.S. media industry. Cynics can claim that all the attention the media is giving his case -- like so many other sleazy, tawdry tales of lust, rage and evil before him -- is a good argument for wiping out the entire popular media complex with the financial equivalent of a giant meteorite.
But at the very minimum, Peterson's colorful romantic career confirms the despairing observation of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant 225 years ago that out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight can ever be made.
Peterson was not wealthy or particularly well educated. He didn't look special; he was far from slim, and none of his marriages lasted too long. He was divorced from his first wife Carol Brown after only five years and from his second wife Victoria Connolly after a decade. Connolly has famously described her now-notorious ex as "a legend in his own mind."
But if Peterson never showed any particular aptitude for anything else, he certainly seems to have enjoyed an ability to romance and woo impressionable teenage girls and young women in their 20s. This alone would make him an improbable wish-fulfillment figure for many middle-aged, overweight Americans who, whatever their other many admirable attributes, have not been able to do that.
If Peterson is eventually convicted of the murder of his third wife -- which he has now been charged with -- and of his fourth -- which he has not so far been charged with -- he may go down as a curiosity in the annals of criminology. It is highly unusual for serial or repeat murderers to start killing in their late 40s or 50s, well into middle age. That is usually the time of life when serial killers who have evaded detection to that point settle down to a more placid existence as they lose their compulsion to slaughter. But that, again, may have been a pattern of behavior that has been upended by the age of Viagra.
The slow response and apparent incompetence of the Bolingbrook police in investigating the fates of both Kathleen Savio and Stacy Peterson are also worthy of note. When Savio was found dead in her bathtub with clear head wounds and the bath empty of water, the circumstances were obviously suspicious. Inspector Clouseau could have worked that one out. Nevertheless, the local coroner ruled the death an accidental drowning. Following Stacy Peterson's disappearance, Savio's body was exhumed, and her death was finally reclassified as a homicide.
In the year and a half since Stacy Peterson's disappearance became a national sensation, none of the major networks hesitated for a second in the name of restraint, taste, decorum or decency to give Drew Peterson his Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame.
There is nothing new about any of this. In the 18th century, sensationalized and highly colored accounts of the outrages perpetrated by the primeval Scottish cannibal mass murderer Sawney Bean -- by all accounts, no dashing Hannibal Lecter but just a savage slob who was described as having robbed, killed and eaten hundreds of people with the rest of his barbaric clan -- sold like hotcakes in English tabloid newspapers.
Immanuel Kant would not have deigned to pay any attention to the American public's obsession with Drew Peterson and his unfortunate wives. But Sigmund Freud, who was simultaneously obsessed and repelled by American popular culture, would have had a field day. Who's to say he would have been wrong?