The Tragedy Of Robert Peernock's 1987 Santa Clarita Staged Car Crash

In the early morning hours of July 22, 1987, authorities received reports that a vehicle struck a telephone pole on a secluded road in Santa Clarita, California. When officers arrived on scene, they found two unresponsive females inside the black Cadillac. As reported by Oxygen, the driver, who was later identified as 45-year-old Claire Peernock, suffered severe head trauma and was pronounced dead at the scene. Claire's 18-year-old daughter, Natasha, who was in the passenger seat, also suffered severe head trauma. However, she was still alive and was immediately rushed to the hospital.

During a subsequent search of the vehicle, law enforcement officials found an empty liquor bottle in the passenger compartment — which suggested the occupants may have been drinking. However, Oxygen reports the officers also noted a strong odor of gasoline and found an empty gas can inside the trunk. As it appeared as though the vehicle had been doused in gasoline, Los Angeles Police Department arson investigator Michael Camello was called to the scene.

Camello, who had reason to suspect foul play, contacted homicide detectives for assistance. According to Oxygen, the detectives noted a number of details that suggested the crash was staged. For example, there was no indication that Claire's head struck the windshield or any other surface inside the vehicle hard enough to cause the degree of head trauma she suffered. Instead, it appeared that her head had been struck with a tool or implement. 

Claire and Robert Peernock were in the midst of a divorce

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, an autopsy confirmed Claire Peernock died of massive head trauma, which likely occurred prior to the crash. The coroner also determined the head wounds were "inconsistent" with those usually suffered during a car accident.

Oxygen reports Natasha Peernock was expected to recover from her injuries, which were similar to her mother's. However, she was unable to be interviewed in the days following the accident, as she was in serious condition and under sedation. 

Authorities determined the Lincoln was registered to Claire's husband, Robert Peernock. However, Robert was not at home and was unable to be located until later that same day.

In the course of their investigation, authorities learned Claire and Robert were in the midst of a contentious divorce. Although he and Claire jointly owned the home, he had been staying with his girlfriend, Sonia Siegel, when his wife died and his daughter was seriously injured. Robert, who worked as a computer technician and electrical engineer, contacted law enforcement officials after a neighbor called to tell him about the accident. According to Oxygen, Robert told detectives he saw Claire and Natasha in the hours prior to the accident. 

Robert said Claire and Natasha were both drinking alcohol while he was making repairs around the house. In Robert's words, his wife and daughter were both "sloppy drunk" when they left the house and drove away in his Cadillac.

Robert Peernock soon became the primary suspect

The Cadillac was ultimately towed to the police yard, where detectives scoured the entire vehicle for evidence. As reported by Oxygen, they were stunned to find an undetonated explosive device attached to the underside of the vehicle. Further inspection of the device revealed it was built to explode on impact, but seemed to have somehow malfunctioned.

Law enforcement officials were specifically suspicious of Robert Peernock, as he was previously employed as a protechnics engineer for a company that manufactured missile components. Although Robert initially agreed to an interview with authorities, he failed to appear at the scheduled time. Instead, Oxygen reports law enforcement officials received a letter via Robert's attorney, which stated that he had no involvement in his estranged wife's death or his daughter's injuries. He further stated that he was uncomfortable going to the police station, as he had filed multiple lawsuits against Los Angeles County stemming from allegations of corruption.

Amid their continued investigation into what they strongly suspected was a staged crash, detectives learned more details about Claire and Robert's relationship. At the time, the couple had been married for 16 years and had two daughters. When Claire filed for divorce in 1983, she also sought custody of Natasha and her younger sister. As reported by The New York Times, Claire also asked the court to issue an order preventing Robert from contacting her or coming within 100 yards of the house.

Robert Peernock died in prison of Covid-19 at the age of 85

When Natasha Peernock recovered enough to talk to detectives, Oxygen reports she had no memory of the car accident. However, she did remember the events leading up to her and her mother leaving the house.

According to Natasha, she and her father had an argument over the electric bill. Although it began as a verbal altercation, it turned physical when Robert grabbed her by the neck and started choking her. Natasha said her father eventually tied her up and forced alcohol down her throat through a tube. When Claire returned home and saw what Robert was doing to her daughter, he reportedly attacked her as well. As reported by Oxygen, authorities believe Robert then put Claire and Natasha in his car, struck them in their heads with a metal bar, and staged the accident.

At the time of his arrest, Robert Peernock had gotten cosmetic surgery, in what authorities believed was an attempt to alter his appearance. He also had $20,000 cash and travel brochures for Australia in his hotel room.

Oxygen reports Robert was ultimately convicted on one count of murder and was sentenced to two life terms. However, some people believe he was framed and wrongfully convicted. According to Free Robert Peernock, Robert's supporters believe everyone from law enforcement officials to the jury were in on the fraudulent charges and subsequent conviction, but their assertions have never been proven. Robert Peernock died in prison after contracting coronavirus at the age of 85.