Do words make you a murderer? The case against Brandon Pettit

A son is accused of having his parents killed, but his sister says there's no physical evidence directly tying him to the crime — only words.

A Sister's Fight for her Brother
A Sister's Fight for her Brother 42:01

The morning of August 8, 2013 had started out full of promise for then-28-year-old Lauren Pettit, who was living in Los Angeles.

Lauren Pettit: I remember I had texted one of my best friends that morning, "Today's gonna be a good day."

What she didn't know was that 300 miles away in Modesto, California, firefighters had been called to her parents' home at 3 a.m. Their bedroom had gone up in flames. Lauren's parents, Scott and Janet Pettit, were found dead inside.

Pettit fire
Firefighters were called to the Pettit family home in Modesto, California, at 3 a.m. on August 8, 2013. Neighbors called 911 after seeing fire coming out of an upstairs window. Stanislaus County Superior Court

Erin Moriarty: How would you describe your mom and dad?

Lauren Pettit: [starts to cry]

Erin Moriarty: You really miss them, don't you?

Lauren Pettit: [crying] They were amazing.

Two of the family's dogs also didn't make it. But one, Bailey, survived.

Erin Moriarty: Is it kind of a miracle she's even here?

Lauren Pettit [holding Bailey on her lap]: It's insane. Uh-huh.

Erin Moriarty: Bailey means a lot to you now.

Lauren Pettit: Everything. She's, like, my lifeline.

Mike Anderson, a close friend of the family, had arrived at the scene after getting a call that something terrible had happened.

Mike Anderson: When I turned onto Scott and Janet's street, there was fire trucks, ambulances. … And, so, my heart sank.

Mike Anderson: I want to say it's like losing an arm or something. You lose a part of your soul, a part of your body. And that's what it felt like. This can't be happening. … But it was.

Scott and Janet Pettit
"The community lost two people that did more for their communities than hundreds of people will ever do," friend Mike Anderson says of Scott and Janet Pettit. Lauren Pettit

And things only got worse. Investigators soon determined the fire was no accident. Scott and Janet had been shot — a total of 7 times, and evidence of an accelerant was found throughout their upstairs room.

KOVR NEWS REPORT: More than 12 hours after firefighters made the gruesome discovery, police investigators remain sifting through clues in what they are now calling a pair of suspicious deaths.

Mike Anderson: The community lost two people that did more for their communities than hundreds of people will ever do.

Scott was an avid car collector and owner of a martial arts studio in nearby Riverbank. The local paper once called him "Citizen of the Year." Janet, a neonatal nurse, had recently earned her PhD.

Erin Moriarty: When you think about your mom, what comes to mind?

Lauren Pettit: She was just incredible. You know, very caring and selfless. … My dad was very sarcastic. Very witty. … Loved to give back, loved to help everyone.

The couple had been in their late 20s when they first met. Scott was working as a paramedic then.

Lauren Pettit: I believe the story is … he was bringing a baby in from the ambulance. And she was the receiving — one of the receiving nurses.

The two would later marry and start a family. Lauren was 2 years old when her brother Brandon was born, and the family was complete.

Erin Moriarty [looking at a photo album and reading the captions]: Your mom writes, "Lauren was so excited to have her baby brother home." … You do look very happy to have a little brother. … First kiss from a big sister.

Lauren Pettit: Aww … I think I thought I had a new toy [laughs].

Growing up, Lauren says Brandon loved playing pranks on people. But when it came to career aspirations, that was something he was serious about.

Erin Moriarty: What did he wanna do?

Lauren Pettit: He really enjoyed, like, firefighting … I guess just, like, helping people in some way, shape or form, police force, things like that.

She says Brandon was smart but struggled socially.

Erin Moriarty: Do you remember how old you were when you noticed any difference with Brandon? When you started realizing that he wasn't quite like everybody else's little brother?

Lauren Pettit: Early childhood, definitely. I would s—under the age of 10, for sure. Maybe, like, 7-ish.

Erin Moriarty: What do you think you first noticed?

Lauren Pettit: Him being really stubborn and disobedient in a sense.

And, she says, he had trouble making friends.

Lauren Pettit: You know he was almost looked down upon or looked at as if he — just didn't fit in. And that was hard. 

Erin Moriarty: Was he lonely?

Lauren Pettit: I'm sure.

So lonely, says Lauren, that he would tell stories and make things up just to get attention.

Lauren Pettit: I don't think he ever thought that he was telling a story or lying. It was just, you know … I can do this. Or I can do that. Or, you know, I can get this. And, like, OK. Let's come back down to earth. And, like, let's … figure out whether or not it's reality.

Pettit family
Lauren, Janet, Scott and Brandon Pettit. Lauren Pettit

Scott and Janet had long been aware of Brandon's struggles. They took him to see numerous specialists. When Brandon was in high school, he was diagnosed with Asperger's, a developmental disorder affecting his ability to communicate and, at times, read social cues. Now, Asperger's falls under autism spectrum disorder.

Lauren Pettit: With Asperger's, I think it's really difficult for him … to be aware of how he's presenting himself and what he's saying and how he's saying things and how he's reacting to certain things or not reacting and whether or not he's doing what—people would consider the norm.

So, when Lauren called Brandon, then 25, shortly after they both learned of their parents' deaths, his unusual reaction, she says, was usual for him.

Erin Moriarty: How was he dealing with it?

Lauren Pettit: In his normal manner which is, you know, very emotionless … When he's — sad, kinda just keeps it all in.

But it was a red flag to police who soon zeroed in on Brandon. The day after the murders, before Lauren even got to see him, Brandon ended up in a police interrogation room for 9-and-a-half hours.

Erin Moriarty: And he went along with it.

Lauren Pettit: Mm hmm.

Erin Moriarty: And why do you think he was so willing to talk to the police?

Lauren Pettit: Probably the same reason I was, like, just wanting answers

Brandon was again called in for questioning just over a week after the murders. Lauren drove him to the station.

Erin Moriarty: Did the investigators give you any idea … that your brother was a suspect?

Lauren Pettit: Uh-uh. [shaking her head no.]

Erin Moriarty: He was by then, wasn't he?

Lauren Pettit: Uh-huh. [nodding to affirm]

Erin Moriarty: If you had known what was going on, if you had any idea your brother was a suspect, would you have taken him over there so willingly?

Lauren Pettit: I wouldn't have taken him there, period. We would have had an attorney.

After nearly 4 hours, police arrested Brandon for the murder of his parents.

Lauren Pettit: I think I lost my voice and my breath for a little bit—was like, "What? Why?"

UNDER ARREST

Just over a week after suddenly losing her parents, Lauren now had to deal with the news that her brother had been arrested and charged with the murders.

Lauren Pettit: I think I just started to hyperventilate and was like I don't even know what's going on.

In addition to Brandon, a man named Felix Valverde had also been arrested and charged. Lauren had never heard of Felix Valverde, but Brandon and Felix were both members of a group called the Clampers – a more than century old fraternal organization dedicated to the historical preservation of the American West. But Clampers are also known for enjoying getting together to drink.

Brandon Pettit and Felix Valverde
Brandon Pettit, left, and Felix Valverde were arrested and charged for the murders of Scott and Janet Pettit. Modesto Police Department

Lauren Pettit: I think his—the only reason he was a part of that was because he thought they — he thought he would have friends.

Erin Moriarty: Did your parents ever express concern about any of these people that your brother might be hanging out with?

Lauren Pettit: Uh-uh. I'd never heard about them.

Brandon was staying at his parents' house, but on the night of the fire, he was out working the graveyard shift as a security guard.

Erin Moriarty: And there are people who can say he was there.

Lauren Pettit: Yup. He has an alibi, his boss or his superior confirmed he was there.

But his alibi didn't seem to matter to investigators. They believed that Brandon paid Felix to commit the murders. The alleged motive? To inherit his parents' money. But Lauren couldn't make sense of it. She says Brandon loved their parents and actually benefited more with their parents alive.

Lauren Pettit
Lauren Pettit strongly believes that her brother is innocent. She says Brandon loved their parents and there's no reason he would have wanted them dead. CBS News

Lauren Pettit: They paid his bills. … My brother didn't even know the value of a dollar.

Erin Moriarty: If anything happened to your parents, was your brother going to inherit anything?

Lauren Pettit: Not that he knew of, not that I knew of either.

Police first began looking at Felix after Brandon— in his first interview with police — mentioned other friends, but curiously failed to mention Felix. That led to a search of Felix's apartment where their suspicions paid off. They found keys to the Pettit home, Scott and Janet's wallets, a box of ammunition, and seven spent shell-casings concealed in a planter outside — significant because Brandon's parents were shot a total of seven times. Hours later, police called Brandon in for that second taped interview and confronted him:

DETECTIVE 1: How would he come up with the keys to kill your parents?

BRANDON PETTIT: I don't know.

DETECTIVE 1: You know why? Cause you gave 'em to him.

BRANDON PETTIT: I didn't give him s ---.

But the detective told Brandon that Felix was telling a different story:

DETECTIVE 1: Felix says you gave him the keys and the keys both fit the garage door and the front door, Brandon. If you think for a minute that anybody, anybody is gonna believe your story, including your sister, you're mistaken.

DETECTIVE 1: You know what the thing about Felix is, that you're not that makes him more believable? He's remorseful.

BRANDON PETTIT: What do you mean, remorseful? What the hell does that mean?

DETECTIVE 1: He's sorry he did it.

The detective also told Brandon that he had phone records showing that Brandon and Felix spoke the night of the murders:

DETECTIVE 1: What was that about?

BRANDON PETTIT: On my break, I was asking him what we were doing for the weekend.

Despite the pressure, Brandon repeatedly denied having anything to do with the deaths of his parents:

BRANDON PETTIT: I don't know who killed my parents.

DETECTIVE 1: Yes, you do.

BRANDON PETTIT: No, I don't.

DETECTIVE 1: Yes, you do.

BRANDON PETTIT: No.

DETECTIVE 1:  Yes.

BRANDON PETTIT: No.

pettit-interrogation.jpg
Brandon Pettit repeatedly denied having anything to do with the deaths of his parents: In his second interview with police, Brandon made incriminating admissions. He said that he gave Felix bullets sometime in the weeks leading up to the murders.   Stanislaus County Superior Court

But in that second interview, Brandon made incriminating admissions. Brandon said that he gave Felix bullets sometime in the weeks leading up to the murders:

BRANDON PETTIT: He had asked me for the box of bullets that I had because my .22 hasn't been fired in two years because I don't have a bolt for it.

And, he admitted giving Felix $100 just days after the murders. But the most jaw-dropping part of Brandon's story was when he told detectives that about a month before the fire, Felix had threatened to kill Brandon's parents — unless Brandon paid him $10,000.

DETECTIVE 2: And you haven't told us something that is this important, and you're telling us now?

BRANDON PETTIT: I'm remembering a lot now.

DETECTIVE 2: You know what? Bulls---! Bulls---!

DETECTIVE 1:  And where'd you go? Did you go to the police station?

BRANDON PETTIT: No, I went back to my parents' house and told my dad.

DETECTIVE 1:  Why didn't you go to the police station?

BRANDON PETTIT: I don't know.

DETECTIVE 1:  Instead, you give him a box of bullets?

BRANDON PETTIT: Yeah, I could see that was a bad idea.

DETECTIVE:  That was a bad idea. That's a bad excuse and that's an even worse lie.

Even if it was the truth, why would Brandon wait nine days after the murders to tell them all of this?

DETECTIVE 1:  Why?

BRANDON PETTIT: I didn't want to talk to anybody.

DETECTIVE 1:  Did you not want us to solve that crime?

BRANDON PETTIT: I wanted to do it myself.

DETECTIVE 2: Oh wow, there's a new one!

DETECTIVE 1:  What did you do?

BRANDON PETTIT: I wanted to find out who did it myself.

And more damaging, why did Brandon remain friendly with Felix— not only after the threat was made, but even after Brandon's parents wound up dead?

DETECTIVE 1:   So, he tells you that he's gonna kill your parents, you give him ammunition and then you give him a hundred bucks.

BRANDON PETTIT: He said he had paid his bills and needed some money. I had a hundred bucks, so I figured I'd help him out until he got paid.

DETECTIVE 2: To the guy that just was threatening to kill your parents if you didn't pay him money, you're helping him out. Matter of fact, you're hanging out with him afterwards all buddy, buddy.

BRANDON PETTIT: I didn't believe he would actually do it.

Investigators were convinced that Brandon was the mastermind behind his parents' deaths, but Martha Carlton-Magana, an attorney appointed to represent Brandon after his arrest, says the interview proves nothing.

Martha Carlton-Magana: He didn't have anything to do with it. He doesn't know what happened.

She says detectives weren't interested in the truth, and they lied to Brandon when they told him that Felix had already confessed.

Martha Carlton-Magana: They've already decided he's a suspect. And they're really trying to feed him a lot of information so that he'll regurgitate it back.

She says the detectives knew Brandon had Asperger's …

DETECTIVE 1:  And this whole Asperger's thing. I'm not buying that either.

 … and suggests they mishandled the interview.

Erin Moriarty: Do you believe they were taking advantage of his condition?

Martha Carlton-Magana: I think they were doing what they always do. And because of Brandon's condition, he was more vulnerable to that kind of interrogation … Everything in that second interview needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Lauren agrees, and firmly believes her brother is innocent.

Lauren Pettit: He really is a good person.

Erin Moriarty: Does this seem at all in your brother's character to have your parents killed?

Lauren Pettit: Not at all.

But Brandon's statements in that interview wouldn't be the only hurdle that his defense would have to overcome. A young woman by the name of Sarah Wilson had surfaced. In the weeks leading up to the murders, she says Brandon had been promising her the world — things that only money could buy.

"A BOOB JOB FOR CHRISTMAS"

Sarah Wilson and Brandon Pettit met when they were in high school, but Sarah says they reconnected online in the summer of 2013, shortly before the murders.

Sarah Wilson: We got to talking, seeing how we were doing throughout the years.

Brandon had just gone through a messy breakup with a woman named Susan Sanchez. Susan was pregnant with Brandon's child.

Erin Moriarty: How did your brother feel about becoming a dad?

Lauren Pettit: Very excited. … Family was everything to him. So.

But with his relationship with Susan over, Brandon was apparently ready to shift his attention to someone new.

Sarah Wilson: I had some inclinations that he had a little crush on me. But I didn't pursue anything with him. I didn't give him any hints that I was attracted to him in that way.

That didn't seem to deter Brandon, who ended up making her an offer she says she couldn't refuse.

Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson looking online at photos of the mansions in Georgia she says Brandon Pettit sent her. CBS News

Sarah Wilson: He had mentioned that his parents were going to buy him a million-dollar home in Georgia. And he said that I can move in with him.

Sarah Wilson I — of course said yes. Who wouldn't want to live in a million-dollar home?

Sarah Wilson: I was going through a lot of stuff in my personal life. I just really wanted to get out of California.

As enticing as it all was, Sarah suspected it might be too good to be true.

Sarah Wilson:  I took it with a grain of salt. I didn't think it was really going to happen.

But Sarah says Brandon would send her real estate listings daily.

Sarah Wilson: Oh, the houses had a shower the size of my bedroom now. They were just gorgeous.

And he showed her the email conversation he was having with a realtor.

Sarah Wilson: Which kind of made me think, OK, this is really going to happen.

And the promises didn't stop there.

Sarah Wilson: He one day mentioned that, oh, my mom, seeing how happy I am, how excited I am to be moving with you, that after we move, she will open a boutique for you to run yourself.

Sarah Wilson: I did find it kind of strange that his parents would … spend this amount of money on a business for me when I had never met them.

Sarah says she thought she'd finally meet them since Brandon told her his parents had bought plane tickets to take them all to Atlanta to look at homes. But a couple of days before that supposed trip, Sarah received a strange text from Brandon.

Sarah Wilson: I got a text out of nowhere from Brandon saying, "You're getting a boob job for Christmas, LOL."

The text came in at 10:43 p.m. on August 7.  Just a few hours later, Brandon's parents were discovered dead. He delivered the news to Sarah the next morning.

Sarah Wilson: I got a text from Brandon saying, "My parents died last night in a house fire." … I didn't press him for any information. I just figured that's a touchy subject. His parents had just died.

On August 9, after Brandon's first interview with detectives, Sarah says he called her, and they met up.

Sarah Wilson: He told me that his aunt had cancelled the flight tickets and they just want to keep that under wraps, so don't tell the detectives that. I thought that was very odd. … That's when I started to think, you know, something's kind of weird.

Sarah would later learn there were no airline tickets, no trip to Georgia planned, and Brandon's parents didn't die in a house fire; they were murdered. It wasn't long before detectives showed up at her door.

Sarah Wilson: They just started asking me questions about Brandon

She told them everything about those million-dollar homes, the supposed trip to Georgia, and the text Brandon sent promising her a breast enhancement just hours before his parents were killed. For police, it amounted to a financial motive for murder. But Lauren Pettit believes it actually amounts to nothing.

Erin Moriarty: Do you believe your brother really told her those things?

Lauren Pettit: Possibly. … But … I mean, that was just who my brother was.

Brandon's defense attorney agrees and says Brandon's conversations with Sarah shouldn't be given much weight at all.

Martha Carlton-Magana: That was a fantasy he was playing out with a girlfriend to impress her, which he'd always done.

Erin Moriarty: Brandon actually called a realtor and actually … pinpointed some houses. Is it possible … that Brandon decided he was going to make that fantasy come true — and killed his parents so he'd have the money to actually buy that house?

Martha Carlton-Magana: I don't see that as being realistic. I see that as being something that Brandon did— in order to impress friends.

Erin Moriarty: What about the fact, though, right before his parents died, he had texted Sarah Wilson and said for Christmas, you're going to get … breast enhancement surgery? Just a coincidence, Martha?

Martha Carlton-Magana: Yeah.

Erin Moriarty: Honestly?

Martha Carlton-Magana: Yeah, I'm not sure it was the first time he said it, either.

Erin Moriarty: If somebody could say, you know, Brandon lies a lot. He lies to girlfriends. … You know, he lies to the police if you're right. How do you know when to believe Brandon then?

Martha Carlton-Magana: You don't. … Brandon lies a lot and very badly. There's no question about that. So, you don't, you look to the evidence.

And hard, definitive evidence directly tying Brandon to the murder of his parents, says Martha, just isn't there.

THE CASE AGAINST BRANDON

Lauren Pettit stood by her brother Brandon as he awaited trial, convinced of his innocence. But as the case dragged on, she was all too aware there was a possibility she might end up losing him, too.

Lauren and Brandon Pettit
Lauren and Brandon Pettit Lauren Pettit

Erin Moriarty: It's a huge burden on your shoulders, isn't it?

Lauren Pettit: Uh-huh. … I mean, it's not really about me anymore … My brother depends on me.

Erin Moriarty: What do you think your parents would want you to do?

Lauren Pettit [crying]: I need to fight for my brother absolutely, 'cause that's what they would do, but take care of myself.

On the four-year anniversary of her parents' deaths, "48 Hours" was with Lauren as she made the trip to the cemetery.

On that same day, she visited Brandon in jail, as well.

Lauren Pettit [outside jail]: Instead of it being face-to-face … it's video visitation. … I see him on a screen for 30 minutes.

One court delay after another, it was seven long years from the time of the murders of Scott and Janet Petitt to when Brandon Petitt's trial finally began on September 1, 2020. Cameras were not allowed in court. Defense attorney Robert Winston was now representing Brandon and he was up for the challenge.

Robert Winston: I've had a lot of cases over the years. … So, the basic case wasn't that unusual. …The fact that Brandon had … Asperger's. That put a new dimension on the case.

Brandon Pettit and Felix Valverde
Felix Valverde was to be tried alongside Brandon Pettit, but a judge ruled that Valverde was incompetent to stand trial. CBS News

Brandon was initially supposed to be tried alongside Felix Valverde, but about a month before the trial, the judge made a rare finding: that Valverde was incompetent to stand trial. That means the man who may have actually done the killing is unavailable to the defense.

Erin Moriarty: How can Brandon be put on trial when the person who police believe actually did the killing is considered incompetent?

Robert Winston: That's our law.

Erin Moriarty: I mean, is that fair to Brandon?

Robert Winston: Sadly, fairness rarely enters into it.

Valverde was placed in psychiatric treatment with the hope that he might be able to go on trial at a later date. Due to Valverde's still-pending case, the prosecutor's office declined "48 Hours"' request for an interview. We asked Mary Fulginiti, a CBS News consultant and former federal prosecutor, to analyze the state's case.

Mary Fulginiti: You have to look at the totality of the evidence. And as you look at the totality of his statements and his actions, I think it's very difficult to say he did not plan it. He did not plot it. He did not desire it. He did not intend it and he did not want it.

Pettit murder evidence
Detectives searched Felix Valverde's apartment, where they found several pieces of important evidence, including wallets belonging to Scott and Janet Pettit. Stanislaus County Superior Court

But the physical evidence only connects Felix Valverde. The prosecution began by calling investigators who detailed all that evidence found at Felix's apartment: Scott and Janet's wallets, the box of ammunition, those seven spent shell casings, and most important, they would argue, keys to the Pettit home.

Mary Fulginiti: How would Felix get a hold of the keys to the house? … The keys were given to him by Brandon, and that was so that he could access the house. So, he could get into the house and kill his parents easily.

The prosecution also called witnesses who knew Felix and testified that he had obtained a new gun in the weeks leading up to the murders. That gun, however, says defense attorney Robert Winston, was never found.

Robert Winston: It was a Western-style .22 revolver … We certainly don't know that was the murder weapon. It wasn't recovered, don't know where it is. … We don't even know if that type of weapon was consistent with the bullet fragments that were found in the bodies. … There was no hard evidence of anything.

Erin Moriarty: They don't know if a .22 was used to kill the Pettits.

Mary Fulginiti: Well, what they do know, though, and this is critical in a circumstantial evidence case — they do know they were shot seven times. … They found seven .22 caliber shell casings in a planter outside of Felix Valverde's house.

In an effort to directly tie Brandon to the murders, the prosecution called Mike Anderson, the Pettits' close family friend. He testified about a conversation he says he had with Brandon a few months before the murders.

Mike Anderson: He just told me "if my parents weren't here, my life would be better."

Mike says he didn't think much of it at the time, but with Scott and Janet now gone, and Brandon on trial for their murders, that comment carried a whole new weight.

Mike Anderson: I felt like I didn't help him. But I had to tell the truth. It was hard. It was sad.

And that wasn't all Mike testified to. He also told the jury that in the days following the murders, Brandon was looking to sell his dad's prized cars, including a 1961 Corvette.

Mike Anderson: He wanted to sell the [Cor]vette and move to Georgia. … It made me feel very uneasy. It made me question everything.

Brandon Pettit
At Brandon Pettit's trial, prosecutors argued that Brandon's motive was financial. They told the jury that Brandon had hoped to inherit his parents' life insurance and sell his father's vintage cars. Brandon is pictured with Susan Sanchez and his father's Corvette. Lauren Pettit

The prosecution also called Susan Sanchez, Brandon's ex-girlfriend – the mother of his then-6-year-old daughter — who still had a strained relationship with him. She said Brandon once mentioned that Corvette to her, too.

Mary Fulginiti: He couldn't wait for his dad to be dead so that it would be all his. … And he's also told Susan Sanchez on at least 5 or 6 occasions she testified to that he wanted his parents dead.

And there was more. Susan testified she had an ex-husband whom she had mentioned to Brandon.

Mary Fulginiti: He said, "Look, if you want to make him disappear, I've got a friend, Felix Valverde, who you can pay $500 to … and your ex will disappear." Coincidences? Too many.

Brandon's high school friend Sarah Wilson also took the stand and testified about all those promises Brandon had made her, and the lead detective detailed what Brandon had said in that second interview:

DETECTIVE 1: So, he tells you that he's gonna kill your parents, you give him ammunition and then you give him a hundred bucks.

BRANDON PETTIT: He said he had paid his bills and needed some money.

It's a circumstantial case. The strongest evidence against Brandon: his own words and actions before and after the murders.

Erin Moriarty: Has there ever been a moment, though, through any of this that you've been wondering maybe my brother did it?

Lauren Pettit: No. But, you know, I'm not going to lie. I'm not naïve. … I still believe that my brother is innocent. But if someone can prove to me that he's not with actual evidence, not just words, you know, then it is what it is. And I'll deal with that.

Mary Fulginiti: Brandon did plan and plot the murder of his parents. … He wanted the Corvette. He wanted the house. … He did it for money.

But would Brandon kill the parents he loved and leaned on? The defense has to raise doubts with their star witness who knows Brandon best.

Lauren Pettit: You're testifying for someone you love so much. And in your head, all you think about is what if I say the wrong thing.

A SISTER'S FIGHT

Seven years after both of her parents were murdered, Lauren Pettit took the stand to try to save the man accused of killing them: her own brother, now 32 years old.

Lauren Pettit: There are so many things going through your head … and there's no coaching. There's no nothing. You're just, here you go. Good luck.

Defense attorney Robert Winston wanted the jury to see a very different side of Brandon and his family.

Robert Winston: This was not a family where there was hatred, there was animosity, that there was a motive to kill. It just didn't exist.

Lauren described how important family was to her brother.

Lauren Pettit: It was his whole world.

And the dogs who died in the fire — she says Brandon loved them, too.

Lauren Pettit: I have photos and videos galore of him with his dogs. … He would skip out on family vacations … just to stay home and make sure the dogs were safe and OK.

Lauren also questioned the alleged financial motive, telling the jury that her parents were actually in debt at the time of their death. And that Corvette that Brandon supposedly wanted? She says it was already partially in his name. But perhaps the most crucial part of her testimony cast doubt on the prosecution's theory that Felix Valverde got into the Pettit home with house keys that Brandon gave him.

Pettit doggy door
Lauren Pettit's testimony cast doubt on the prosecution's theory that Felix Valverde got into the Pettit home with house keys that Brandon gave him. She told "48 Hours"  her parents had an extra-large sized dog door on their back-sliding glass door that both she and a detective used to enter the home. Stanislaus County Superior Court

Lauren Pettit: My parents had an extra-large sized dog door on their back-sliding glass door, which is how I had gotten into the house the day after they passed … It's how the detective told us he had gotten into the house earlier that day and he was a much larger man.

Erin Moriarty: So, the detective himself went through the doggy door?

Robert Winston: Yes.

Erin Moriarty: And that was never considered as the way the killer might have gotten into the house?

Robert Winston: Correct.

But then how did Felix get those keys to the Pettit home?

Lauren Pettit: I think the keys were probably in my parents' wallets.

Lauren says her parents had digital door locks – where you punch a code to enter. But in the event the battery-powered locks died, she says, her parents kept spare keys tucked inside their wallets, and left those wallets out in the open on the kitchen counter.

Robert Winston: Picture it this way, Felix Valverde goes to the house. … He crawls in, now he's inside. … He sees a purse. He sees a wallet. He either thinks I'll get those on the way out or he picks them up right then. … Then he goes upstairs, and he does what he does. But when he picked up the wallet of Scott Pettit, it had a key in it. When he picked up the wallet of Janet Pettit, it had a key in it.

Erin Moriarty: If Brandon didn't hire Felix, if he didn't ask him to kill his parents, why would Felix do it on his own?

Robert Winston: Two motives. … One, Felix thought there was money in the house. … The other theory is that he heard Brandon say these things about his parents, and he thought … that Brandon would be happy with him.

But there was one big problem with the defense's theory. In a section of Brandon's videotaped interview not shown in court, he admitted giving Felix the keys:

BRANDON PETTIT: I know how he got the keys.

DETECTIVE 1: How?

SERGEANT: You know? OK, how did he get the keys?

BRANDON PETTIT: I got the keys. I never intended him to actually do anything. … He was supposed to scare 'em. Not hurt them.

It was an admission that could destroy his defense. Brandon actually admitted that he sent Felix to his home to convince his parents to stop contacting his ex-girlfriend, Susan. But because Brandon said it after he had asked for a lawyer, the judge didn't allow it in as evidence and as bad as it sounds, defense attorney Robert Winston claims that Brandon made it up in an effort to end the interrogation.

Robert Winston: It seemed as though Brandon was saying, I'll tell you anything you want to hear, just let me out of here.

Winston was determined to show the jury why they shouldn't believe much of what Brandon said. He called Dr. Laura Geiger, a clinical psychologist appointed by the court, who testified that Brandon's Asperger's could explain his questionable statements and behavior.

Erin Moriarty: Dr. Geiger — does she believe that Brandon's Asperger's — autism interfered in that police interview to his detriment?

Robert Winston: Absolutely.

Robert Winston: People with autism take information in differently than we do. … So, when the police ask a question, there's always the worry, is it really understood?

Winston was feeling optimistic when, after nine days of testimony from 23 witnesses, the case went to the jury. Deliberations stretched on for about a day-and-a-half and then, a verdict: guilty. "48 Hours"' cameras caught a glimpse of Brandon as he was led out of the courtroom.

Brandon Pettit
In September 2020, Brandon Pettit was found guilty of the murder of his parents. He was sentenced to two life terms without the possibility of parole. Felix Valverde has pleaded not guilty and has yet to go on trial. CBS News

Erin Moriarty: How did your brother react to the verdict?

Lauren Pettit: He was shocked and then really scared.

Erin Moriarty: Scared of what?

Lauren Pettit: His future. 

Four months later, Brandon was given the maximum sentence: two life terms without the possibility of parole. Lauren was devastated.

Robert Winston: It was hard not to feel paternal towards her …

Erin Moriarty: She's lost everything, hasn't she?

Robert Winston: Really, yes. She has.

Lauren remains convinced her brother is innocent. She hopes one day Felix Valverde will go on trial and maybe then, she'll get the answers she's looking for.

Erin Moriarty: Do you think Felix Valverde killed your parents?

Lauren Pettit: I think he probably had something to do with it.

Felix has pleaded not guilty and his attorneys declined "48 Hours"' request for an interview.

As Lauren begins to pick up the pieces, she sadly no longer has her dog Bailey to comfort her. He passed away in 2019. Now, a new friend – Jelly - is helping to put a smile back on her face. And yet nothing and no one will ever fill that void left by the loss of her once close-knit family.

The Pettit family
Scott, Lauren, Janet and Brandon Pettit Lauren Pettit

Erin Moriarty: What do you miss the most about your parents?

Lauren Pettit [crying]: Everything. … My dad's jokes … My mom tirelessly working to, you know, make sure I'm OK.  … I would give anything to have them back.

Brandon has written Sarah Wilson multiple times from jail insisting he is innocent.

She says she has never responded.


Produced by Stephanie Slifer.  Michelle Fanucci and Gayane Keshishyan Mendez are the development producers. Emma Steele and Addison Briley are the associate producers. Atticus Brady, Marlon Disla and George Baluzy are the editors. Lourdes Aguiar is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.

  • Erin Moriarty
    Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"