Picture this: it’s a beautiful morning in sunny Los Angeles – the sky is clear, the birds are chirping, and life is good. Everything that morning made it seem like it was just another day in August in 2013. 28-year-old Lauren Pettit even got a text from one of her best friends, saying, “Today’s gonna be a good day.”
Fast forward to the middle of the night on August 8, and Lauren’s family home, which was 300 miles away in Modesto, California, was ablaze. Firefighters had been called to the house at 3 a.m., but devastatingly, it was too late. Both Lauren’s parents, Scott and Janet Pettit, were already gone. Of the three family dogs, only one (named Bailey) made it out alive.
A close friend of the family named Mike Anderson arrived at the scene after getting the call that something awful had happened to the Pettits. His “heart sank” when he got to the house. “It’s like losing an arm or something,” he said. But discovering the deceased parents – both of whom were 59 years old – was, unfortunately, only the beginning of this nightmare.
Soon enough, investigators determined that the fire was no accident. Scott and Janet had actually been shot seven times, and there was also evidence of an accelerant in their upstairs room. Suddenly, the deaths of the husband and wife were very suspicious. It was clear now that someone wanted them dead. The thing is no one expected it to be so close to home…
Mike Anderson noted how they lost two people who did more for their communities than most people will ever do. Scott was a car collector who owned a martial arts studio in Riverbank. He was so well-liked that the local paper once gave him the respectable title of “Citizen of the Year.” His wife Janet was a neonatal nurse who had recently earned her PhD.
She was caring and selfless; he was witty and generous. The couple was in their late 20s when they first met, and their story is quite endearing. Scott was working as a paramedic then. He was bringing a baby in from the ambulance, and she was the receiving nurse.
The two fell in love, married, and started a family of their own. Lauren was two when her brother Brandon was born, and growing up, she remembers her brother always playing pranks on people. The only thing he was really ever serious about was his career.
According to Lauren, Brandon enjoyed the idea of firefighting and the police force – “things like that.” You see, Brandon was smart, but he struggled socially. There came a point when Lauren started to notice that something was different about her brother – he wasn’t like other people’s little brothers.
Even before the age of 10, something seemed peculiar about Brandon. The first thing Lauren noticed was how stubborn and disobedient he was. He also had trouble making friends; he didn’t fit in and was almost “looked down upon.”
He got so lonely that he would tell stories and make things up to get attention. Of course, their parents saw it, too. Scott and Janet took him to see multiple specialists. Brandon was in high school when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a disorder on the autism spectrum.
It was difficult for Brandon to be aware of how he came off to people and how he would react to others. On the day of the tragic news, then 25-year-old Brandon had a unusual response to hearing of his parents’ deaths.
Well, it was strange for Lauren. For Brandon, on the other hand, it was normal to be emotionless. For the police, it was a red flag. On the day following the murders, even before Lauren got to see him, Brandon was in a police interrogation room for nine and a half hours.
It didn’t seem to bother Brandon, either. A week later, he was called in again for questioning. This time, Lauren drove him to the station. She just didn’t know that Brandon was now a suspect. In retrospect, Lauren said later, had she known he was a suspect, she never would have taken him to the station.
Instead, she would have called an attorney. It took the police four hours before they cuffed Brandon and arrested him for the murder of his parents. Lauren was baffled. All she could think was “What? Why?”
She already lost her parents; now she was losing her brother. And it all happened within a week. At that point, she started to hyperventilate and basically had a panic attack. What’s more, Brandon wasn’t alone in this. A man named Felix Valverde was also arrested and charged.
Lauren had never even heard of this Felix guy, but apparently, the two of them were both members of a group called the Clampers. The group is a fraternal organization that’s been around for more than a century and is dedicated to the historical preservation of the American West.
And like any fraternity, the Clampers are also known for getting drunk together. If you ask Lauren, the only reason he was even in this group was so he could make friends. But Brandon never told his family about this fraternity.
Despite the fact that he was living with his parents at the time, they had no idea where he was going. On the night of the fire, Brandon was working the graveyard shift as a security guard. In fact, it was his official alibi. His boss confirmed he was there. But the investigators didn’t care…
Brandon’s alibi didn’t matter to the detectives. Why? Because they believed Brandon paid Felix to kill his parents. What was the alleged motive? To inherit his parents’ money. Lauren couldn’t make sense of any of it. She said Brandon loved their parents and benefited a lot more with their parents alive.
Think about it: they paid his bills. He didn’t know the value of a dollar – he needed them. Did Brandon know that he would inherit money if something happened to his parents? Not that Lauren knew. This all came down on Lauren like a ton of bricks.
Police began questioning Felix after Brandon mentioned other friends in his first interrogation. Oddly, he never mentioned Felix. Their instincts were right, since the questioning led to a search of Felix’s apartment, and they found incriminating evidence.
In Felix’s home were the keys to the Pettit home, both Scott and Janet’s wallets, a box of ammunition, and a total of seven spent shell-casings hidden in a planter outside. It was almost too good to be true, considering Brandon’s parents were shot seven times. Soon after, the police called Brandon in for a second taped interview…
Detective: “How would he come up with the keys to kill your parents?”
Brandon: “I don’t know.”
Detective: “You know why? Cause you gave them to him.”
Brandon: “I didn’t give him s***.”
That’s when the detective told him that Felix was telling a different story – that he told them Brandon gave him the keys. The detective also mentioned that the difference between him and Felix was that Felix was remorseful.
Brandon: “What do you mean, remorseful? What the hell does that mean?”
Detective: “He’s sorry he did it.”
The detective told Brandon that they had phone records showing that he and Felix spoke the night of the murders. But Brandon said he only asked Felix what his plans were for the weekend. He then repeatedly denied involvement in his parents’ murders.
Brandon: “I don’t know who killed my parents.”
Detective: “Yes, you do.”
While Brandon didn’t admit anything, he did make some incriminating admissions, like when he said he gave Felix bullets a few weeks before the murders.
Brandon: “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.”
Brandon also admitted to giving Felix $100 a few days after the murders. But the most incriminating part of Brandon’s story was when he confessed that a month before the fire, Felix threatened to kill Brandon’s parents. That is, unless Brandon paid him $10,000.
Detective: “And you’re telling us now?”
Brandon: “I’m remembering a lot now.”
He said he told his dad about the threat. Instead of telling the police, he went ahead and gave Felix bullets.
Brandon: “Yeah, I could see that was a bad idea.”
Why did he take so long to tell him all this? Because he didn’t want to talk to anybody.
Detective: “Did you not want us to solve that crime?”
Brandon: “I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to find out who did it myself.”
What is even more baffling is that Brandon remained friendly with Felix — after the threat was made, and even after his parents wound up dead. How could that be?
Brandon: “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… I didn’t believe he would actually do it.”
The detectives were convinced that it was Brandon who was the mastermind behind his parents’ murders. But Martha Carlton-Magana, the attorney appointed to represent Brandon, said the interrogation proves nothing. She argued that Brandon had nothing to do with it – that he doesn’t even know what happened.
She claimed that the detectives weren’t interested in the truth – that they had already decided he was a suspect – and even lied to Brandon when they said Felix already confessed. According to her, the detectives knew Brandon had Asperger’s. “And this whole Asperger’s thing. I’m not buying that either,” was what one of the two detectives said.
According to Carlton-Magana, the police did what “they always do” – and due to Brandon’s condition, he was more vulnerable. Lauren also believes her brother is innocent and being taken advantage of. “He really is a good person,” his sister said.
Brandon’s incriminating interrogation wasn’t the only thing his attorney had to remedy. In a rather surprising and unexpected twist, another character in the story showed up. A young woman by the name of Sarah Wilson surfaced. In the weeks before the murders, Sarah and Brandon were texting to each other.
Sarah said that during those weeks, Brandon promised her the world. The two knew each other from high school, but they reconnected online in the summer of 2013, shortly before the fire. Brandon was fresh out of a messy breakup with a young woman named Susan Sanchez.
In fact, Susan was pregnant with his child. He was excited to be a dad, but his time with Susan was over, and he was ready to move on. As Sarah explains it, she knew Brandon had a crush on her, but she never pursued anything and never gave him hints that she was into him.
Brandon wasn’t deterred, though, and decided to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse. He told her his parents were planning to buy him a million-dollar home in Georgia and asked her to move in with him when it happened.
Sarah said she would. “Who wouldn’t want to live in a million-dollar home?” she asked rhetorically. But she started to think about how suspicious it all was. So, she took Brandon’s words with a grain of salt. Still, he sent her real estate listings daily. He even showed her the email conversation he was having with a realtor.
The emails made her think that maybe he really was telling her the truth. And his promises didn’t stop there. He then said that his mother would open a boutique for Sarah to run. It struck her as strange that his parents would invest so much money in some woman they never even met.
Sarah was hoping to meet the Pettits when Brandon told her his parents bought them plane tickets to Atlanta to look at homes. But then, a few days before the supposed trip, Sarah got a strange text from Brandon.
She got a text “out of nowhere” from Brandon: “You’re getting a boob job for Christmas, LOL.” It was at 10:43 p.m. on August 7, 2013. A few hours later, Brandon’s parents were found dead. He told Sarah the news the next morning.
Yet another unexpected text came from Brandon: “My parents died last night in a house fire.” On August 9th, after his first interview with the detectives, he called Sarah, and they met up. He told her that his aunt canceled the flights to Atlanta – and that she shouldn’t tell the detectives that.
Sarah started to think something was off. She later learned that there were never any tickets, no trip had ever been planned, and his parents didn’t die in a fire – they were killed. Soon enough, detectives showed up at her door.
She told them about the million-dollar homes, the trip to Georgia, and the text Brandon sent her about a breast enhancement a mere hours before his parents were killed. For the police, it sounded like a financial motive.
Lauren Pettit, however, thinks it means nothing. She figures Brandon was just being Brandon when he was telling Sarah all these grandiose things.
The way Carlton-Magana sees it, Brandon was just playing out a fantasy of impressing a girlfriend. But was it just a coincidence that hours before the murders, he texted Sarah about a boob job? According to his attorney, yes.
So, when do you actually believe the guy? “You don’t,” Carlton-Magana said. “Brandon lies a lot and very badly… So, you look to the evidence.” And hard evidence tying Brandon to the murder of his parents, she said, just isn’t there.
“Words don’t make you a murderer,” Lauren said. As for the prosecutors, they believe it was more than just Brandon’s words – he literally gave Felix the keys to the house and the ammunition. As Brandon awaited trial, Lauren stood by her brother, convinced of his innocence.
But as the case went on and on, she started to realize that she was likely going to lose him, too. When asked what she thinks her parents would want her to do, Lauren said through tears that she needed to “fight for my brother absolutely, cause that’s what they would do, but take care of myself.”
On the four-year anniversary of Scott and Janet’s deaths, 48 Hours went on a trip with Lauren to the cemetery. She also visited Brandon in jail, but it wasn’t a face-to-face visit. They could only do a video visitation, where she could see him “on a screen for 30 minutes.”
It took seven long years for Brandon Petitt’s trial to finally begin, on September 1, 2020. Defense attorney Robert Winston was representing Brandon by this point. Winston noted that the case wasn’t that unusual, but the fact that Brandon had Asperger’s added a “new dimension on the case.”
Brandon was supposed to be tried with Felix Valverde, but a month before the trial, something was discovered. The judge made a rare finding: Felix was incompetent to stand trial. What that meant was the man who possibly committed the murders is unavailable to the defense.
How could it be that Brandon is on trial, yet the person whom police believe committed the killings is considered incompetent? “That’s our law,” Winston stated. “Fairness rarely enters into it.” Felix was placed in psychiatric care with the hope that he would be able to stand trial at a later date.
When it comes to the physical evidence, only Felix is tied to the murders. The prosecution used this in the trial, using all evidence found at Felix’s apartment and calling upon witnesses who knew Felix. These witnesses testified that he, indeed, obtained a new gun in the weeks prior to the murders.
However, the gun, Winston stated, was never found. The attorney said the Western-style .22 revolver” was never recovered – they don’t know where it is. The prosecution was still aiming to tie Brandon to the murders, so they called family friend Mike Anderson to the stand…
Anderson testified about a conversation he had with Brandon a couple of months before the murders. “He just told me, ‘if my parents weren’t here, my life would be better.’” Anderson said he didn’t think much of it at the time.
But now that Scott and Janet were gone, and Brandon was on trial for their murders, the comment carried a whole new weight. “I didn’t help him,” Anderson admitted. “But I had to tell the truth. It was hard. It was sad.” But he also testified to something else…
Anderson also told the jury that in the days after the murders, Brandon was trying to sell his dad’s prized cars, including his 1961 Corvette. Anderson alleged that Brandon wanted to sell the Corvette and move to Georgia. “It made me question everything.”
Susan Sanchez, Brandon’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of his then-6-year-old daughter, was also called to the stand. Susan, who still had a strained relationship with Brandon, said he once mentioned that Corvette to her, too. He also told her on multiple occasions that he wanted his parents dead.
There was more. Susan revealed that she had an ex-husband she told Brandon about. She claimed that Brandon told her, “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.”
All signs were pointing to Felix as the killer and Brandon as the mastermind. Then came time for Sarah Wilson to testify, and she told the jury about all the promises Brandon had made her. At the end of the day, the strongest evidence against Brandon were his own words and behavior before and after the murders.
Through all of this, Lauren never thought that her brother had really done it. She insisted that she wasn’t naive, but she wanted proof – not just words. Only then would she accept it. It seems like she might be the only one. Everyone else thinks Brandon is guilty of plotting their deaths.
And not only that – that he did it for money. After all the other witnesses took the stand, it finally came time for Brandon’s sister to vow under oath and say everything she needed to say. Obviously, it was the most nerve-racking thing she had ever done.
The star witness – the one who knows Brandon best – took the stand. The 35-year-old was now trying to save her 32-year-old brother’s life. Defense attorney Robert Winston was hoping it would let the jury see a very different side of Brandon and his family.
Lauren spoke about how important family was to her brother – that it was “his whole world.” She talked about the dogs who died in the fire and how much Brandon loved them. She also referred to the alleged financial motive, telling the jury that her parents were actually in debt at the time of their deaths.
And the Corvette? Lauren stated that it was already partially in his name. The most crucial part of Lauren’s testimony put the prosecution’s theory – that Felix got into the Pettit home with the keys that Brandon gave him – into question.
The house had a very large doggy door that both Lauren and the detective used to enter the home after the Pettits were killed. Yet that door was never considered as a way for the killer to get into the house. Still, Felix did have a hold of the house keys, which Lauren thinks were in her parents’ wallets.
The Pettit home was set up with digital door locks, where you punch a code to enter. But in the fire, the battery-powered locks died, and as Lauren recalled, her parents kept spare keys inside their wallets. They also tended to leave their wallets out in the open on the kitchen counter.
But if Brandon didn’t hire Felix, why would this frat friend do it on his own? According to Winston, there are two possible motives: money (which he thought would be in the house) or connection to Brandon (he heard him complain about his parents).
The problem with the defense’s theory was the part in the videotaped interview (not shown in court), where Brandon admitted giving Felix the keys:
Brandon: “I know how he got the keys.”
Brandon: “I got the keys. I never intended him to actually do anything. He was supposed to scare ’em. Not hurt them.”
And that, in his own words, is a confession that he sent Felix to his home. But his story was that he sent Felix to convince his parents to stop calling his ex-girlfriend, Susan.
Here’s the thing: Brandon only said this after he asked for a lawyer, so the judge didn’t allow it in the court as evidence. The way Winston sees it, Brandon just made it up to try and end the interrogation. Winston got Dr. Laura Geiger, a clinical psychologist appointed by the court, to testify as well.
She said that Brandon’s Asperger’s could explain his questionable statements and behavior. Dr. Geiger also thinks Brandon’s Asperger’s interfered in the police interview. After nine days of testimony from 23 witnesses, the case was in the jury’s hands.
Deliberations took a day and a half. The verdict? Guilty. How did Brandon react? Lauren said he looked shocked and “really scared.” Four months later, he got the maximum sentence: two life terms without parole. Lauren was absolutely devastated.
The poor woman lost everyone in her family. She hopes that Felix will one day go on trial and provide the answers she’s looking for. As Lauren was trying to recover, her beloved dog Bailey passed away. When asked what she misses most about her parents, Lauren said, “everything.”
Meanwhile, Brandon has written multiple letters to Sarah Wilson, insisting he’s innocent. She has yet to respond.