The woman behind the smile

April 19, 2003 

That smile. That dimpled, bursting-with-joy smile. It came through in every photograph, overshadowing her shining, deep-brown eyes.

That smile was Laci Peterson's trademark, her very essence.

So it's difficult to envision what happened to that wonderful smile -- the smile of a 27-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant -- on or about Christmas Eve.

That's when Laci and her unborn baby died.

Friday, police arrested her husband, Scott, in La Jolla. Stanislaus County District Attorney Jim Brazelton said Peterson will be charged with their deaths. And as the case goes to trial, the evidence will be hurtful and painful to those who knew and loved Laci Peterson.

But they'll always have those photos -- that smile -- to help them remember the young woman so full of life.

She was born Laci Denise Rocha on May 4, 1975, to Sharon and Dennis Rocha.

"I always knew she was going to be a good, happy baby," Sharon said during a December interview with The Bee. "Within a few days, she was sleeping through the night. When I would go get her out of her crib, she would always wake up with a smile on her face. All her life, she has been a happy person."

Embracing great outdoors

From the time she was a young child, Laci was happiest when she was outside gardening with her mother, pulling plants and, eventually, just the weeds. She learned to appreciate plant life. From that point on, wherever Laci lived, she surrounded herself with the fresh, green life found in vegetable gardens, flowers, plants and trees.

The Rochas owned a family dairy west of Escalon, and she pitched in at an early age, stepping into a pair of her father's big rubber boots. The muck, the manure -- it was part of dairy life. It never bothered the girl who would some day want everything to be just right.

"It was a great place to grow up," said her brother, Brent Rocha. "We always had a good time out there. As a kid on a dairy, you kind of have to make your own fun."

Sharon and Dennis Rocha divorced when Laci and Brent were still young. Sharon and the children moved to Modesto, and the children visited the dairy on weekends.

The children were very close, as children from broken homes often are.

Laci grew into a beautiful young woman, catching eyes with that ever-present smile, which produced those dimples.

"She has always been so fun and outgoing," Brent said. "After a while, all my friends were saying things like, 'Man, your sister is really cute.' When she was 13 or 14, she still wanted to hang out with us like the old days, and I was kind of like, 'No, I don't think that's such a good idea.'"

Laci attended Downey High School in Modesto. Her circle of close friends included Rene Tomlinson, Renee Garza, Stacy Boyers, Lori Ellsworth and several others. Some had gone to Sonoma Elementary School and La Loma Junior High together before moving on to Downey.

Some of them were cheerleaders. Some of them played sports. They attended football games, partied and hung out together. Kid stuff.

They loved to talk about boys. They met for slumber parties, sneaking champagne after the lights went out. With hangovers all around, Laci would be the only one who would make it through the next day at school.

Wherever they went, Laci often became the center of attention. She was a refreshing blend of confidence, sincerity, loudness and charm.

"Honestly, thinking back, she is the only person I know who has never changed," Tomlinson said. "Always perky, bubbly, energetic, chatty. She always wants to have fun."

Laci graduated from Downey in 1993, going on to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where all of those days with her mother in the garden paid off. Laci received the outstanding freshman award in the ornamental horticulture division.

"I saw her develop a lot in those days," her brother said. "She was very excited about college. She met a lot of people and really grew."

And by the time she'd been in school a year or so, she was able to teach her older brother a thing or two.

"She wasn't the typical college student," he said. "When I'd drive down and visit her, instead of going to keg parties, we'd go wine tasting. I would have never known when you go into wineries, you start with whites and work your way to reds. She taught me a lot that way."

She would frequent a restaurant called the Pacific Cafe, where one of her neighbors worked. There, she met Scott Peterson, who also worked at the cafe. Laci made the first move, sending him her phone number.

He finally called. They began dating and soon fell deeply in love.

Sharon Rocha remembers the moment in the summer of 1994, when the phone rang and the voice of energy and exuberance was on the other end.

"Mother," Laci said, "I have met the man I am going to marry. You've just got to get down here and meet him." Sharon asked if they had gone out yet. "Not yet, but we will."

Their first date that week was a deep-sea fishing trip. Laci got seasick.

Sharon drove down to visit her daughter that weekend. They went to the Pacific Cafe. Scott had placed roses -- a dozen white for Sharon, a dozen red for Laci -- at their table.

"She was in love from the beginning," Sharon said.

Dating for two years, they married in a warm ceremony at a coastal-area hot springs. While finishing college, the couple opened a burger joint called The Shack. They sold the business two years ago when they moved to Modesto to start a family.

Laci loved to entertain, and set out to create perfect evenings for their guests.

It all came so easy to her, friend Renee Garza said.

"If I did something like that, it'd be pretty stressed, but she isn't even breaking a sweat," Garza said in December. "She's never in the kitchen cooking. It's all made when we get there. You don't feel like it's this big burden, because it's something she enjoys."

Back in Modesto, she rekindled the friendships among her old Downey High classmates, complete with sleepovers, gossip and boy talk -- only now it was men talk.

"Sometimes you take the relationships you make in high school for granted," Garza said. "It seemed like all of us were going all these different directions. She is the one who brought us all back together."

Indeed, she did. But this time, Christmas 2002, they came together to search for her. Many had gotten calls from Scott, asking if they'd seen her on Christmas Eve. They hadn't. Many came to the house -- the home where she'd entertained so many times -- do see what they could do to help.

"It just wasn't right," Rene Tomlinson said. "This was not a sad place. To be sad at her house, it just wasn't right."

They needed to see her smile -- that smile -- the one they'll only see again in the pictures.

Bee staff writers Ty Phillips and Jeff Jardine contributed to this report.

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