A day for tears, prayers

May 4, 2003 

Today would have been and should have been a day of joy for the family and friends of Laci Rocha Peterson.

They would have come together to celebrate the 28th birthday of the young woman with the captivating smile, engaging personality and warm hospitality. And, they would have taken turns holding Conner, the baby boy born only weeks earlier to Laci and her husband, Scott.

Instead, what would have been and should have been a day of smiles and laughter will be a day of tears and prayers as Laci's family and friends come together to honor her memory.

Upward of 3,000 people are expected to join them this afternoon at First Baptist Church in Modesto at a memorial service for the young woman and her unborn son, whose bodies were found three weeks ago along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

For Laci's family -- mother and stepfather, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski; father, Dennis Rocha; brother, Brent Rocha; and half sister, Amy Rocha -- today's memorial is one more difficult step on the tragic journey that began with Laci's disappearance Christmas Eve.

While Laci's family grieves in Modesto, nearly 400 miles away in San Diego County, Scott's family is stuck between grief and a hard place -- mourning Laci and Conner, and defending Scott, their accused killer.

Scott Peterson will not attend today's service for his wife of seven years. Instead, the 30-year-old agricultural fertilizer salesman will spend the day in a small cell in Stanislaus County Jail, where he has been held without bail since his arrest on April 18.

He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder in the deaths, and is awaiting a series of hearings with his newly retained counsel, high-profile lawyer Mark Geragos.

Scott's parents say they will not attend the service, either, nor will any of his six brothers and sisters.

While thousands are expected to come together in Modesto to pay their respects to Laci and Conner, and news crews from across the nation scramble to pass on sound and images of the scene, Scott's family will stay secluded in San Diego County, balancing their grieving with the task ahead: proving Scott's innocence.

Calling up Larry King

Laci Peterson's disappearance, the subsequent investigation and Scott Peterson's eventual arrest captured the nation's attention -- not to mention the nation's television time.

Night after night, week after week, TV programs -- especially on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and other cable channels -- have featured legal experts speculating about the case for hours on end.

For Lee Peterson, Scott's father, one commentator in particular became too much to bear several days ago.

He called CNN's "Larry King Live" to take on Nancy Grace, accusing her of having a "personal vendetta" against his son and challenging her about what she knew -- or did not know -- about the case.

Peterson said: "You are just caught up in this thing and there's no room for, you know, innocence until proven guilty. And I'm just appalled by that."

Grace, a former prosecutor in Atlanta, said: "It's my belief that there's a very strong case against Scott."

Peterson accused Grace of "speculating on these facts as much as I am "

"And you are believing what your son is telling you," she said.

"Please don't interrupt me," Peterson said. "You've had your say here for months, and you've crucified my son on national media. And he's a wonderful man. You have no idea of his background and what a wonderful son and wonderful man he is.

"And you sit there as a judge and jury, I guess, and you're convicting him on the national media, and you should be absolutely ashamed of yourself."

Grace responded: "Sir, I think he should be ashamed of himself, as whoever is responsible for the death of Laci Peterson. I am simply stating what has been leaked or what has been put in formal documents, and if you find them disturbing, I suggest you ask your son about some of them, sir."

Peterson said Scott has a theory about what happened to his wife. "He believes she was snatched off the street, as we all do. That's why the dog was running around in the neighborhood."

He had a final comment for Grace: "Find a little room in your heart to -- for innocence, would you please? Don't, don't convict him over the airwaves. Please. Thank you."

Scott's mother, Jackie, also was on the telephone on Wednesday night, explaining why no one from her family would be attending today's memorial service.

"We are not attending because we want her to have a peaceful, dignified memorial and not a circus," she said, referring to the added media commotion that would result if Scott's family showed up.

She said she told Sharon Rocha by telephone about the family's decision. "We will grieve in our own private way with Scott," his mother said. "Because we all loved Laci."

On "Larry King Live" on Wednesday, Lee Peterson said: "Laci was like a daughter to us. When we lived near them, we saw her every day. We loved her (as) deeply as any of our daughters."

Early on, Scott's and Laci's families presented a united front as they pleaded for the public's help in finding Laci.

Scott Peterson stood with them, until leaving a news conference on Dec. 27, apparently upset that reporters were asking questions about his fishing trip to Berkeley. He has told police that he went fishing Dec. 24, and his wife was gone when he returned home that evening.

He continued going to the volunteer search center daily, but said little to the media.

On Dec. 31, police said foul play had become the main focus of the investigation, and on Jan. 2 investigators asked for the public's help in verifying Peterson's statement that he had gone fishing.

Friction grew between Laci's family and Scott, and the turmoil spilled into the open in mid-January. In a statement, Laci's family said they thought Scott had lied to police about an affair, and urged him to cooperate fully with police.

The families pull apart

At the end of January, Scott agreed to a number of interviews, including a two-parter for ABC Television's "Good Morning America," during which he acknowledged having had an affair.

His parents and siblings sat with him for part of the interview.

During February, the families held separate news conferences. They announced separate searches. They even made note of separate tips lines. And Scott stayed in the background through it all.

Soon news stories began referring to "Laci's side of the family" and "Scott's side of the family," then "Laci's family" or "Scott's family," or the Rochas and the Petersons -- instead of Laci Peterson's family, all of the people who had joined together on Christmas Eve and in the days after to find Laci.

Difficult time for all

Then came the discovery of Laci's and Conner's bodies along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay on April 13 and 14.

Laci's family went into seclusion through the identification process and through Scott's arrest.

Sharon Rocha's anger burst out three days later as she voiced seething contempt for her daughter's unnamed killer, and vowed to obtain justice.

Earlier that day, at Scott's arraignment on double murder charges that could bring him the death penalty, his mother approached Rocha and gave her a hug. Many described it as a one-way hug.

"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," Jackie Peterson told Laci's mother in the courtroom.

Later that day, Laci's stepfather said he felt sorry for Jackie and Lee Peterson. "They don't deserve this. But Laci and our family didn't, either."

Today, these two families will suffer in very different ways, one mourning in a very public manner, the other struggling in private.

Two families brought together by marriage.

Two families who stood together when Laci disappeared.

Two families who now grieve for Laci and her baby boy.

Two families separated by the search for justice, one having lost a daughter, the other trying to save a son.

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