Emotions run high as thousands flock to pay their respects

May 5, 2003 

The church doors were locked by the time Kitsie Sator arrived from Manteca, pushing a grocery-store shopping cart that contained an enormous arrangement of calla lilies.

A china angel, holding a baby, was at the arrangement's center.

"I really feel for the family. I've been praying for them to find Laci," she said. "I'm sorry they had to find her like this -- but I know she's with the Lord."

Like many mourners, Sator had never met Laci and didn't know the Rocha family. But somehow she identified with the vibrant mother-to-be.

Sator said she is a survivor of a violent relationship. She feels a kinship with Laci, whose husband, Scott, is charged with murdering her and their unborn son.

Others who waited hours in front of First Baptist Church for a seat said Laci could have been their sister, their daughter, their friend.

The crowd of about 3,000 formed three lines -- each two blocks long -- to get in the church. The doors opened at 2:35 p.m. Ten minutes later, signs said the pews were filled.

People came from every corner of Modesto and others drove long distances to pay homage to the 27-year-old Modesto woman. Dozens came to the memorial service with babies in strollers and small children in tow.

A half-hour into the service, several parents with crying infants adjourned to the lobby outside the sanctuary to watch the ceremony on closed-circuit television.

Jason Van Clief, 23, of Sacramento stood outside the auditorium with his daughter, Angelina, 3.

"I'm just happy to be a father," he said, his eyes watering. "(Angelina) brings happiness to everybody, just like Laci did. I dread the day she becomes a teen-ager. She could find a person who's a monster; then again, she could find one that would treat her well and good."

Others said Laci's enthusiasm to be a mother reminded them they are lucky to have healthy children.

Dave DeShong and his wife, Kim, rode 2 1/2 hours from Hollister on their motorcycles.

"We're parents of two grown children," Dave DeShong said. "Laci is the same age as one of our kids. She was innocent."

"We just needed to be part of it. It makes you think about just how life goes by real fast," said Kim De-Shong.

At the front of one line was Janet Lockwood, a 48-year-old Clovis woman who created a stir toward the end of the service by standing up in the balcony and loudly telling the audience that whoever took Laci Peterson's life would face God's judgment.

"I said the right thing," she said after the service. "But," she added, "I understand the timing wasn't right,"

Outside the church, the mood was somber and respectful, with some exceptions, such as a man wearing a jester hat as he tried to sell T-shirts with Laci's picture to motorists.

Modesto police Detective Mike Hermosa, working traffic control, said he was prepared for a traffic nightmare and a media frenzy, but traffic flowed smoothly and the crowd was well-behaved.

"I would have liked to have seen (the memorial)," he added.

Before and after the service, sev- eral people stopped by Scott and Laci Peterson's house on Covena Avenue. In keeping with the family's request, neighbors had turned on sprinklers to keep the lawn clear.

Still, gifts -- angels, flowers, notes, and Happy Birthday balloons -- piled up next to the backyard fence.

Former Modesto resident Cherie Holten had driven from Los Angeles to attend the memorial service and snap a picture of the Peterson home.

"When you see it on the news, it seems unreal. I wanted to be here and bring back a picture so my friends can live vicariously through me," she said.

Some, like Carol Kellie of Lodi, peeked into the back yard to see overgrown grass and green pool water.

"They were such normal, good-looking people," Kellie said, shaking her head.

Though friends took down the memorial last week, the stream of visitors has not ceased. Neighbor Penny Fleischman said it's typical for people to be walking down the street around midnight, toddlers in hand.

"There's something mentally unbalanced about this," she said. "I'm sorry for people in grief, but I think it's just curiosity."

Bee staff writers Ty Phillips and Patrick Giblin and Fresno Bee staff writer Doug Hoagland contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Julissa McKinnon can be reached at 578-2324 or jmckinnon@modbee.com.

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