Laci: Looking forward with joy to the birth of her first baby, the mother-to-be was thought to be the same outgoing, happy person she was as a child

November 13, 2004 

She will be remembered for laughter and a beautiful smile.

She will be remembered as a homicide victim who suffered a fate no one deserves.

Those are the conflicted legacies of Laci Rocha Peterson.

Even before Laci was born on May 4, 1975, Sharon Rocha sensed there was something different about her only daughter. There was something special about the way the child felt inside her, something Sharon understood once she had time to memorize the intricacies of Laci's face.

Happy people get the best dimples.

"I always knew she was going to be a good, happy baby," Sharon said in a January 2003 interview. "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."

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.

Sharon and Dennis Rocha divorced when Laci and her brother, Brent, were young. Sharon and the children moved to Modesto. On weekends, Brent and Laci often visited the family's dairy west of Escalon. The two were very close, as children of divorces often are.

Even though Brent was four years older than his sister, Laci never had any trouble fitting in with him and his friends. As they moved through their teens, Laci slowly began to blossom into a beautiful young woman. The change was not lost on Brent's friends.

"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.

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

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

During her college years, Laci frequented a restaurant called the Pacific Cafe, where one of her neighbors worked. There, she met Scott Peterson, who also worked at the cafe. They began to go out and, after dating for two years, 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 about four years ago when they moved to Modesto to start a family.

Back in Modesto, Laci rekindled the friendships among her old Downey High classmates, complete with sleepovers, champagne and all-night gossip.

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

In the summer of 2002, after two years of trying to get pregnant, Laci found out she was. And she could not contain her joy. She began calling friends and relatives at 7 a.m. the day she took a home pregnancy test — waking many with her jubilant announcement.

"This was the most exciting time for her," her friend Rene Tomlinson said.

Laci was about eight months pregnant on Christmas Eve when her friends began receiving calls of an entirely different sort. Scott had called many of them, asking if they'd seen Laci. None of them had. They searched into the late hours of the night, but turned up no sign of their friend.

The day after Christmas, those close to Laci saw their worst fears begin to play out as police set up yellow crimescene tape around the Petersons' home, declaring it a crime scene. The public began to embrace the story. Within a week, Laci Peterson became a household name across the nation. Her pictures — marked by her trademark smile — would come to be shown countless thousands of times in newspapers and on TV shows.

As massive searches for Laci were conducted throughout January 2003, speculation intensified about her husband, Scott, and what role he may have played in her disappearance. Laci's friends and family distanced themselves from Scott as reports surfaced about his affair with Amber Frey and his failure to cooperate with police.

In March, police for the first time said they believed Laci was the victim of homicide. The next month, the bodies of Laci and Conner, their unborn son, were found about a mile apart on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, not far from where Scott told police he had gone fishing the day Laci was reported missing. A few days later, police arrested Scott and charged him with both murders.

On May 4, an estimated 3,000 people filled First Baptist Church in Modesto for a memorial service. The event, which was held on what would have been Laci's 28th birthday, was shown live by numerous stations around the country.

The memorial presented a breathtaking scene. A white-gowned choir, 120 voices strong, filled a large stage. Dozens of flower arrangements blanketed the altar in reds, pinks and whites. Nearby, a white column held the figurine of a child next to white roses, a tribute to Conner. In the center of it all, surrounded by hundreds of flowers and lush, green plants, stood a single portrait of Laci.

Nearly four months later, on Aug. 29, about 250 family and friends gathered for a private burial at Burwood Cemetery in Escalon. Laci and Conner were laid to rest in a single casket.

For them, justice would come Nov. 12, 2004, when a jury found Scott Peterson guilty of the murders of mother and child.

Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at tphillips@modbee.com or 578-2331.

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