A mother's truth

Grief won't end, but writing book brings some solace

January 22, 2006 

  • Until her daughter disappeared, Sharon Rocha's presence in the media was limited to a photograph, smaller than a postage stamp, in a weekly ad for the mortgage company at which she worked.

    She certainly had no thoughts of appearing on major networks and cable television shows to promote a book she never thought she'd have to write.

    She never intended to venture from the dinners, the holidays, outings and daily banter with her longtime companion, Ron Grantski, and the rest of her family, to be followed and sometimes hounded by reporters and TV cameras.

    There are thousands in Hollywood who crave that kind of fame. But for Rocha, it represents a pain that can never heal and the inescapable type of attention no parent would ever want.

    She pleaded for the safe return of her pregnant daughter, Laci Peterson, after Laci disappeared Christmas Eve 2002.

    She testified at the murder trial of her son-in-law, Scott Peterson, leading to his conviction in 2004.

    She took the stand again during the penalty phase, and she looked him directly in the eyes for the last time in March, when Judge Alfred Delucchi sentenced him to death.

    And now, she's promoting the book she wrote as a tribute to her daughter, "For Laci."

    Yet instead of being therapeutic, the book tour has kept her pain at the surface, with each camera and interviewer reminding her that her life can never be the same.

    "You go through life minding your own business (pause) family get-togethers (pause) our own little world," she said. "That's been absolutely blown to bits. I look at the things I used to stress so much over, and they're not a big deal anymore, by comparison. It is life-altering."

    In the time since Laci's death, Rocha has endured the search for and discovery of the bodies of mother and fetus along San Francisco Bay. She sat through the six-month trial, literally wearing out her right index finger while taking notes.

    "It's painful," she said, holding up the digit.

    She's gone to Washington, D.C., where she pushed Congress to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes killing or injuring a fetus during commission of a federal crime a separate offense. President Bush signed it into law in 2004.

    Now, with her book promotion commitments winding down, she longs for the life her family once enjoyed, knowing it always will be beyond her reach. She might discover a comfort zone of sorts at some point, she said. But she hasn't found it yet.

    Normal, whatever that might become, won't even remotely resemble her normal before Laci and Conner died.

    They were mother and daughter, best friends, and nothing — not even the admission or apology or explanation she'll never get from Scott Peterson — will ever change that.

    Throughout the trial, she learned about a different son-in-law than the one she thought she knew.

    "Truly, they are two different people," Rocha said. "What we learned about him in the courtroom was not at all anything I knew about him. The lies, the deceit, the conniving, the manipulation — that Scott Peterson murdered my son-in-law, along with my daughter and my grandson."

    The trial behind her, the book on the shelves, Rocha hopes to return to a place beneath the media's radar. When she smiles, it's a flashback to the Sharon Rocha people knew before the ordeal began.

    "Lately, we've seen that coming back," said Patty Amador, owner of Ambeck Mortgage in Modesto and Rocha's longtime friend and boss. "Then, you'll see a wave go over her — something that reminded her of Laci. I understand. She has a lot of things going."

    Though Rocha hasn't worked since Laci disappeared, the job is there when she's ready to return, which Amador hopes will happen in February.

    "She still has her office here, her pictures on her desk," Amador said. Yet even at work, it won't be the same.

    With Rocha out on leave, Amador recently hired an extra loan officer whose photo replaced Rocha's in the ad that runs each Sunday in The Bee.

    "I'm going to reconfigure the ad anyway, and I told her we'll put the picture back in when she returns," Amador said.

    Back to work, back to the real estate section and out of the headlines.

    Normal, but a sadly different normal than before.

    Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

  • Excerpts from a two-hour conversation with Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mother:

    The Bee: A lot of people go through life saying, "Someday, I'll write a book" …

    Rocha: Ron (Grantski, her companion since 1977) has said it since I've known him (laughter).

    The Bee: Did you ever say it?

    Rocha: No.

    The Bee: The media made Laci a larger- than-life person.

    Rocha: I wanted people to know Laci as a real person. That was a reason I wanted to write about her. She was more than a picture. There was life before her death.

    The Bee: What do you miss about her?

    Rocha: Everything. I don't want to go there. It's odd, but when I have really bad days I go to the cemetery. That's what helps.

    The Bee: What is your "normal" like now?

    Rocha: I haven't found "normal" yet. I'm hoping to soon, now that I've finished with the book. I'm hoping things will change.

    The Bee: Elizabeth Smart was found (alive) when Laci was still missing. Did that give you some hope?

    Rocha: It did. I knew Laci wasn't coming home alive. I knew that. And I knew Scott was responsible. But I'm a mother. I have to ask. You don't give up hope until there isn't any hope. In the back of your mind, you keep thinking, "Maybe, just maybe."

    The Bee: There have been reports of Scott responding to the scholarship fund. (A Web site established by his supporters says he praised Rocha for her contribution.)

    Rocha: I don't care what he says. It just doesn't make any difference to me what Scott thinks or feels. He's just a nonissue.

    The Bee: If you are around when he comes up for execution, will you go?

    Rocha: If it happened today, I would say no. I don't know how I will feel when that time comes; I might change my mind.

    The Bee: Are you a supporter of the death penalty?

    Rocha: Yes, I've always supported it, especially when it's premeditated.

    The Bee: Did prosecutors lay out for you the way the case was going to go?

    Rocha: No. We were in the dark just like everyone else. "Bear with us; we know what we're doing," is about as much as we got. I'm sure they would have liked to tell us more. But we were potential witnesses, so they couldn't share it with us. Everybody thinks we know everything, but we learned it in the courtroom just like everyone else did.

    The Bee: How much preparation did prosecutors give you before you testified?

    Rocha: Very little. I think every one of us felt there was so much more we wanted to say. Laci's friends told me the same thing. You get off the stand and think, "I wanted them to know more things about Laci."

    The Bee: Talk about the boat. (As jurors deliberated, defense attorney Mark Geragos parked a boat near the courthouse. It was similar to his client's and held a weighted dummy, apparently to win sympathy after the judge would not allow Geragos to pursue a related theory. But it became a shrine to the victims when people covered the boat with mementos.)

    Rocha: I would like to sit Geragos on the stand and ask him about that boat. I think it was absolutely disgusting, cruel and intentional, and it blew up in his face.

    The Bee: You were very emotional during the victims' impact statements.

    Rocha: I wrote that in February 2003 (more than two years before delivering it) in a letter to Scott that I never mailed.

    The Bee: Why not?

    Rocha: I was just hoping I would have the opportunity to say it to him. And as it turned out, I did.

    The Bee: Do you have contact with the jurors?

    Rocha: I'll get e-mail occasionally and I try to respond. They went through a lot, too, along with everyone else.

    The Bee: Of all the tributes, do any stick out in your mind?

    Rocha: One of the first drawings (of Laci) we received was colored charcoal. I felt so bad because at that time everything was going through the Sund-Carrington Foundation and the card got separated from the picture. So I don't know who did it, but it's an absolutely beautiful picture. I mean, he or she captured her unbelievably. I (framed it and hung it) in one of the rooms so when I open the door, I see her immediately.

    The Bee: In the diary given to you after the trial, did it help to read her words?

    Rocha: In a sense, it was like I was listening to her voice.

    The Bee: Do you still have it?

    Rocha: Yes.

    The Bee: Do you get it out?

    Rocha: No. Too painful.

    The Bee: Any last thoughts for our readers?

    Rocha: I want to thank everyone who helped. We've had so much support from this community. It's been such a blessing.

When Sharon Rocha smiles, you see Laci.

In spare moments when Rocha laughs, you can almost hear the giggle of the daughter whose face intrigued a nation and whose name became a household word. Not for anything Laci Peterson did, but for what was done to her.

When Rocha talks, she speaks for her daughter, a 27-year-old mother-to-be carrying Rocha's grandson, Conner -- murdered by her husband, Scott, just before Christmas 2002 and left in the dark waters of San Francisco Bay.

When Rocha cries -- it still happens every day, more than three years later, she says -- you wonder if Laci cried in her last moments.

"I think about her all the time. Not as (a celebrity), but as my daughter, my little girl," Rocha, 54, said in an extended interview last week.

The sit-down coincides with the release of Rocha's book, "For Laci: A Mother's Story of Love, Loss, and Justice." It's No.1 on Publishers Weekly national best-seller list for nonfiction.

Rocha's eyes were red when she arrived 15 minutes late. She had phoned to apologize for the delay, saying she was having a bad day.

"She's been on my mind a lot today," Rocha said of Laci Peterson, a vivacious substitute teacher from Modesto who loved flowers and dragonflies. "That's why I was late. That's just my life now."

There are subjects she still won't discuss, or only with great difficulty: how some of her family members are coping; what she misses most about her daughter; what she'll say to her grandson when they unite in another life.

Among the revelations in Rocha's book was the discovery of a pregnancy diary her daughter kept shortly before she was slain, in which Laci rejoices at the life growing inside.

Rocha quoted excerpts in "For Laci," but hasn't opened the diary since. "Too painful," she said.

She has read only one of the seven other books published on the case. It was penned by Scott Peterson's half sister, with whom he lived for several weeks after Laci disappeared and before his April 2003 arrest. Those critical moments had not surfaced in the trial.

Rocha has no interest in the other books. "I know what happened," she said. "I have no desire to go through that (again)."

To keep occupied during the 2004 trial, Rocha scribbled almost nonstop, filling several notebooks with names, dates, observations, feelings. She noted when Scott Peterson nodded or frowned or chuckled with his attorneys a few feet away.

The constant writing eventually maimed Rocha's index finger. She has trouble unscrewing the cap of a water bottle -- yet another toll ascribed to the trying trial.

If Scott Peterson, 33, is put to death, Rocha said she probably won't be there.

But she wouldn't have been anywhere else when called to tell the world about the daughter she misses and the grandson she never met. She took the witness stand three times, and was a fixture in the front row through the trial, which lasted much of 2004.

Through her, jurors saw Laci's smile, heard Laci's voice and felt Laci's anguish. And when the moment came, they sent Laci's husband to death row.

"I didn't really consider myself a witness," said Rocha, whose articulate, sobbing testimony was widely considered the most powerful of the lengthy trial.

"I was Laci's mother."

Originally wasn't inclined to write book

Rocha said she could have gone on for 900 pages about Laci.

Ghostwriter Todd Gold -- who created books with nonwriters such as Richard Pryor, Larry Hagman, the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and Ozzy Osbourne's family -- helped keep Rocha's best-selling book to 335 pages. By far -- and by design -- it sheds more light on Laci Peterson than the other books on the case.

Among the many thousands of cards, letters and e-mails she received from people around the world were repeated requests to know more about Laci, Rocha said. That's one reason she reversed an earlier inclination, she said, and decided to write the book.

Another: She could raise money for the Laci and Conner Search and Rescue Fund, which helps authorities pay for tracking dogs, divers and other equipment used to find missing people. Rocha established the account last month with $200,000, a portion of the advance from her book deal.

Though Rocha's grief is ever-present in "For Laci," she has managed to squeeze some satisfaction from the pain.

For one, she lobbied for a federal fetal-protection law, signed by President Bush in April 2004. It recognizes two victims in violent crimes against pregnant women.

Another achievement is an annual blood drive founded in the victims' names; the search fund is a third.

Perhaps most rewarding are notes from several women who said they mustered the courage to leave abusive partners because of Laci's story.

"All these things," Rocha said in a reflective moment, "can at least help other people in some way."

Rocha downplays the cathartic benefits of writing, saying it proved much more difficult than she had imagined. But the exercise did help crystallize in her mind parts of the life-altering experience, she said.

"It seemed to clarify some things for me," she said. "During the trial, I was so focused I didn't have time to process it. When you write it, you understand it a little more."

But Rocha is the first to concede she'll never understand exactly why her daughter's life was cut short. And if she had a chance to ask Peterson, she said, she wouldn't allow herself to believe his answer.

She and other family members -- her longtime companion, Ron Grantski, son Brent Rocha and Laci's half sister, Amy Rocha -- stood firmly behind Peterson when his pregnant wife disappeared. Their support eroded a month later, when news surfaced of his affair with Fresno massage therapist Amber Frey.

Frey's book hit stores even before a judge affirmed Peterson's death sentence in March. Rocha said she has had no contact with Frey since the trial. The "other woman," Rocha recalled with a longing smile, had a "cute little boy with bright blue eyes."

Details, you might say, that a grandmother would look for.

Frey testified at the trial about her cooperation with authorities, who taped her phone chats with Peterson for several weeks after Laci vanished. The evidence was among the trial's highlights.

Her pain was our pain

But its most emotional moment came during the penalty phase when Rocha wept while talking about the buried remains of her daughter and grandson, as jurors weighed whether Peterson should be executed. Extremities had been lost in the nearly four months that Laci Peterson's body remained in the bay.

"I knew she was in the casket and I knew the baby was there and I knew she didn't have arms to hold him," Rocha sobbed. "She should have had her arms and her head, her entire body."

Rocha's words brought several jurors to tears, as well as reporters and others in the courtroom.

Incensed that Peterson would not look at her on the stand, Rocha screamed at him words that hit home with countless observers: "Divorce is always an option -- not murder!"

Rocha said she had not planned that outburst. "I don't even know where that came from," she said.

A few days later, jurors decreed a death sentence. And three months after, Rocha found herself back in the spotlight, telling a judge how the crime blew apart her life.

Rocha role-played what Laci Peterson might have said as her killer attacked. In an unforgettable scene, Rocha sobbed in the courtroom:

"You promised to take care of me and protect me. You're my lover, my partner and my best friend. Please stop! I don't want to die!"

Laci's face. Laci's voice. Laci's anguish.

Laci's mother.

"I just felt I was there to tell the truth," Rocha said.

"I did it for Laci."

The Laci and Conner Search and Rescue Fund, a program of the Carole Sund-Carrington Foundation, can be reached at P.O. Box 4113, Modesto, 95352, or 527-5224.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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