Her smile won us over.
Soon after Laci Peterson disappeared, her dimpled, bursting-with-joy smile was plastered all over town on fliers. Stores, offices, churches, bargershops -- you couldn't go anywhere in Modesto, or the region, for that matter, without seeing the beaming face of the missing mother-to-be that would come to haunt millions.
That a seemingly happy, attractive couple on the verge of becoming parents would be plunged into a seamy tale of deception and blood helps explain the public obsession with the case, pundits say.
That Laci Peterson's image will appear in court proceedings is a near-certainty.
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Prosecutors will key on images, now familiar, of "a beaming, attractive young pregnant woman," said Michael Vitiello, a criminal law professor with Sacramento's McGeorge School of Law. On the other hand, defense attorneys may attempt to "chip away at the impression that this was an angel," he said.
The cheerful brunette grew up mostly in Modesto, with an older brother and younger sister. Her parents divorced when Laci was young, and her mother, Sharon Rocha, married Ron Grantski. The kids sometimes would spend weekends at the rural Escalon home of Laci's father, Dennis Rocha.
Close friend Rene Tomlinson described her as "always perky, bubbly, energetic, chatty."
She graduated from Downey High School in 1993 and, thanks to a lifelong love of flowering things, went off to study ornamental horticulture at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She met Scott Peterson as he waited tables at a cafe, and the two fell in love, family and friends have said.
After returning to Modesto, Laci Peterson became a substitute teacher. Friends say she reveled in nourishing her plants and flowers and in holding gourmet dinner parties. But nothing made her happier, they say, than the expectation of becoming a mother.
Instead, Laci Peterson became the nation's best-known expectant mother. That she disappeared at Christmastime added to the mystique -- and to the horror when bodies of mother and son were recovered in mid-April.
If she was loved in life by dozens, she became cherished in death by thousands. Droves attended candlelight vigils and a memorial. People fixated by the story produced songs, paintings and poems.
Her family buried the remains of mother and son in a poignant ceremony in August.
Kim Petersen, executive director of the Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation and a spokeswoman for Laci's loved ones, said the story captured such widespread attention because people identified with Laci Peterson.
"They admired her love of children -- not only for her students, but she had a strong desire to be a mother," she said. "The more we feel we know her, the more we learn to care about her."