A mother's truth

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

01/22/2006 7:55 AM

11/20/2007 7:37 AM

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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