The Laci and Conner Search and Rescue Fund is saving lives after only a year in business, and is sure to protect many more, supporters say.
"We're very indebted to Sharon" Rocha, said Joyce Wilson of Arizona's Superstition Mountain Search & Rescue. Its members received advanced medical training in the spring that proved useful in several rescues in the summer and fall, Wilson said.
Rocha, mother of Laci Peterson, established the fund in December 2005 with proceeds from her national best-selling book, "For Laci." A paperback version came out last week about the time Rocha taped an hourlong show with CNN's Larry King, which appeared Tuesday night.
Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and their unborn son and is awaiting appeals on death row.
Crews and volunteers had searched nearly four months for Laci Peterson after she disappeared at Christmastime 2002. Rocha said she became aware that searchers often struggle to find money for adequate training and equipment.
She said she sympathizes with families of missing people tar-geted in high-profile searches. Rocha was shocked, she said, when searchers recently found a woman and her two daughters alive in Oregon snow, although the husband, James Kim, later was found dead.
"I know how they're feeling," Rocha said. "It still makes me feel that way when I see others going through this. The anticipation, the waiting, not knowing, wondering, 'Where could they be? Why can't they find them?'"
During Scott Peterson's blockbuster 2004 trial, which included testimony from various searchers, Rocha hit on the idea of helping beef up their operations. The Laci and Conner fund's focus is improving search capacity before a crisis, not during.
In its first year, the fund has awarded $76,000 to 19 search-and-rescue organizations. The first went to the volunteer group in Arizona.
Wilson, one of five women in the 30-member group, had followed the Peterson saga. She was sick in bed when she caught Rocha's earlier appearance on "Larry King Live," in January.
"The next day, I downloaded the application" from the Internet, Wilson said. Rocha's committee, which includes a dog handler who helped search for Laci Peterson and a state Office of Emergency Services representative approved an award to the Arizona group soon after.
The group used the money to train nine of its members in remote medical techniques. They put the knowledge to use while rescuing heat-stricken, disoriented hikers in the summer. The day after Thanksgiving, they stabilized an all-terrain vehicle rider who had tumbled off a ridge, breaking his back in five places and collapsing a lung.
Other grant recipients include the Calaveras County Sheriff's dive unit, which had looked in vain for Laci Peterson in foothill reservoirs in early 2003. The crew received $10,000 for specialized scuba gear, including secondary air sources and masks with microphones and speakers.
"I really wish we had had that equipment," said Sgt. Dan Johnson, recalling retrieving five murder victims connected to a Russian ransom scheme from New Melones Reservoir in 2001.
Johnson said he learned of the Laci and Conner fund when Rocha gave an interview on a Sacramento radio station.
The Mariposa County Sheriff's Department used its $10,000 grant to transform a pair of all-terrain vehicles for use in mud and snow, said Capt. Doug Binnewies. They respond much faster and can go more places than other vehicles, he said.
His agency had been heavily involved in the 1999 search for three women murdered while sightseeing in Yosemite National Park. Survivors established the nationally known Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, which granted a reward in the Peterson case and now administers the Laci and Conner fund.
"We really appreciate such a good foundation formed because of a tragedy," Binnewies said. His crews conduct up to 80 search-and-rescue operations per year, he said.
The fund has $111,000 left and is looking for more donors, said Kim Petersen, executive director of the Sund-Carrington Foundation.
For four years, Laci Peterson's survivors have staged an October memorial motorcycle ride, which this year morphed into a benefit for the search-andrescue fund. It raised more than $5,000, Petersen said.
"Our (grant) committee believes that people donating their time to find somebody need to have equipment to protect themselves so we don't end up losing somebody else," Petersen said.
Rocha said she finds satisfaction in the fund's success.
"This really has been a great thing," she said. "We hope to keep it going. There is a huge need out there.
"The more we can give," Rocha continued, "the more people can be brought home. That's the most important thing. I knew how much I wanted Laci to be home. Everyone deserves to be home."
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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.