For the past 3 1/2 months, Heather Richardson has clung to hope that her best friend, Laci Peterson, might still be alive.
But now that fragile hope has been dealt a devastating blow. "I felt like my heart was ripped out," said Richardson, 27, recalling her disbelief as she watched images of authorities carrying a body bag to a coroner's van along the shore of San Francisco Bay near Richmond.
The bag contained the remains of a woman. The discovery came one day after the recovery of a baby boy's body about a mile away. Authorities are trying to identify the woman and determine if the baby was hers.
Richardson said she would rather know than not know what happened to her longtime friend, maid of honor and confidante, no matter how grisly the truth may be.
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"We can't begin to mourn until we know whether it's her or not," Richardson said Tuesday from her home in Ventura County.
If the bodies indeed are those of the 27-year-old Peterson and her son, Conner, the waiting will have ended and the healing can begin, Richardson said.
Sometimes simply glancing around her house triggers an unexpected wave of memories about Peterson. The other day, she said, she recalled accidentally knocking over a candleholder that Peterson had given her for her birthday.
"Since then, I light it every day," she said. "I call it a light for Laci."
People who frequent places where Peterson used to go, or who work alongside her relatives, say they are deeply disturbed by word of this week's discoveries.
Peterson's sister, Amy Rocha, is a hairstylist at Salon Salon in Modesto. Only some of the staff works Monday, and others returned Tuesday to the McHenry Village shop, more somber than us-ual since Peterson's disappearance. Amid the buzz of hair dryers and gossip lurked anxiety about the news of the bodies.
Many patrons and hairstylists said they are torn between wanting closure for Peterson's family and hoping that the bodies have no link to the Peterson case.
"I just hope the family can have some closure and not always wonder what happened forever," said stylist Amy Vizzoline, 33.
Her client, Debbie Roper, 49, dabbed her eyes with a tissue. The real estate agent did not know Peterson, but every development in the case conjures up memories of her nephew's violent death a few years ago.
For others, such as Lynne Berry, an English teacher at Davis High School, news of the bodies sparked ire. "It made me really angry that she had so much to look forward to and somebody took it all away from her," she said.
The news dominated lunchtime conversation among a circle of friends at Verona's Cucina Italiana, also in McHenry Village.
Liliana Kim, 33, a mother from Turlock, said the tragedy of Peterson's disappearance is deepened by the fact that Peterson was pregnant.
"When you're pregnant, you feel blessed; it's unlike any other time in your life," she said. "It's so sad. I had a little bit of hope and now it's dwindling to almost nothing."
Added her friend, 32-year-old Cathleen Borges: "It makes me feel more nervous walking with my 17-month-old baby. I wonder if it's not a safe neighborhood. I think twice now before I walk out the door."
Bee staff writer Julissa McKinnon can be reached at 578-2324 or email@example.com.