(Originally published Dec. 28, 2002)
Modesto's tree-lined La Loma neighborhood has always been a peaceful, pleasant place to live, residents say.
Neighbors know one another and welcome new homeowners with friendly visits and cards. Houses and lawns are well- maintained, and children ride bicycles in the streets.
Christmas Eve brought a shock, though: Laci Peterson, 27, disappeared. Her husband said he last saw her at 9:30 a.m. as he left on a fishing trip to the Bay Area and she went for a walk in East La Loma Park. He reported her missing at 6 p.m. after he returned to their Covena Avenue home.
"Covena has never been known as a bad area," said Mary McKibben, who has lived on nearby Highland Drive for nearly 50 years. "I'm just puzzled."
McKibben described the neighborhood as "very quiet and low-key" with many longtime residents and little turnover.
Sabrina Hull, who has lived on Highland for five years, said neighbors gather for chili cook-offs and Neighborhood Watch meetings.
"Up until now, I've felt safe," she said, adding quickly, "I still feel very safe."
She used to walk regularly with friends in East La Loma Park at 6 a.m. and said it was always filled with other walkers, joggers and bike riders. She said she never felt threatened in the park, although she did not feel comfortable walking there alone. "I'm paranoid," she said.
Overall, she said, she feels happy in the area and hopes to never move. "I still feel like it's a great neighborhood."
Amy Krigbaum, who lives across the street from the Petersons on Covena, helped search for the missing woman in the park on Christmas Eve. The two attended high school together, but are just acquaintances, Krigbaum said.
Still, Peterson and her husband, Scott, once invited Krigbaum and her partner to a pool party. And, another time, Scott took cherries to Krigbaum.
"Everybody, I thought, watches out for each other (in this neighborhood)," she said. "That's the weirdest part."
Krigbaum said her family has been more on edge since the disappearance. Her partner's 12-year-old son is not allowed to play outside because of concerns about his safety.
But Lea Thurman, who grew up on nearby Encina Avenue and was visiting her mother there for the holidays, is not worried.
"I don't think there's any reason to be scared," said Thurman, who now lives in Tennessee. "It's a one-time thing."
Albert Urquidez, a Covena Avenue resident, said problems happen in every area. The only trouble he has ever had in the neighborhood was the burglary of his brother's car.
Antonette Dunger, who lives behind the Petersons on Highland Drive, said Laci and her husband are good neighbors and made her feel welcome when she moved there in October.
"I just hope she's found OK," Dunger said.
The neighborhood was mostly quiet Friday afternoon despite the presence of police cars.
Fliers reporting Peterson's disappearance were posted throughout the neighborhood on nearly every stop sign and speed limit sign.
Hull said she does not know Peterson, but has been praying for her.
"I can't imagine what her family must be going through," she said. "It certainly put a damper on our spirits."
Bee staff writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or email@example.com.