(Originally published Dec. 27, 2002)
There's a small room tucked in the back of a home on Modesto's Covena Avenue.
The walls are bright blue. A rocking chair, crib and changing table are in place. The nautical theme is nearly complete.
All that's missing from the scene is a newborn baby boy. And his mother.
In the summer, when Laci Denise Peterson found out she was pregnant, the 27-year-old woman could not contain her joy. She began calling friends and relatives at 7 a.m. the day she found out -- waking many with her jubilant announcement.
"This was the most exciting time for her," said Rene Tomlinson, one of Peterson's best friends. "She has a happy, perfect life here."
Something happened to that perfect life on Christmas Eve. Someone reported seeing Peterson walking with her dog in East La Loma Park that morning, and Peterson's husband, Scott, reported her missing about 6 that night.
Since then, family and friends have hoped for the best and feared the worst. No one knows exactly what to think. When they talk about Laci Peterson, their words slip between past and present tense.
And they struggle with the words because they do not seem to capture the vivacious woman who loved cooking, gardening and entertaining crowds of people in her home.
"We always knew if you were coming to a party at her house, you'd be well-fed," said Kim McNeely, a close friend of Peterson's. "And you'd always learn something new."
Those who attended her Christmas party last year were treated to a memorable experience: a curious dish called figs in a blanket. The dish wasn't pretty and some people simply refused to eat it. One friend asked if it needed maple syrup.
But -- instead of pigs in a blanket -- the dish actually was figs wrapped in slices of bacon. It was a bold creation from a woman who believed in nothing ventured, nothing gained.
"Everything she does is to the fullest," said Peterson's sister, Amy Rocha. "And she would do anything she could for anyone else. She's the best role model I've ever had."
Tomlinson met Laci Peterson -- then Laci Rocha -- about 10 years ago while the two attended Downey High School. Even then, Tomlinson said, people were drawn to her outgoing nature.
"She's always been fun," Tomlinson said. "She's just so much fun to be around. You cannot help but want to be her friend."
After high school, Laci Rocha moved to San Luis Obispo to attend college. During her first year, she received the outstanding freshman award in the ornamental horticulture division at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
While in college, she met Scott Peterson, who grew up in the San Diego area. The couple dated a few years before getting married about five years ago.
Two years ago, friends said, the couple moved to Modesto to start a family. She had worked as a substitute teacher.
Laci Peterson's friends hadn't planned on spending this Christmas searching for their friend, putting up fliers all across Modesto. They had planned to give her an entertainer of the year award to honor her spirit.
She's the kind of person who vacationed in France for three weeks to take cooking lessons. She baked so many elaborate desserts for gatherings, friends started calling her the cake lady.
Last weekend, when she and Scott arrived at a Christmas party, a friend opened the front door to find her in a party dress, steadying herself in high heels, with crab cakes in one hand and a house plant in the other.
And flashing her trademark smile.
"She has dimples that light up the world," Stacey Boyers said. "They're absolutely huge."
Laci Peterson's loved ones would give anything to see that smile again. Instead, they must search -- and wait -- in that terrible limbo where time passes all too slowly.
Where every hour offers a little less hope.
"We don't know where she is or what has happened," said Dennis Rocha, Laci Peterson's father. "But we love her and we miss her. And we just want her home safe."