As the sun set on another year, more than a thousand people held aloft glowing candles Tuesday in a tearful vigil for Laci Peterson, the expectant mother who has been missing for more than a week.
"Just keep looking for her," said Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, wiping back tears after briefly speaking to the crowd. "Don't give up."
The vigil took place at East La Loma Park, which is where the search began after Peterson's husband reported that he last saw her as she prepared to go there for a walk.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden joined members of Peterson's family on a flatbed trailer, which served as a stage in a soggy field bordered by television trucks and the Police Department's mobile command center. Police estimated a turnout of 1,200 to 1,400 people.
"Wherever that search takes us, let's keep looking for Laci," Wasden said.
Family members, including Peterson's parents and in-laws, took turns addressing the crowd in a ceremony punctuated by songs and prayers.
Peterson's husband, Scott, who told police that he last saw his wife at 9:30 a.m. Christmas Eve when he left for a fishing trip, attended the vigil but did not sit with other family on the stage. He did not address the audience.
He tearfully greeted friends and family after the ceremony but declined an interview with The Bee.
Since Laci Peterson's disappearance, more than 600 volunteers have worked telephones, distributed fliers, and helped search parks and neighborhoods in a desperate attempt to find her.
Friends, former classmates, teachers and people who have never met Peterson said they came Tuesday to express their support for the family and community.
"I don't know Laci, I don't know her family, but I feel she's part of our lives," said Toni Litke, a 46-year-old Modestan who said she now does not visit East La Loma Park alone. "I just want her to know there are people who are hoping and praying for her and her baby."
Chris Adamakis, 36, a third-grade teacher at Virginia Parks School in Ceres, said: "Being a mother I know how vulnerable you are when you've got a baby on the way. She seems like such a wonderful person, somebody I would be friends with."
Peterson's father, Dennis Rocha, waded into the crowd after leaving the stage, shaking hands, receiving hugs and declaring, "I want to meet you all. Thank you."
Dozens of family members and friends wore pale yellow and blue ribbons: the yellow to symbolize hope and the blue for the son Peterson is expecting.
After the ceremony, improvised memorials sprung up around the park as community members shared hugs and tears.
At one memorial, candles encircled a tree with a large yellow and blue bow tied to its branches. Above the bow hung a poster offering a $500,000 reward for information leading to Peterson's return.
"Everyone is real hopeful," said Amy Rocha, her sister. "No one is giving up at all."
Some people at the vigil said the community is taking the case so hard because it is another in a string of Modesto-area heartbreaks: the Yosemite sightseers slayings in 1999, and the Chandra Levy disappearance and death in 2001-02.
"This is her first time at one of these," said Kristy Payne, nodding to her 9-month-old daughter, Kaylin, who lay smiling in a stroller. "Hopefully, it will be her last."
Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2330 or email@example.com.