Sharon Rocha lies in a hospital bed at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, woozy from the combination of painkillers and pain. It is May 4, 1975. A nurse cradles a tiny baby girl and hands her to Sharon, who gently takes her daughter into her arms. Sharon stares at the child, and the two melt into one. The pain disappears. Laci is here.
"My first thought was that she looked like my grandmother," Sharon said. "She was all wrinkled up. We got over that one real fast. Well, as soon as the wrinkles went away."
During her pregnancy, Sharon had sensed that there was something different about this child. Something special. It was the way the child felt inside her. Sharon understood the feeling once she had had time to memorize the intricacies of Laci's face.
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"I always knew she was going to be a good, happy baby," Sharon said. "Within a few days, she was sleeping through the night. When I would go get her out of her crib, she would always wake up with a smile on her face. All her life, she has been a happy person."
Laci giggles, intently watching her mother work the new tool free from its box. It is an early spring day. Laci is about 5 years old. Her excitement bubbles into innocent laughter as her mother shows off the prize. It is a weed puller. "Can we go do it now, Mommy?" Laci asks. Sharon nods, and the two head outside. Children do not need much to be happy.
"That was the beginning of her interest in horticulture," Sharon said. "She would always ask me, 'Can I go pull the weeds?' What am I going to say, 'No?'"
Sharon watched through a window as Laci -- for hours upon hours -- worked and played in the dirt. She quickly recognized the difference between plants and weeds.
From that time on, wherever Laci lived, she surrounded herself with the fresh, green life found in vegetable gardens, flowers, plants and trees.
The sun slowly rises over the Rocha family dairy west of Escalon. It is a frosty morning in the early 1980s. Hundreds of cows stand in a vast, steaming sea of mud and manure. Laci and her older brother, Brent, attempt to cross. Laci's tiny feet swim inside a pair of her father's big rubber boots. She curls her toes upward to keep the boots on. After a few steps, one of the boots sticks in the mud and Laci helplessly falls forward. Her arms sink to her elbows into the muck. Her face is a few inches from touching the mud as her hair brushes the surface. She yelps out for help. Everyone around begins to laugh uncontrollably. Laci is angry at first, but her displeasure soon disappears into the innocence of raw laughter.
"It was a great place to grow up," Brent Rocha said. "We always had a good time out there. As a kid on a dairy, you kind of have to make your own fun."
Laci and Brent were young children when Sharon and Dennis Rocha divorced. The children moved to Modesto to live with their mother, but often spent weekends at the family's dairy. The children sought adventure whenever one presented itself, and they created it when it did not. They raced around on four-wheelers and spent countless hours in their grandfather's swimming pool, playing games like tag and Marco Polo, or doing flips onto floating mattresses.
Even though Brent was four years older than his sister, Laci never had any trouble fitting in with him and his friends. As they moved through their teens, Laci slowly began to blossom into a beautiful young woman. The change was not lost on Brent's friends.
"She has always been so fun and outgoing," Brent said. "After a while, all my friends were saying things like, 'Man, your sister is really cute.' When she was 13 or 14, she still wanted to hang out with us like the old days, and I was kind of like, 'No, I don't think that's such a good idea.'"
The real slumber party begins only when the parents go to bed. A group of about 10 Downey High School girls huddle in a bedroom, gossiping and talking trash about boys deep into the early morning. A girl tiptoes into the room, quietly closing the door behind her. "OK, they're asleep," she announces. As the champagne cork pops, muted snickers fill the room. The girls make a pact: No matter how bad the hangover is, everyone has to go to school in the morning. As the next day wears on, one by one, the girls feign sickness and bow out of school. Laci is the only one who finishes the day. That night, she calls each of the girls to chew them out. "You guys, that's so not fair," she says again and again. "We had a deal."
It was a close circle of friends. Many of them had gone to school with Laci at Sonoma Elementary School and La Loma Junior High before moving on to Downey. The group includes Rene Tomlinson, Renee Garza, Stacy Boyers, Lori Ellsworth and several others. Some of them were cheerleaders. Some of them played sports.
On Friday nights, they met at Rose Avenue Park and planned their evening, which usually included a football game and the parties that followed. Wherever they went, Laci often became the center of attention. She was a refreshing blend of confidence, sincerity, loudness and charm.
"Honestly, thinking back, she is the only person I know who has never changed," Tomlinson said. "Always perky, bubbly, energetic, chatty. She always wants to have fun."
After graduation in 1993, the group separated. A few of them remained in close contact. But, for the most part, each of the young women set about building their lives.
Laci moved to Morro Bay to attend school at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. During her first year, she received the outstanding freshman award in the ornamental horticulture division.
"I saw her develop a lot in those days," Brent said. "She was very excited about college. She met a lot of people and really grew.
"What was unique about her was that she wasn't the typical college student. When I'd drive down and visit her, instead of going to keg parties, we'd go wine tasting. I would have never known when you go into wineries, you start with whites and work your way to reds. She taught me a lot that way."
Sharon Rocha walks into her living room and picks up her phone. It is the summer of 1994. The excitement she hears on the line can only come from one voice. "Mother," Laci says, "I have met the man I am going to marry. You've just got to get down here and meet him." Sharon asks if they have gone out yet. "Not yet, but we will." Sharon smiles as she listens. Her daughter has never sounded quite like this before. "OK, honey," she says. "I'll come visit you next weekend."
Scott Peterson worked at a small cafe in Morro Bay. Laci's neighbor worked at the same cafe, and Laci ended up there from time to time. Laci and Scott had a few brief conversations over a counter as she ordered coffee.
One day, Laci wrote her phone number on a piece of paper, handing it to her neighbor to give to Scott. Thinking his friend was playing a mean trick on him, Scott crumpled up the paper and threw it in the garbage. After being convinced that it was no joke, he retrieved Laci's number from the trash. He called her soon there-after.
Their first date that week was a deep-sea fishing trip. Laci had wanted to make a lasting first impression. She succeeded by developing horrible sea sickness.
By the time Laci's mother arrived that weekend, she knew her daughter was falling in love. Mother and daughter parked their car at the Morro Bay cafe. By the time they reached the front door, Scott was outside, waiting for them.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Rocha," he said, shaking her hand. Then he looked at Laci and smiled uncontrollably.
"Ma'am," he said, "I have your favorite table waiting for you."
The women walked inside. Once Sharon and Laci had reached the table, Scott pulled out their chairs and seated them both. A dozen roses awaited each of them at the table. Sharon's were white; Laci's were red.
"She was in love from the beginning," Sharon said.
Scott and Laci dated for about two years. They married in a warm ceremony held at a coastal-area hot springs. While finishing college, the couple opened a burger joint called The Shack. They sold the business two years ago when they moved to Modesto to start a family.
Renee Garza and her husband ring the doorbell at the Petersons' house on Covena Avenue in Modesto. It is about 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve, 2001. Laci opens the front door. She is wearing a long blue skirt and a long-sleeve white shirt that ties in the front. She looks beautiful. As the Garzas walk inside to join two other couples, Laci hands them glasses of wine. Soft rock music plays from speakers throughout the house. A chalkboard hanging outside the kitchen announces the evening's meal: Ginger carrot soup. Goat cheese-carmelized onion torte. Chicken in red wine sauce. Chocolate mousse soufflé with fresh oranges. Dinner begins promptly at 8 o'clock.
"She's very gracious, calm and organized," Garza said. "I don't know how she does it. If I did something like that, it'd be pretty stressed, but she isn't even breaking a sweat. She's never in the kitchen cooking. It's all made when we get there. You don't feel like it's this big burden, because it's something she enjoys."
The Petersons have held many dinner and holiday gatherings the past couple of years. Laci's guests have come to know what to expect from an evening at her house: Dress nicely and prepare to be impressed.
Once she moved back to Modesto, Laci also set about another task: reuniting the circle of her Downey girlfriends who had drifted apart through the years. She even brought back the slumber party, holding several sleep-overs that got the gang together again. The women huddled in the living room, gossiping and talking trash about men deep into the early morning.
There were two key differences. Many of the women occasionally called to check in, not with their parents, but their husbands and children. And no one had to sneak champagne.
"Sometimes you take the relationships you make in high school for granted," Garza said. "It seemed like all of us were going all these different directions. She is the one who brought us all back together."
A cold fog hangs low in the air above Covena Avenue. It is 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2002. Distant streetlights are fuzzy and dim. Neighborhood children are safe in their beds, having fallen asleep wondering what wonderful gifts the morning will bring. But a small group of people gather in front of the Petersons' house. They are the only ones on the street. They stand together, none of them knowing quite what to do. The hostess is missing.
"It just wasn't right," Rene Tomlinson said. "This was not a sad place. To be sad at her house, it just wasn't right."
Five hours earlier, many of Laci's friends had received phone calls from Scott asking if anyone had seen Laci that day. None of them had. Laci's friends began showing up at the Petersons' home.
They began looking for her in the darkness along Dry Creek and throughout the neighborhood. Some stood out front and monitored the nearby entrance to Dry Creek, fully expecting Laci to come walking up at any moment.
Nervous hours passed with no sign of Laci. Some went home to get some sleep, sensing a long, terrible day lay ahead. As midnight approached, those who remained found themselves standing outside. They spoke in hushed tones and nodded in sad silences.
They did not know whether to be hopeful or fear the worst. To pray or grieve. To hug one another or cry.
So they did a little of everything.
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at 578-2331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.