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The State

Friends and Family Fear the Worst, Hope for the Best

Authorities have few leads in the Christmas Eve disappearance of a pregnant woman in Modesto. Volunteers continue the search.

January 07, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

MODESTO — She has been gone for 14 days now, a disappearance that mystifies her parents, the police and a community that refuses to give up hope, even as it braces for the worst.

The missing-person poster for 27-year-old Laci Peterson, 8 1/2 months pregnant with a big gleaming smile, can be found on shop windows and utility poles in this farming region and as far away as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Mexico. Truckers still drop by the makeshift volunteer center at a downtown hotel to pick up fliers for their routes north and south.

"We just keep thinking positive thoughts. We have to," said Staci Boyers, Peterson's childhood friend, who has been a fixture at the center since Day One, helping pass out 50,000 fliers and hundreds of blue and yellow ribbons.

The Modesto police held their usual afternoon news conference Monday, adding few facts to a case that has attracted national attention. The media have flocked here, in part because Peterson, an attractive substitute teacher living in an upscale neighborhood, was just a few weeks shy of giving birth to her first child, a boy.

She disappeared while her husband, Scott, was reportedly taking a Christmas Eve fishing trip the Bay Area.

Detectives have culled hundreds of tips phoned in to a local hotline, with seemingly few solid leads. They have investigated the whereabouts of 175 parolees and sex offenders who live in the area. And they have gone to considerable lengths to corroborate Scott Peterson's purported movements on the day his wife vanished.

They have checked out the parking receipt from the Berkeley Marina where he said he launched his 14-foot aluminum fishing boat a few hours after leaving home that morning. And they have taken specially trained dogs in boats to sniff the docks and nearby waters.

Besides turning up an errant blue tarp that they will test for fibers, they have turned up nothing that leads them directly to Laci Peterson.

A high school cheerleader, she met Scott Peterson in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she received an award as outstanding freshman in ornamental horticulture, her major. After graduation, she and Scott ran a sports bar, the Shack, that was popular with college students. Family members said Scott got the seed money from his father, a wealthy San Diego businessman who owns several crating and packing companies.

It seemed a contented, happy marriage, they say. When it came time to start a family, Laci Peterson wanted to return to Modesto, where she grew up on a dairy farm outside of town. Scott went to work for a local fertilizer company, and she loved to entertain and cook fancy meals for friends and family.

She had begun to set the table and was preparing for a Christmas Day brunch when, according to her husband, she took their golden retriever out for a walk and was never seen again. The dog was later found in the frontyard with its collar and leash.

Her mother, Sharon Rocha, said she doesn't believe her son-in-law had anything to do with the disappearance. She said the two were too much in love. Since the disappearance, Scott Peterson has been searching alongside volunteers for his wife.

But Laci's father, Dennis Rocha, a retired dairy farmer who still dresses in wrangler jeans and roper boots and a big cowboy belt buckle, now wonders.

"I hope it's not him," he said. "How can I explain that?"

Rocha said he needed a break and stayed away from Monday's news conference. "I'm trying to let this thing take its course. I go from day to day, praying and hoping for the best."

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