Laci Peterson nee
Rocha (1975-2002) was a substitute teacher
who lived all her life in Modesto, California
. She was married and pregnant, and suddenly disappeared just before Christmas 2002. It has since become one of the most talked about and publicized missing person cases in U.S. history. Adding to the drama was the fact that she was seven and a half months pregnant
at the time of her disappearance, and the fact that her husband was caught having an extramarital affair. Her husband, Scott Peterson, is currently on trial for her murder.
Laci attended California Polytechnic State University, where she met Scott Peterson in 1994. She was a waitress, and he was a waiter at the same restaurant. They married two years later, attempted to run their own restaurant in San Luis Obispo, California, but moved back to Modesto in 2000.
In 2002, Laci found out that she was pregnant with a boy. She and her husband decided to name the baby Connor. But on Christmas Eve of that year, she was reported missing. The last person to talk to her was her mother over the phone the day before. Her husband, Scott, said that she planned to go shopping for dinner then walk the dog through nearby East La Loma park. Scott also said that he had gone to the marina at Berkeley, California to go fishing. A neighbor claimed she saw him loading something wrapped in a large blue tarp into his car that morning, which he claimed to be 8-foot umbrellas for work. Later that day, neighbors found the family dog running loose in the neighborhood, wearing a collar and muddy leash. Scott said Laci's 1996 Range Rover sport utility vehicle was in the driveway; and her purse, keys and cell phone were on the table in the house.
By 6 PM, the police were called. An immediate search of East La Loma Park and surrounding areas was launched by police and the neighborhood. The case had additional gravity due to the fact that she was pregnant. They utilized foot searchers, all-terrain vehicles, patrol cars, sport utility vehicles, helicopters with search lights and heat sensors, water rescue units, search dogs and horseback teams. Law enforcement agencies from several counties became involved, searching both forests and waterways. They couldn't find a sign of Laci anywhere.
The police suspected foul play, as they didn't believe Laci would just vanish on Christmas Eve without contacting anybody. "That is completely out of character for her," said detective Al Brocchini at a press conference. As is frequently the case in the murders or disappearances of married people, Laci's husband became a suspect in the case, but her family came forward to support him. Scott managed to show a receipt from the marina for December 24 (though no time is printed on it), and witnesses said they saw Laci in the park with her dog at 10AM on that day.
The police tracked as many leads as they could, with numerous dead ends. On January 4, they used sonar to scan the marina more than once, at one point telling the press they found something that might be a body. The next day, after the weather cleared, it turned out to be an old anchor. For a brief moment police believed they were onto a hot lead when it was thought that the house across the street from the Petersons had been burglarized at approximately the time that Laci allegedly disappeared. Some suspected that perhaps she had seen the burglars who then panicked and kidnapped her so she could not identify them. But police eliminated the possibility once it turned out the burglary happened later on.
Meanwhile, the police began to focus more and more on the husband, Scott Peterson. After closer inspection, the police couldn't confirm that anybody had actually seen Laci take the walk with her dog, which meant the last person to see or hear her besides Scott was her mother during the phone call the night before the disappearance. As far as the police were concerned, the disappearance could have happened from there on. The fact that the marina was searched more than once is a pretty clear indication that the police were focusing on Scott and his fishing trip on the morning of the disappearance. They published photographs of his truck and boat and asked the public to help them corroborate Scott's story. Scott and Laci's house was searched. Her SUV, his truck and boat, and their computers were seized. And police have dug deeply into his background from every conceivable angle in the days since her disappearance.
A US$25,000 reward was offered, which later increased to $500,000 as friends and family donated. Posters and ribbons and flyers circulated, and the website LaciPeterson.com was setup by the husband of one of her friends. Her friends and family set up a Command Center at a nearby hotel space to track any developments and circulate information about Laci.
Scott refused to talk to the press. He had stormed out of one press conference when reporters started asking about the police suspecting him. Laci's brother, Brent Rocha, defended Scott, saying that he was too emotionally wrought to make public statements about his wife, and adding that that did not mean he was involved in her disappearance. "No way," Rocha said. "Absolutely not!" Scott has maintained that he knows nothing about, nor has had anything to do with, Laci's disappearance. Volunteers said that he had shown up every morning at the Volunteer & Command Center and seemed to work tirelessly for her safe return.
On January 15, Modesto detectives showed Laci's relatives recent photos of Scott posing with another woman. One photo was dated just days before Laci disappeared. Police believe that Scott was having an affair with the woman for some time, while he was married to his pregnant wife. Another photo, according to the family, was dated during a time when they knew Laci believed Scott was on a business trip. Police also told the family that Scott had taken out a $250,000 life insurance policy on Laci after he learned she was pregnant. It is unknown whether Laci was aware of the policy.
On January 17, Laci's family revealed that Laci's stepfather asked Scott two weeks earlier if he had a girlfriend, and Scott unequivocally said No. The family spokesperson announced that, following the admission that Scott Peterson was having an affair, they had dropped their support for him. Peterson sold the family car three weeks later, but the automobile dealer to whom he sold it gave it back to her family.
On April 13, the body of a newborn male child, his umbilical cord still attached, was found on the San Francisco Bay shore near Richmond, California, north of Berkeley. A mile away, the decapitated body of a recently-pregnant woman was also found. DNA tests performed on the two bodies verified that they were, indeed, the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Connor. Forensic experts say that after death, Laci's muscles relaxed, delivering the baby after death, most likely in the water.
On April 18, Scott Peterson was arrested near the home of his mother in La Jolla, California. Stanislaus County officials said that they had made the decision to arrest him because of La Jolla's proximity to Mexico, and they were fearful that he might flee to avoid prosecution for Laci's murder. In addition, he had dyed his hair blond and grown a beard, and the authorities cited this as further indication that he might be planning on leaving their jurisdiction.