Murder of Laci Peterson
|Born||May 4, 1975
Modesto, California, U.S.
|Died||c. December 24, 2002 (aged 27)
Modesto, California, U.S. (presumably)
|Spouse(s)||Scott Peterson (1997–2002) (her death)|
|Children||Conner Peterson (fetal death)|
|Parents||Dennis Rocha and Sharon Rocha|
Laci Denise Peterson (née Rocha; May 4, 1975 – c. December 24, 2002) was an American woman who was the subject of a highly publicized murder case after she went missing while seven and a half months pregnant with her first child. Peterson was reportedly last seen alive on December 24, 2002. Her husband, Scott Peterson, was later convicted of murder in the first degree for Laci's death, and in the second degree for the death of their prenatal son Conner. Scott Peterson is on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
Early life and marriage
Laci Denise Rocha was born in Modesto, California. Her parents, Dennis Robert Rocha and Sharon Ruth Anderson, met in high school and married shortly after graduation. Their first child, Brent Rocha, was born in 1971. Laci was the couple's second child, born in 1975. Her parents separated after Laci's first birthday. Dennis later remarried and had another daughter, Amy. Laci grew up visiting her father's dairy farm in Escalon, California, and she was a cheerleader in junior high and high school. After graduating from Thomas Downey High School, Laci attended California Polytechnic State University. At Cal Poly, she majored in ornamental horticulture. She hoped someday to open a specialty plant shop. While at Cal Poly, Laci met Scott Peterson at a small restaurant in Morro Bay called Pacific Café.
In December 1996, Scott and Laci became engaged, and they married on August 9, 1997, a few months before Laci's graduation. For the first two years or so of their marriage, they delayed trying to have children, but Laci began to express an interest in starting a family. In December 2000, they decided to try for a pregnancy. Becoming pregnant took longer than expected, and on the verge of scheduling fertility tests, Laci and Scott Peterson conceived naturally in May 2002. The baby was due on February 10, 2003, and the couple planned to name their son Conner Latham Peterson.
Disappearance and discovery of the bodies
Apart from her husband, the last two people known to have spoken to Laci before she disappeared were her half-sister, Amy Rocha, and her mother, Sharon Rocha. Amy cut Scott's hair, with Laci present, on the evening of December 23, 2002. Later that evening, Sharon spoke with Laci on the telephone around 8:30 pm. Shortly after 10:15 am the following morning, a neighbor found the family dog, a golden retriever named McKenzie, running loose in the neighborhood, wearing a collar and a muddy leash. The neighbor then returned McKenzie to the yard. Laci's 1996 Land Rover Discovery SE sport utility vehicle was in the driveway, and her purse, containing her keys and cell phone, was on the table inside the house.
When Scott Peterson returned home from fishing that evening, according to news reports he "discovered" Laci was not there. Some reports state he washed his clothes, ate some cold pizza, cleaned up the kitchen, and took a shower. Then, at roughly 5:20 pm, he called Sharon Rocha to ask if Laci was with her. When Sharon replied that Laci was not there, Scott said, "Laci's missing." Sharon later said that she knew in her heart something horrible had happened to her daughter. Scott stated that when he left that morning, Laci was planning to buy groceries for their Christmas get-together and walk the couple's dog, McKenzie, in nearby East La Loma Park.
Laci's parents called the police at 6 pm. A search of the park and surrounding areas immediately ensued. Police, family members, friends, and neighbors searched widely on foot, in all-terrain vehicles, patrol cars, and sport utility vehicles, helicopters equipped with search lights and heat sensors, water rescue units, search dogs, and horseback teams. Law enforcement agencies from several counties became involved. Police suspected foul play, doubting that Laci would vanish on Christmas Eve without contacting anyone. At a press conference, detective Al Brocchini said, "That is completely out of character for her."
A $25,000 reward was offered, later increased to $250,000, and finally to $500,000 for any information leading to her safe return. Posters, blue and yellow ribbons and fliers were circulated, and the original, basic version of LaciPeterson.com website was launched by a husband of one of Laci's friends. Friends, family, and volunteers set up a command center at a nearby Red Lion Hotel to record developments and circulate information. Over 1,000 volunteers signed up to distribute information and to help search for Laci. Critics alleged that this was another example of missing white woman syndrome, and that similar cases (primarily that of Evelyn Hernandez) were being ignored by the media and the community. However it should be noted that it was the immediate family and friends of Laci and the Rochas who organized the initial search and vigil for Laci; in the first two days, up to 900 people were involved in looking for Laci, before community officials or police directly participated in the actual search and prior to significant media coverage.
On April 13, 2003, a couple walking their dog discovered the decomposing but well-preserved body of a late-term male fetus on the San Francisco Bay shore in Richmond's Point Isabel Regional Shoreline park, north of Berkeley. 1 1/2 loops of nylon tape was found around the neck, and a significant cut was on the body. One day later, the body of a recently-pregnant woman, wearing cream-colored maternity pants and a maternity bra, washed to shore one mile away from where the baby's body was found. The exact cause of the woman's death was impossible to determine as a result of decomposition; the body was decapitated, both forearms were missing, the right foot was severed, and the left leg from the knee down was missing. Tape was found around the outside of her clothing on her lower torso as well. Later reports from the medical examiner revealed that there were injuries, two cracked ribs, that happened at or near the time of death. DNA tests verified that they were the bodies of Laci Peterson and her son, Conner. Mother and fetus had not been separated by coffin birth, as had been speculated. Rather, Laci's upper torso had been emptied of internal organs and that allowed the fetus to pass through a perforation in the top of the decomposing uterus.
Investigation and trial
From the start, Scott Peterson was reluctant to talk to the press; at one point, he stormed out of a family press conference when reporters asked if the police considered him a suspect. Laci's brother, Brent Rocha, defended Scott, claiming that Scott was too distraught to make public statements about Laci, and added that did not mean he was involved in her disappearance. "No way," Rocha said. "Absolutely not." Although later he would recall Scott's use of the word "missing" seemed very frequent. He says, looking back, he felt uneasy that he started using that word so soon. Laci's family maintained Scott's innocence, and volunteers said that he joined their efforts at the command center every day. Police delivered a major blow to the family when they uncovered pictures showing Scott with another woman. They also found that he was with the woman during a time that Laci thought he was on a business trip. (The dates on the pictures revealed this.) After this information came out, Laci's family called for Scott to be more forthright with them.
It was later revealed that Scott Peterson had had numerous extramarital affairs, one of which Laci knew about, and the most recent was with a massage therapist named Amber Frey, a single mother from nearby Fresno. The affair began after Scott met a woman, Shawn Sibley, at a trade convention where he represented his company, TradeCorp, and told her he was single and "looking". He joked that he should put "Horny Bastard" on his name tag to help him meet women. Though Sibley was attached, she thought Peterson would be a good match for Frey, a friend of hers. She set them up on a blind date in mid-November 2002. Frey informed police of her relationship with Peterson shortly after seeing news of Laci's disappearance on TV, and agreed to record their phone calls. She informed them that, a few weeks before Laci's disappearance, on December 9, Peterson had told her that he was a widower and that these would be his first holidays without his wife.
Scott Peterson was arrested on April 18, 2003, in La Jolla, California, in the parking lot of a golf course, where he claimed to be meeting his father and brother for a game of golf. At the time of his arrest, Peterson was carrying $15,000 in cash, had four cell phones, camping equipment, a gun, a map to Frey's workplace that had been printed the day before, the driver's license for John Edward Peterson (his brother), 12 tablets of Viagra, and many other 'odd' items. His hair and goatee had been bleached blonde. The police took this as an indication that Peterson had planned to flee, possibly to Mexico.
After a trial that ran from June 2004 through March 2005, on March 16, 2005, Judge Alfred A. Delucchi sentenced Scott Peterson to death, calling the murder of his wife "cruel, uncaring, heartless, and callous".
The death of Laci and her fetal son led to the United States Congress passing the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which is widely known as Laci and Conner's Law. On April 1, 2004, Sharon Rocha and her boyfriend Ron Grantski were in attendance at the White House when President George W. Bush, signed the bill into law. The law recognizes unborn children as legal victims if injured or killed upon a listed crime of violence.
Late in 2005, a Stanislaus County, California judge ruled that Peterson was not entitled to collect on his late wife's $250,000 life insurance policy, having been convicted of her murder. Under California state law, criminals may not profit from insurance policies. On December 19, 2005, the money was given to Laci's mother, Sharon, as the executor of Laci's estate. The California Court of Appeal (Fifth District) later affirmed the trial court's decision on October 31, 2007.
In 2006, Sharon Rocha wrote For Laci: A Mother's Story of Love, Loss, and Justice, a biography and memoir about the life and death of her daughter. All proceeds are used to fund the Laci and Conner Search and Rescue Fund, which Sharon Rocha had founded.
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