Murder of Laci Peterson
Laci Denise Rocha
May 4, 1975
Modesto, California, U.S.
|Died||c. December 24, 2002 (aged 27)|
Modesto, California, U.S. (presumed)
(m. after 1997)
|Children||Conner (fetal death)|
|Parent(s)||Dennis Rocha and Sharon Rocha|
Laci Denise Peterson (née Rocha; May 4, 1975 – December 24, 2002) was an American woman who was the subject of a highly publicized murder case after she disappeared while eight months pregnant with her first child. She was reportedly last seen alive on December 24, 2002. Her husband, Scott Peterson, was later convicted of first-degree murder for her death, and second-degree murder for the death of their prenatal son Conner. Since his conviction, Peterson has been housed at San Quentin State Prison, though his death sentence was overturned on August 24, 2020.
Early life and marriage
Laci Denise Rocha was born May 4, 1975, to Sharon and Dennis Robert Rocha, who had met in high school, and owned a dairy farm west of Escalon, California. Sharon named Laci after a pretty girl she met in high school. Laci's older brother, Brent Rocha, was born in 1971. Laci worked on the farm from a young age, and also enjoyed gardening with her mother, an activity with which she developed an appreciation for plant life that influenced her later life. Sharon and Dennis divorced when Laci and her brother Brent were young. Sharon and the children moved to Modesto, though the children visited the dairy farm on weekends. Sharon eventually married Ron Grantski, who helped raise Laci and Brent from the time Laci was two years old. Dennis also remarried, gaining a stepson, Nathan Hazard, and with his second wife, had another daughter, Amy Woodward.
Laci was a cheerleader in junior high and high school. After graduating from Thomas Downey High School, she attended California Polytechnic State University, where she majored in ornamental horticulture. While at California Polytechnic, Laci would sometimes visit a friend who worked at a restaurant in Morro Bay called the Pacific Café. There, she met her friend's coworker, Scott Peterson, in mid-1994. Laci made the first move, sending Scott her phone number, and immediately after meeting him, she told her mother that she had met the man that she would marry. Scott later called Laci and they began dating, their first date being a deep-sea fishing trip on which Laci got seasick. As Laci's relationship with Scott grew more serious, he put aside his dreams of professional golf in order to focus on a business path. The couple dated for two years, and eventually moved in together.
While Scott finished his senior year, Laci took a job in nearby Prunedale. Prosecutors have stated that around this time, Scott engaged in the first of at least two extramarital affairs, though they have not revealed a name or details of each relationship. After her graduation, the couple married at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in San Luis Obispo County's Avila Valley on August 9, 1997. Peterson graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural business in June 1998. After their graduations, the Petersons opened a sports bar in San Luis Obispo called The Shack. Business was initially slow, but eventually improved, especially on weekends. They sold The Shack in 2000 when they moved to Laci's hometown of Modesto, California to start a family. In October 2000, they purchased a three-bedroom, two-bath bungalow house for $177,000 on Covena Avenue in an upscale neighborhood near La Loma Park.
Laci soon took a part-time job as a substitute teacher, and Scott got a job with Tradecorp U.S.A., a newly founded subsidiary of a European fertilizer company, in which Scott earned a salary of $5,000 a month before taxes. Laci's family, including her mother and younger sister, related that she worked enthusiastically at being the perfect housewife, enjoying cooking and entertaining, and that she and her family welcomed the news in 2002 that she was pregnant. Laci's initial due date was February 10, 2003, but was changed to February 16, 2003 during her second trimester. The couple had planned to name their son Conner. In November 2002, when Laci was seven months pregnant, Scott was introduced by a friend to a Fresno massage therapist named Amber Frey. In later public statements, Frey said Scott told her he was single, and the two began a romantic relationship. The last time Scott's parents saw Laci was during a three-day weekend they spent together in Carmel, California the week before Christmas 2002.
Disappearance and discovery of the bodies
Apart from her husband Scott, the last two people known to have spoken to Laci before she disappeared were her half-sister, Amy Rocha, and her mother, Sharon.
On December 23, 2002 at 5:45pm, Laci and Scott went to Amy's workplace, Salon Salon, where Amy cut Scott's hair as she did each month. As they spoke, Amy said Scott offered to pick up a fruit basket that she had ordered for her grandfather as the Christmas gift the next day because he would be playing golf at a course nearby. Prosecutors say Scott also told other people he would play golf on the day of Christmas Eve. Her mother Sharon spoke with Laci on the telephone around 8:30pm that evening.
Scott later told police that he last saw his wife about 9:30am on December 24, when he left to go fishing at the Berkeley Marina. He said Laci was watching a cooking television show, preparing to mop the floor, bake cookies, and walk the family dog to a nearby park. At the time of her disappearance, Laci was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Later that morning Karen Servas, a neighbor of the Petersons, stated that around 10:30am she found the Petersons' dog, a golden retriever named McKenzie, alone outside the home and returned him to the Petersons' back yard. Another neighbor named Mike Chiavetta said he saw McKenzie at about 10:45am as he played catch with his own dog. The Modesto Bee also reported an unnamed female neighbor who found the dog with muddy leash, wandering in the neighborhood. That neighbor put the dog in the Petersons' yard, not observing anything was out of place. Scott said he returned home that afternoon to find it empty. Scott told Laci's mother that he found McKenzie in their back yard, though she related in her book that he later denied this. Laci's 1996 Land Rover Discovery SE was in the driveway. He showered and washed his clothes because he said he got wet from fishing.
According to ABC News, Scott reported Laci missing from their Modesto home. However, the New York Post reported that when Laci still had not returned home by 5:15pm, Peterson called his mother-in-law, and that a half-hour later, Laci's stepfather, Ron Grantski, called the police. The Modesto Bee also attributes the first call to police to Grantski. After police arrived at the Peterson home, Laci's keys, wallet and sunglasses were found in her purse in a closet at the home the evening of December 24. The dining room table was meticulously set for a family dinner the following night. One detective found a phone book on a kitchen counter, opened to a full-page ad for a defense lawyer. Scott was reported to be completely calm. Modesto police detective Jon Buehler and Allen Brocchini, the lead investigators on the case, questioned Scott Peterson that evening. Although Scott initially said he had spent the day golfing, he later told the police that he had gone to fish for sturgeon at the Berkeley Marina. At 2:15 p.m., he left a message for Laci, stating, "Hey, Beautiful. It's 2:15. I'm leaving Berkeley." Scott stated that he went fishing about 90 miles from the couple's Modesto home. Detectives immediately launched a search, but were surprised by Scott Peterson's behavior. Buehler told ABC News in 2017, "I suspected Scott when I first met him. Didn't mean he did it, but I was a little bit thrown off by his calm, cool demeanor and his lack of questioning ... he wasn't, 'Will you call me back? Can I have one of your cards? What are you guys doing now?'"
Modesto police and firefighters carried out a massive search along Dry Creek the day after Laci's disappearance. The search came to include helicopters equipped with searchlights, police mounted on horseback and bicycles, canine units, and water-rescue units on rafts. A total of 30 officers were involved in the search, as well as Laci's loved ones and volunteers, who posted fliers to raise awareness of her disappearance. At a press conference, detective Al Brocchini said that police did not believe that Laci decided to leave without contacting her family, commenting, "That is completely out of character for her." The initial search and later vigil were organized by the immediate family and friends. In the first two days, up to 900 people were involved in looking for Laci, before community officials or police directly participated in the search, and prior to significant media coverage. Eventually, the story attracted nationwide media interest.
A $25,000 reward was offered, later increased to $250,000, and finally to $500,000 for any information leading to Laci's safe return. Posters, blue and yellow ribbons, and fliers were circulated, and the original, basic version of the LaciPeterson.com website was launched by the husband of one of her friends. Friends, family, and volunteers set up a command center at a nearby Red Lion Hotel to record developments and circulate information. Over 1,500 volunteers signed up to distribute information and to help search for her.
On April 13, 2003, a couple walking their dog found the decomposing, but well-preserved body of a late-term male fetus in a marshy area of the San Francisco Bay shore in Richmond's Point Isabel Regional Shoreline park, north of Berkeley. Its umbilical cord was still attached, appearing to have been torn, not cut or clamped, as is the normal practice after birth. Although a judge sealed the autopsy results, an anonymous Associated Press source revealed that 1.5 loops of nylon tape were found around the fetus' neck and a significant cut was on the fetus' body. One day later, a passerby found the body of a recently pregnant woman, wearing beige pants and a maternity bra, washed up on the eastern rocky shoreline of the bay, one mile away from where the baby's body was found.
The corpse was decomposed to the point of being almost unrecognizable as a human body. The woman had been decapitated and her limbs were missing, including most of her legs. On April 18, 2003, the results of DNA tests verified that they were the bodies of Laci and her unborn son, Conner. The autopsies on both bodies were performed by forensic pathologist Dr. Brian Peterson (no relation to Scott Peterson). According to the autopsy, Conner's skin was not decomposed at all, though the right side of his body was mutilated, and the placenta and umbilical cord were not found with the body. Laci's cervix was intact. The exact date and cause of Laci's death were never determined. She had suffered two cracked ribs, though Dr. Peterson could not determine if this occurred before or after her death. Laci's upper torso had been emptied of internal organs except for the uterus, which protected the fetus, explaining the lower level of decomposition it experienced. Dr. Peterson determined that the fetus had been expelled from Laci's decaying body. Though he testified that he could not determine whether the fetus had been born alive or dead, there was no food in his stomach, which would have indicated a live birth had it been present. The Associated Press observed that the doctor's testimony appeared contradictory at times: Though he stated that no cause of death could be determined for Laci or Conner, he also said, "It was her death that caused Conner's death while he was still in the uterus."
Investigation and trial
It was later publicized that Scott had numerous extramarital affairs, one of which Laci knew about. The most recent was with a massage therapist named Amber Frey, a single mother from nearby Fresno. The affair began after he met a woman, Shawn Sibley, on October 24, 2002, at a trade convention where he represented his company, TradeCorp. He 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 he would be a good match for Amber Frey, a friend of hers. Sibley gave Frey's contact information to Scott, and he called her on November 19, and met her the next day. After a month-long, whirlwind romance, she informed police of their relationship shortly after discovering he was a person of interest in Peterson's disappearance on the local news, and agreed to phone him while police recorded their conversation. She informed police he told her on December 9, two weeks before Peterson's disappearance, he was a widower, and it would be the first Christmas without his wife.
Scott was arrested on April 18, 2003, near a La Jolla golf course. He claimed to be meeting his father and brother for a game of golf. His naturally dark brown hair had been dyed blond, and his Mercedes was "overstuffed" with miscellaneous items, including nearly $15,000 in cash, 12 Viagra tablets, survival gear, camping equipment, several changes of clothes, four cell phones, and two driver's licenses, his and his brother's. Scott's father, Lee Peterson, explained that Scott had used his brother's license the day before to get a San Diego resident discount at the golf course, and that Scott had been living out of his car because of the media attention. Police and prosecutors, however, saw these items as an indication that Peterson had planned to flee to Mexico.
On April 21, 2003, Scott was arraigned in Stanislaus County Superior Court before Judge Nancy Ashley. He was charged with two felony counts of murder with premeditation and special circumstances. He pleaded not guilty. Judge Al Girolami of Stanislaus County Superior Court moved his trial to San Mateo County because so many people in Stanislaus had made up their minds about Peterson's guilt. His trial began on June 1, 2004. On November 12, 2004, Scott Peterson was convicted of first degree murder for his wife's death and second degree murder for Conner's death. Judge Alfred A. Delucchi sentenced Scott to death, calling the murder of Laci "cruel, uncaring, heartless, and callous".
In March 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium for all 737 prisoners on death row in California, including Peterson. The order postpones all executions for the duration of Newsom's tenure as governor. California had not executed a prisoner since 2006 due to legal challenges to the state's execution protocol. Newsom's order spares the approximately 25 prisoners on death row who had exhausted their legal appeals and could have had their executions move forward once the legal challenge was resolved. Peterson's family said they were in favor of Newsom's action, but noted that his case was likely to be unaffected by it. The family does not believe Peterson would exhaust all of his legal challenges by January 2027, when Newsom would be leaving office, assuming his re-election in 2022.
The death of Laci and Conner Peterson led to the passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which is also known as Laci and Conner's Law. On April 1, 2004, Sharon Rocha and her husband Ron Grantski were in attendance at the White House when President George W. Bush signed the bill into law. The Act provides that, under federal law, any person who causes death or injury to an unborn child while in the commission of a crime upon a pregnant woman will be charged with a separate offense.
On October 21, 2005, Stanislaus County, California, Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne ruled that Scott was not entitled to collect on Laci'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 Rocha as the executor of her estate. The California Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno later affirmed the trial court's decision on October 31, 2007.
In 2006, Sharon wrote For Laci: A Mother's Story of Love, Loss, and Justice, a biography and memoir about Laci's life and death. All proceeds are used to fund the Laci and Conner Search and Rescue Fund, which she had founded. On January 29, 2006, it was listed at No. 1 on The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller list.
Laci's stepfather, Ron Grantski, died in his sleep at his Modesto home on April 8, 2018, at age 71, after a lengthy period of failing health. He was buried next to Laci and Conner. Laci's father, Dennis Rocha, died December 9, 2018, at the age of 72.
On August 24, 2020, in a 7 - 0 decision, the Supreme Court of California upheld Peterson's conviction, but overturned his death sentence, because Peterson's trial judge, Alfred Delucchi, who had died on February 26, 2008, had dismissed jurors who opposed capital punishment without asking them whether they could put their views aside. Justice Leondra Kruger explained that per Supreme Court rulings since 1968, "Jurors may not be excused merely for opposition to the death penalty, but only for views rendering them unable to fairly consider imposing that penalty in accordance with their oath. This is the meaning of the guarantee of an impartial jury."
|Dateline Sneak Preview: The Laci Peterson Story: A Dateline Investigation|
- In 2004, USA Network aired the television film The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story.
- In 2004, E! aired an episode of The E! True Hollywood Story on Laci Peterson.
- In 2005, the case was covered in the TV movie, Amber Frey: Witness for the Prosecution.
- In 2015, the series Murder Made Me Famous covered the story in its second episode, which premiered August 22.
- The case was the topic of the eponymous, 2010 premiere episode of Investigation Discovery's True Crime with Aphrodite Jones.
- On April 21, 2017, the NBC news magazine Dateline aired the two-hour special, The Laci Peterson Story: A Dateline Investigation.
- In 2017, ABC aired a two-hour documentary on the case titled Truth and Lies: The Murder of Laci Peterson.
- In 2017, the case was covered in A&E's six part series, The Murder of Laci Peterson.
- In 2017, Investigation Discovery aired a two-hour documentary titled Scott Peterson: An American Murder Mystery.
- In 2017, HLN aired a two-hour program on the case titled How It Really Happened.
- In 2017, Crime Junkie Podcast produced two episodes detailing Peterson's murder.
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Four months after Laci disappeared from their Modesto home and days after her skeletal remains washed ashore in San Francisco Bay, federal and local authorities Friday arrested Scott near a La Jolla golf course.
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Two weeks before Laci Peterson was murdered, her husband Scott Peterson told his mistress that his wife was already dead and that he was about to spend his first Christmas without her
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