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‘Nightmare Goes On’ for Family of Laci Peterson

Times Staff Writers

Friends and family waited anxiously Tuesday to learn whether the dismembered body found washed ashore in San Francisco Bay a day earlier is that of Laci Denise Peterson, the pregnant woman whose disappearance on Christmas Eve inspired a massive search and captured the nation’s attention.

The Contra Costa County coroner’s office and Modesto police said it could be days or weeks before the body is identified.

“The nightmare just keeps going on,” said Dennis Rocha, Peterson’s father. But he emphasized that the discovery “could be another wild goose chase.”

Kim Petersen, a family spokeswoman, read a statement on behalf of family members at a late afternoon news conference.

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“We believe that, if this is Laci, God has allowed her to be found because our family needs to know where she is and what has happened to her,” the statement read, in part.

Hope persisted that the 27-year-old, whose smiling face can still be seen on posters throughout this San Joaquin Valley farm town, will still be found safe

At a news conference, a spokesman for the coroner refused to comment on published reports that the body was headless and missing its legs.

But spokesman Jimmy Lee did say that pathologists were trying to determine whether a bone found Tuesday in the same area is connected to the body found Monday.

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Peterson, 27, was reported missing the day before Christmas after her husband, Scott, returned from a fishing trip to an area of the bay not far from where the body was found. Adding fuel to speculation that the body is Peterson’s, a passerby discovered the body of a baby boy about a mile away.

Although authorities said they know of no other case involving a missing pregnant woman, they said that exacting DNA analysis will be required to determine whether the female corpse was the mother of the dead baby.

Modesto police have classified Peterson’s disappearance as a homicide. They have not named Scott Peterson a suspect or eliminated him from suspicion.

Dennis Rocha, however, has not been shy about saying that he believes that his son-in-law was involved in his daughter’s disappearance. He repeated the accusation in an interview Tuesday. He also said he has not been in touch with police since the discovery of the body.

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“We’re feeling bad,” Rocha said Tuesday. “This keeps bringing up bad memories.”

Suspicions about Scott Peterson are so strong around Modesto, according to friends, that he has disappeared from public view. He has been staying with his mother in San Diego, according to reports, and with friends in Modesto.

A police spokesman said Tuesday afternoon that he did not know Peterson’s whereabouts and would not reveal them if he did.

The shades were drawn tightly Tuesday at the modest bungalow Peterson shared with his wife on a tree-shaded lane that dead-ends at a creek. The grass was unmowed, but the pool filter could be heard in the backyard.

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A makeshift shrine of candles and stuffed animals has been created in the frontyard, under a yellow sign reading, “Missing, $500,000 reward leading to her safe return.”

Around Modesto, no one needs a name on the poster. As reporters stood watch on the street, a succession of people passed by to lay flowers at the little shrine, or simply to stand, heads bowed in contemplation. “Even though they may have found her body, we are still here praying for her,” said Lamaya Johnson, 17, who put a red rose in front of the sign.

Katie Tregea, 34, carried a car seat containing her 4-month-old son, Joey, as she paid her respects. She said she felt especially close to Laci because she had been pregnant at the same time as the missing woman and because she has a second child named Connor. Scott and Laci intended to give their boy the same name.

“I just think it’s really sad,” Tregea said.

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Several other locals reflected on three high-profile cases linked to the Modesto area in recent years. First came the murders committed in and around Yosemite National Park by handyman Cary Stayner. After that was the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy, whose family still lives here. And now Laci Peterson. News conferences in all three cases were held at the same Red Lion hotel.

Some think that the high-profile crimes are an indication that Modesto has lost much of its small-town charm as more people move in, particularly Bay Area transplants seeking affordable housing.

“It used to be” a nice town, said Veronica Valencia, 17, who also laid a red rose at the shrine.

“I don’t think Modesto has anything to do with what happened,” said Laurie Wesenberg, 44, who manages the Salon Salon beauty parlor. “It’s a fluke.”

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One of Wesenberg’s 25 stylists is Amy Rocha, Laci’s sister. Wesenberg said that Rocha had asked for the day off Tuesday so she could be with her family. “Whatever she needs,” Wesenberg said. “We’re a big family here.”

A huge “missing” poster covered the front window. Despite the classification of the case as a homicide, “we’re not giving up hope yet,” she said.

After a four-hour autopsy Monday night, a forensic pathologist could not determine how the woman had died, whether she was connected to the baby boy’s body or if she was a homicide victim.

“Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of things we just don’t know about,” said Lee, who also is a spokesman for the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department. “And I’ll be honest, there may be some things we never find out.”

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Although Lee declined to confirm a report in the Contra Costa Times that the adult body was headless and missing both legs, other developments indicated that the remains were partial. .

Among them was the coroner’s report that a bone discovered near the Berkeley Marina on Monday could be connected to the adult corpse.

And the fact that pathologists are conducting DNA tests probably means that teeth were not part of the remains -- otherwise a much more expeditious match with dental records would be attempted.

DNA analysis “is a very time-consuming process,” Lee said. “At best, it can take several days. At worst, it may be several weeks or even longer.”

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Meanwhile, Lee said that another expert has been called in to assist in the investigation. That expert is expected to help coroner’s officials pinpoint time of death.


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