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In Modesto, a Feeling of Closure

Times Staff Writers

When Laci Peterson was killed and dumped into the ocean nearly two years ago, her murder was just the latest in a string of strange, sensational crimes that for five years have kept people on edge, the media poking around and outsiders querying residents about their once-sleepy city.

After Peterson’s husband, Scott, was convicted Friday of killing her and their unborn son, many residents expressed joy at the verdict as well as the possibility that Modesto -- sardonically called Mo-Town by its youngsters -- might return to being the quiet, little-known farm town of yesteryear.

“This brings closure -- for the city,” David Padilla, 55, said as he strolled through the Village Faire mall Friday. “I’m glad to see this behind us.”

The mid-size city -- population 189,000 -- has always seemed smaller, somehow, residents said Friday, many of them telling of some distant connection with Laci or Scott Peterson over the years.

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Since 1912, visitors have entered from the west beneath a giant arch reading, “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health,” which seems quaint to the point of being corny even if you don’t know that most of the city’s then-residents wanted it to read: “Nobody’s Got Modesto’s Goat.”

Ninety miles and typically a long, hot drive from San Francisco -- the nearest major metropolis -- the Central Valley town had long seemed far from many modern troubles.

In 1999, however, a pall settled over the city when three tourists were killed in a motel outside nearby Yosemite National Park and the decapitated body of a nature guide was found inside the park. Local handyman Cary Stayner was convicted of all four slayings.

Since then, “everyone wanted to know what was going on in this itty-bitty town,” longtime resident Glenn Taylor said Friday.

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The next year, Chandra Ann Levy of Modesto, an intern to then-Democratic Rep. Gary Condit of nearby Ceres, disappeared while jogging in Washington, D.C. Cable television legal shows, then emerging as a 24-hour source of gossipy crime chitchat, began reporting almost daily on the case. Levy’s body was found in a Washington park in 2002, and a man convicted of other assaults on women is considered the primary suspect.

But the coverage of the Yosemite slayings and the Levy case -- even with Condit for a time considered a suspect -- paled in comparison with the reporting and speculation dedicated to the Peterson case by cable outlets. Although the seemingly nonstop coverage exasperated residents, it also provided many with an intimate knowledge of the case -- and strong opinions.

Local newspapers printed special editions on the verdict Friday evening, and paperboys sold them outside the courthouse with calls of “Extra! Extra!” Readers waved the papers and cheered, expressing what was clearly the predominant reaction to the verdict throughout the city.

“I love it,” Patty Hill, 48, of nearby Turlock said as she stood outside a department store. “I’m happy as can be.”

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Hill said her brother-in-law used to walk his dog in the same park where the defense said Laci Peterson had gone with her dog when she vanished.

Hundreds of residents held a vigil at the Peterson home, where more than a dozen satellite news vans had parked and television lights made night look like noontime.

“It’s a kind of celebration today,” said Cheryl Todd, who came with her daughter and granddaughter, bringing flowers, a teddy bear and balloons to leave at a growing makeshift memorial for Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner.

Todd said Laci had been a substitute teacher at her granddaughter’s school.

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“I think he should have to live with it the rest of his life,” she said of Scott Peterson. “He should have to think about it every day of his life.”

Peterson was convicted at the end of a week during which two jurors, including the panel’s foreman, were expelled -- developments that prompted considerable speculation in the media that the case was bound for a mistrial or even an acquittal.

Denise Tillery, a mother and grandmother from Turlock, was clearly in the minority with her concerns over the outcome.

“Modesto had him guilty the second week. Everyone’s entitled to a fair trial,” she said. “I don’t know how, if [the reconstituted jury] started over, they could reach a verdict in [a few} hours.”

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Linda Clinton, 63, a retired electronics worker, said she would have liked to hear more evidence in the case, but nonetheless believed that the jury’s verdict was the right one.

The panel still must sentence Peterson, but, standing outside a downtown post office, Clinton said she hoped the end was near -- that the spotlight would fade and she no longer would be hounded for living in Modesto.

The license-plate frame on her Honda Element used to read “Honda of Modesto.” Whenever she drove out of the area, Clinton said, people noticed it and inquired about the Peterson case.

Earlier this year, she took her dog out in the valley to let him run. A woman spotted the license-plate frame and cried, “They’re from Modesto. I wonder if they know about Laci Peterson?”

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Clinton had had enough, and swathed the plate holder in black electrician’s tape. “Maybe now I can take the tape off,” she said.


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