Fun and Unpredictable, that was the real Laci
Sunday May 30, 2004
Soon all of America knew about Laci Peterson's love for cooking and gardening. She was the perky substitute teacher who liked watching Martha Stewart on television and swapping recipes with friends. But those who knew her before she died cling to the memory of a person much more complex -- much more unpredictable, much more driven and much more fun.
"She's painted as a saint, but she had her idiosyncrasies like anybody else,'' said Heather Richardson, one of Laci's best friends and matron of honor at her wedding. "She was real. She had her silliness."
Laci wasn't just interested in freshly cut flowers and decorating her house. She was the horticulture major handpicked by her professors as the standout student in her class. The 23-year-old dynamo who opened a strip-mall restaurant with her husband and watched it thrive.
"She's been put up as this Betty Crocker type of person,'' said Katerina Pike, one of Laci's closest friends in college. "She would have been nauseous over that."
To be honest -- and Laci Peterson liked it when people were honest -- she wasn't someone whom people instantly embraced the way she has been embraced in death.
She was the friend you'd bring to a party, then worry about the social gaffes she was prone to. Some of her friends called it "uncensored Laci."
"When you would introduce her for the first time, you never knew what she was going to say,'' said Richardson, who met Laci in college. "She didn't care what you thought of her. She was just happy to be where she is and who she is."
Richardson says the very attributes that at first might alienate some were part of Laci's charm, why rooms -- even classrooms -- lit up when she was present. It was almost a given that she liked to be the center of attention. She was the one with the loudest voice. The one who giggled most and had the heartiest laugh. You couldn't be in a room -- even one filled with people -- without knowing she was there.
"She was such an open person and sometimes a bit unedited," said Erin Keosian, another college friend. "It wasn't like she was curt with people or hurt their feelings. She was just spirited and vivacious."
But the woman whom friends said seemed like an open book did not share all. She never mentioned that her husband, Scott Peterson, had been unfaithful to her less than a year into their marriage.
Scott, of course, is now accused of killing her and their unborn child and dumping her body in San Francisco Bay; opening arguments in his double- murder trial are scheduled for Tuesday. And in a curious twist, the only other man whom Laci had a serious relationship with is also behind bars for a violent act against a woman, serving time in Washington State for shooting a girlfriend.
"Isn't that kind of strange?" Laci's father, Dennis Rocha, wondered aloud one recent evening, working on his truck as he reminisced about his daughter.
Rocha's face melts into a broad smile when people tell him Laci looks like him: the dark complexion, long eyelashes and dimples on both cheeks.
A little city girl
It has been 29 years, but the memories of the day she was born -- May 4, 1975 -- at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto are still vivid. Dennis and Sharon Rocha named their baby girl Laci Denise Rocha and brought her home to her older brother, Brent, who was 4, and a large dairy farm in Escalon. The 365-acre ranch was where her father had been raised, and her grandparents had built a ranch-style home for Sharon and Dennis to raise their children. But by the time Laci was 2, the marriage was over.
Sharon left the rural farming town, moving 12 miles away with Laci to Modesto. Sharon Rocha did not want to be interviewed for this story, but her ex-husband and close friends of Laci's said the two were extraordinarily close.
While her older brother stayed with his dad on the farm, Laci became a city girl during the week and a country girl on the weekends. The pint-sized Laci wasn't much interested in farm chores, though. What she liked most was to ride horses or swim in her grandparents' pool.
Rocha keeps a large box of fading photographs that chronicles Laci's years: Laci riding a horse. Laci cavorting in the snow. Laci with Princess, the coyote pup the family tamed and kept as a pet.
"Laci was just the perfect daughter to have in all ways," said Dennis Rocha, who remarried and had another daughter, Amy, when Laci was 6. Meanwhile, Laci's mother met Ron Grantski, who raised Laci with Sharon and treated her as his own.
She attended Downey High School in Modesto, where she joined the cheerleading squad and forged lasting friendships with several girls. Bob Starling, who has taught at Downey for 20 years and had her in his physical science class when she was a freshman, said Laci stood out from the cast of thousands, not for her academics -- though she was a strong student -- but because of her vibrant personality.
"Laci was one you'd never forget,'' Starling said. "She was always energetic, always bubbly and always in a good mood."
By the time she got to high school, Dennis Rocha said, her trips to the ranch were less frequent. Sometimes she'd bring friends -- including a boy by the name of Kent Gain, who now is familiar to Washington State prison authorities as inmate No. 802862.
Gain was her first real boyfriend before Scott. They met when he was 17 and she was 15 going on 16.
She was the popular girl who'd lived in the Central Valley all her life. He was the new kid in town, the boy from San Jose. It was a relationship full of typical high school fun: eating pizza, going to parties and seeing movies. She introduced him to life on the farm and taught him how to ride an all- terrain vehicle.
Even in high school, when so many kids pull away from their families, Laci stayed close to her parents, Gain said in an interview from prison.
"She was brought up really well," he said. "She was real respectful to her parents and elders."
When she got accepted at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Kent and Laci decided to move in together, and found a small house to rent in Morro Bay. He was with her on her 19th birthday when she got a tattoo -- small daisies on her ankle. She would later cover that tattoo with a larger one of a flower.
Their relationship -- which lasted, Gain said, "3 years, 4 months and 17 days" -- was more mature than their years. Instead of college beer bashes or fast-food fare, the two preferred cooking at home and tending to their garden.
But friends who knew her at the time said Gain wasn't nice to Laci, often talking to her in a condescending tone -- and the two eventually broke up.
"She wasn't tearful about it,'' recalled Pike. "We were all happy they were going their separate ways."
It wasn't until after Laci's death that her friends and family learned that in 1999, Gain had been arrested and convicted of shooting his then- girlfriend. He is serving a 15-year sentence.
Dennis Rocha said he was "blown away" when he heard about Gain's conviction. "He didn't seem that way," Rocha said. "He looked like a nice guy."
Gain doesn't think Laci ever knew about where he'd landed. Despite his own troubles, Gain has harsh words for Scott Peterson:
"Scott screwed up bad. That guy's a moron ... to have somebody like that and blow it. Even if he didn't do it and was cheating on her -- what is he, stupid? It's like finding the rarest diamond in the world and hitting it to see what's inside."
Those who knew Laci at Cal Poly her freshman year said she hardly talked about Gain and seemed more focused on her major: ornamental horticulture, which included landscape design, hothouse production, pest control and floral design.
Virginia Walter, a horticulture professor at Cal Poly, said she was a strong student and her attention to her studies paid off early when she was given the department's award for outstanding freshman student.
"Laci ... was a classic student here, a high achiever," Walter said.
She was also industrious. She held several jobs during her college years, including working in and, for a time, managing the school-owned Poly Plant and Floral shop, a small shop located in a quiet section of campus.
Red and white roses
It was at Cal Poly where she met an agricultural business major by the name of Scott Peterson, first at a party, then again at the Pacific Cafe, where he worked.
In the summer of 1994, she called her mom to tell her she'd met the man she was going to marry. When Sharon came to visit soon after, Laci took her to the Pacific Cafe, where Scott greeted them both with roses: red for Laci and white for her mom.
Laci was smitten. "She was just beside herself,'' Pike recalled.
Scott was as all-American as they come: an athletic, good-looking, confident charmer. He was 21. She was 19.
"She brought him over to meet us, and she was very proud,'' said Heather Richardson. "We didn't like him at first. He was very cocky."
But Richardson said that she and her then-boyfriend Mike Richardson, whom she would later marry, grew to like Scott -- and the two couples became the closest of friends.
Scott and Laci adored each other. Scott had a taste for fine things, even drove a black Porsche while still in college -- and Laci started to refine her tastes, too.
"He was very into portraying that image, and once you get a taste of that, you really like it,'' Richardson said. "He set her in that direction and she ran with it, and it suited her. That was her." Three years after they started dating and before either of them graduated, the two got married on Aug. 9, 1997, at the San Luis Obispo County resort of Avila Beach. Heather Richardson served as matron of honor and her husband, Mike, was Scott's best man. It was the picture-perfect setting, decorated with floral bouquets that Laci had helped arrange and a bride and groom who looked like they walked out of Bride's magazine.
Four months later, Laci graduated from Cal Poly. As Scott continued his studies, Laci moved temporarily to Prunedale in Monterey County and took a job as a wine distributor. Scott shared a house with roommates, and Laci visited on weekends.
No signs of strain
Shortly before he was arrested and charged with Laci's murder, Scott told the Richardsons that it was during her absence that he began an affair with another woman -- and that his mistress had walked in on Scott and Laci during his graduation weekend in 1998. The woman did not know Scott was married and thought she had caught Scott cheating on her.
Richardson, who had spent the weekend with the couple, said that at the time, Laci had been noticeably irritated with Scott and the couple had locked themselves in the bathroom and argued. Laci told Richardson that Scott was "acting like he's not married," but Laci didn't elaborate.
Scott, Heather Richardson said, seemed surprised that Laci had never told her about the affair.
It is uncertain whether prosecutors will include the incident in their case against Scott Peterson. In court papers filed in the case, they alleged that Scott had at least one other affair, in addition to his relationship with a Fresno massage therapist at the time of Laci's disappearance. Peterson's attorney, Mark Geragos, has declined to comment because of a gag order in the case.
Christine Reed, who met the couple later in 1998, saw no signs of strain between Laci and Scott.
"They doted on each other,'' Reed said. "We never saw them fight. We never even saw tension."
Laci moved back to San Luis Obispo and despite the fact that they were just 23 and 26, the couple decided to open a restaurant called The Shack. Laci frequently referred to the restaurant as "Scott's baby," but she was intimately involved in its creation and operation.
The couple converted an old bakery in a strip mall into a college hangout. While Scott pulled together the kitchen, Laci put her artistic skills to work, decorating the restaurant with painted signs on driftwood and hanging an old fishing tackle box over the restaurant door.
Despite the long hours and hard work involved in running the restaurant, Scott and Laci found time to entertain friends at their home, regularly hosting dinners, barbecues and martini parties. Laci's passion for cooking eventually took her to France, where she attended a cooking course and honed her already exceptional culinary skills.
New Year's Eve 1999 gave her a chance to show off what she'd learned. Three couples, including Reed and her husband, were asked to dress up and arrive at 8 p.m. for the countdown to the millennium, and were indulged with an eight-course meal, with each presentation outdoing the one before. Laci had clearly spent hours -- perhaps days -- preparing the meal, and Scott had selected a special wine to match each course.
"When she did these kinds of things ... it was never done to show off or get anybody's approval," Pike said. "It was just something she liked to do."
And when she wasn't serving up food, Laci was the friend who offered up a soul mate's ear or compassionate advice, Reed and others said.
Yet as much as they loved their adopted coastal town, the couple realized buying a house there would be difficult -- and Laci had also told friends she didn't want to be married to the restaurant for the rest of her life.
So in 2000, the couple sold The Shack and moved back to Modesto, where they bought a $177,000 fixer-upper on Covena Avenue, in a neighborhood with tree-lined streets and well-kept one-story bungalows. With Laci's taste and Scott's handiwork, they painted the walls and tiled the bathroom, and turned it into a charming bungalow with Pottery Barn appeal.
They reconnected with her old high school pals and started to make new friends. Laci began exploring a number of entrepreneurial ideas, including the possibility of producing her own mustard. She finally settled on something that would instead give her both joy and flexibility: substitute teaching.
And as other couples they hung out with started having babies, Scott and Laci surprised friends when they reversed an earlier stance of not wanting children. Laci, who had had surgery years earlier and was left with one ovary, knew it would be difficult to conceive and methodically tracked her cycle. Richardson said she recalls Laci expressing frustration that Scott always seemed to be traveling at the wrong time, and it took some time before Laci was pregnant.
By early June, she got the good news. She enrolled in a prenatal yoga course and attended Lamaze classes with Scott.
They also got to work early on the baby's room. Consistent with the decorations for The Shack and with Scott's interest in fishing, the couple chose a nautical theme, even hanging a life preserver decoration that read: "Welcome Aboard."
In early December, Laci stopped working in preparation for the baby. In a phone call that month, Laci told Heather Richardson that Scott was traveling more, and she expressed regret that they wouldn't be able to attend the Richardsons' annual Christmas party in Ventura County on Dec. 14. Scott's boss was in town, Laci explained, and he had an important meeting.
Prosecutors in the case would later contend that Scott spent the time at another Christmas party with his latest mistress.
Richardson recalled that Laci sounded disappointed -- but if Laci knew anything about her husband's infidelity, she didn't let on.
It was the last time Richardson spoke to her best friend. Ten days later, Scott Peterson said that Laci, by then eight months pregnant, was watching the Martha Stewart show on television when he left for a daylong fishing trip in San Francisco Bay. Laci's plans included walking the dog and running errands. When Scott returned late that afternoon, he would later tell police, Laci was nowhere to be found.
After the bodies of Laci and her baby washed up on the shores of Richmond four months later, police arrested Scott Peterson and he was charged with their murders.
"A part of me died with Laci," her father said in a recent interview.
Friends still seem stunned by the unlikely turn of events.
"They were like the perpetual newlywed couple,'' said Pike. "We all thought she's going to go off and live the perfect life that we all thought we wanted."
And even if the Laci who has been embraced in death isn't exactly the woman her friends loved, they are not unhappy that she's been the focus of so much attention -- after all, Laci would have loved it. "It's perfect,'' said Richardson. "She was always trying to be the center of attention and there she is, being just that -- it does her justice."
Chronicle staff writer Kelly St. John contributed to this story.E-mail Diana Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle