Memorial for Laci Peterson attracts thousands; husband, the suspect, barred

 

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

MODESTO, Calif. Thousands of people, most of whom had never met Laci Peterson, attended a public memorial service Sunday to honor the expectant mother made famous by her mysterious disappearance and tragic murder.

With Peterson's relatives clutching tissues in the front pew of the First Baptist Church, a pastor told an audience of mostly young women, some carrying infants, that the family sensed communal grief and had designed the televised service to acknowledge that pain.

"It's their wish and it's their hope that you would find some closure and some healing," said Reverend Donna Arno.

During the hour-long service, friends and family recalled the specifics of Peterson's life largely unknown to those in attendance, including her loud, bubbly demeanor and her love of gossipy telephone calls, Williams Sonoma dishes and MAC lipstick. But they also referred to the symbol of tragedy she had become.

"Laci has brought friends together, Laci has brought this city together and in many ways, Laci has brought this nation together," said childhood friend Heather Sutton.

What no one mentioned, at least overtly, was that Peterson's husband, Scott, stands charged with murdering her and their unborn son, who they planned to name Connor (as the name was spelled in the service's program).

Scott Peterson is being held without bail in a jail cell just seven blocks from the church where Laci was eulogized. The Stanislaus County district attorney, who sat near the altar for the service, has said he plans to seek the death penalty.

Peterson maintains his innocence and says he was on a fishing trip when his 27-year-old wife vanished from their home. Officials from the sheriff's department said he had inquired about attending the service, but was told that he could not.

His mother, Jackie Peterson, said earlier in the week that his side of the family would not be present either.

"We are not attending because we want her to have a peaceful, dignified memorial and not a circus," said Peterson.

A lengthy video tribute projected on giant screens on either side of the altar detailed each phase of Laci Peterson's life, but included no shots of her husband. The audience cooed over photos of Laci as a baby and giggled at ones showing the dimpled brunette hamming for the lens with her brother. But when photos of Laci in her wedding gown flashed on the screen, the congregation became silent. The pictures showed Laci dancing with her brother and showing off her flowing dress. Scott Peterson appeared to have been cropped out of some photos.

Standing behind a heart made of butter-colored daisies pierced with red carnations, one of dozens of floral arrangements sent from family friends and total strangers, Laci's brother, Brent Rocha, urged the audience not to think of the day as a sad occasion. He said it was a chance, on what would have been his sister's 28th birthday, to celebrate her life.

"Today is a good day. Today is Laci's birthday," said Rocha. He described his younger sister as "the glue" that held the family together. "She would want all of us to have happiness in our hearts for her and that we were given the opportunity to know her," he said.

Her 13-year-old cousin, T.J. Vasquez, recalled how Laci, a substitute teacher, helped tutor him in math and was one of several speakers to conclude their remarks by saying, "Happy Birthday, Laci."

Nine of her female friends huddled around the altar podium, and each took turns recalling Laci. They described her as a "brown-haired, brown-eyed Martha Stewart" who loved entertaining and introducing friends to new cuisine and fancy wines.

Her friend, Renee Garza, said Laci was so excited last summer when she learned she was pregnant with her first child that she began wearing maternity clothes at three months, long before they were required.

Her cousin, Addie Hansberry, said, "She filled the room with her pizzazz  that's what she had."

Within some eulogies, there were touches of anger and subtle references to Scott Peterson.
Hansberry said she became "mad" when she realized her cousin would never return.

"What reason? Such a special person," said Hansberry, adding, "So many questions and no answers. No real answers."

Childhood friend Stacy Boyer's voice broke when saying she knew Laci would want to be with her friends and family.

"But that was a choice someone took from you," Boyer added bitterly

After the final prayer, an elderly woman in a purple suit stood up and began shouting toward Laci's family.

"God will judge whoever took Laci and Connor from us," she said before her voice was drowned out by the final song, Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl."

In the long lines that snaked under ginkgo trees outside the church, there was whispered talk about the evidence against Peterson.

"The cement in his boat? The tidal charts? That's pretty strong stuff," one man said, referring to evidence prosecutors are rumored to have against Peterson.

Familiarity with the intense media coverage of the case was perhaps the only unifying characteristic among those who came to the memorial. Some dressed for a funeral in neat black suits and dark ties. A few older women sported jewel-toned suits of turquoise and magenta with matching handbags and seemed to have come from other church services. There were younger women in hiphugger jeans, black "hoodie" sweatshirts and sneakers. Some chewed gum, others carried Bibles. Many people held bouquets and a few left teddy bears and cards at the front of the church.

Jodi Dumlao, a stay-at-home mother of two boys from Modesto, attended the memorial service alone and found herself wiping away tears as the white-robed choir sang "The Lord's Prayer."

"Here I am crying for this woman I didn't even know, but I just feel like I know her, her beautiful smile. And the thing that got me was the baby," said Dumlao, whose son was 8 weeks old when Peterson, eight months pregnant, went missing.

"I felt horrible that this pregnant woman is missing and I'm holding my baby at night. Just being a mother somehow pulled me to it," she said.

She had come to the memorial seeking closure, she said.

"I got a little, but now I want to see justice and see how that works out," she said, gesturing in the direction of the courthouse.