Speaking for Laci
Family members share memories of Laci Peterson, their hopes
June 9 — It was on June 9, one year ago, that Laci Peterson broke the news to her family and friends, joyous news, that she couldn’t wait to share: she was pregnant. Much later, of course, her family would receive a horribly different piece of news: a phone call on Christmas Eve, that something was wrong. Laci was missing. Ever since, the family of Laci Peterson has been enduring a very public kind of pain, from the months of fruitless searches and countless missing posters, to that terrible discovery on the California coast, to the arrest of their son-in-law Scott. Laci’s family spoke to NBC’s Katie Couric in their most extensive television interview to date, sharing new details about Laci’s life, her husband’s actions, and their own hopes for justice.
SHARON ROCHA: “It’s just moment by moment. I’ve said
that since December 24, and it’s still that way. One minute I’m
fine, and the next minute I’m not. It’s just, it’s an impossible
situation. It’s hard to believe that this even happened.”
Katie Couric: “I bet you feel like you’re living in some kind of horrific nightmare.”
Sharon Rocha: “There’s many times I wake up in the middle of the night. I wake up and I just start crying because I realize that Laci’s gone and that I’ll never see her again.”
Not a day goes by that Sharon Rocha doesn’t think about her grandson, Connor, who’d be almost four months old now if he had lived.
Couric: “What do you imagine, when you allow yourself.”
Rocha: “I imagine to be holding her baby. I imagine her feeding her baby and calling me, and saying, Mom, say, now what do I do? She wanted so much to have that baby. She wanted to be a mother.”
They were just about to have another family get-together when it happened. A single word struck terror in this family. They heard it Christmas eve. Sharon Rocha was preparing a big holiday dinner when the phone rang.
Sharon Rocha: “It was Scott. And he said, Hi, Mom. He said, is Laci over there? And I said, no. And he said, well, Laci’s missing. I thought that it was odd that he said Laci’s missing. Any other time, you know, you would have heard, I don’t know where she is, or I can’t find her or something to that effect. Scott said Laci’s missing. I mean I knew immediately, by hearing the word ‘missing’ that something terrible had happened.”
Something terrible had happened. For five and a half months now, an entire nation has been gripped by the story. A 27-year-old mother-to-be disappears on Christmas eve. Fourteen weeks later, her body and that of her unborn son wash up in San Francisco Bay. Her husband, Scott Peterson, is arrested on two counts of murder, and pleads not guilty.
In the meantime, “Laci” has become a household name. And for months, she’s been seen as a face in a photograph. But her family wants us to know the young woman behind the bright eyes and beaming smile, not just as victim, but as a daughter, sister and friend — someone who seemed to be born on a sunny day.
GROWING UP WITH LACI
Sharon Rocha: “I would go in in the morning to get her out of her crib and she’d just sit there grinning. Just always happy.”
Laci Rocha was born in 1975 and grew up in Modesto, Calif. But after her parents divorced when she was two, she spent weekends as a country girl on her father’s dairy farm just outside town.
Amy Rocha (half-sister): “You know, just even when you weren’t in the best of moods, you’d get together with her and be in a better mood.”
Couric: “Did you spend a lot of time together under the same roof?”
Amy Rocha: “We spent weekends with our dad on the dairy, and you know, did the country thing. So, I was always the tag-along with her and her friends.”
Those who knew her say she liked being part of a blended family. And the fact she had a doting stepfather, Ron Grantski, who took her on family vacations.
Grantski: “My nickname for her, when she was growing up, was ‘J.J.’ for ‘Jabber Jaws.’ And we planned a trip, remember that trip, we went on a trip to the caverns up by Sonora. And she’s little, maybe five or six years old, and talking all the way up there. And I said, Laci, do you think you can be quiet for 30 seconds? And, sure, how long’s 30 seconds? Is it thirty 30 yet?”
Time goes by so slowly when you’re a kid. But before her
family knew it, Laci had grown up. In high school, Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed
Girl” was her favorite.
She was a cheerleader and one of the most popular students in her class. By the time she was 16, Laci had become a striking brown-eyed girl, who’d left a striking and indelible impression on everyone at Downey High, like science teacher Bob Starling.
Starling: “My first impression, she was short with a bunch of hair that stuck really high and a big, huge smile. That was my first impression. She was one of those kind of special people, that you just never forget.”
Couric: “You have a book of photographs of your students in that book and there’s here picture in the very front.”
Starling: “She came in and she said, ‘Hey, I need to put my picture in your photo album.’ Then she came over and interrupted me and said, ‘Every time you open this book, you’ve got to smile.’”
Sharon Rocha: “From about the time she was two she loved to dance which at times could be a little embarrassing.”
Couric: “Because it didn’t matter where or when?”
Sharon Rocha: “Exactly. Exactly. Or who was there.”
Laci obviously wasn’t shy. She knew she wasn’t a great dancer or singer, but that didn’t stop her. Her friends remember another night she was doing a song from “Grease,” that time at a karaoke spot.
Kim: “She got up there and just absolutely tore this song apart. And we were all just looking at her going, oh my God, is she ever going to stop? When she couldn’t do something, she pretended like she could, and she had a good time doing it. And those nights were some of the best nights we had.”
To the people who knew her, she was the quintessential American teenager. Predictably, there were the nights she had slumber parties. Laci and her friends would joke around in front of a video camera or gossip all night. The subject rarely changed.
Renee: “Well, when we were in junior high, it was boys. Definitely. And when we were in high school, it was boys.”
She loved Neil Diamond, and growing up in one of the biggest
grape-producing areas of the world, she was known to sample some local
flavor now and then.
Couric: “Did she have a wild streak at all? I understand they’d pop a few corks after you all went to bed, when she would have slumber parties.”
Grantski: “That’s what we heard.”
But even though she and her friends did have fun, she did well in school. After graduating from Downey in 1993, she arrived at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Here, fate would intervene.
By the spring of 1994, Laci Rocha was a 19-year-old student. Fun-loving yet hard-working, she had just won an academic award for being the outstanding freshman in horticulture, her major, and her life was about to take an unexpected turn.
About midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, near the coast, Cal Poly’s not a bad place to spend the summer. Laci was there in the summer of ’94 when she called her mother with surprising news.
Couric: “What did she say?”
Sharon Rocha: “She said, ‘I’ve met the guy that I think I’m going to marry,’ and she couldn’t wait for me to come there to meet him.”
MEETING SCOTT PETERSON
His name was Scott Peterson. Two and a half years older than Laci, he was also a student and worked part time at this restaurant in Morro Bay. She had met him there a few times and outgoing as ever, had left him her number. He called Laci right away and soon was charming her family.
Couric: “And the first time he met you, he brought you flowers.”
Sharon Rocha: “Yes. And Laci flowers. And we had dinner at the restaurant.”
Couric: “What did you think of him when you met him?”
Sharon Rocha: “I was impressed. I thought he was quite the young gentleman.”
Grantski: “He was a perfect gentleman. Clean cut. Looked like the All American boy.”
Three years later, in 1997, before either had graduated, they were married at a resort. Laci’s cousin Harvey Kemple, thought it was a perfect match.
Couric: “What were your impressions of Scott?”
Kemple: “He seemed like a very, very nice person.”
They went to Tahiti on their honeymoon. Soon afterward, Scott Peterson bought a sports bar near where they attended college. They lived there, and to friends and family, their life together seemed as idyllic as their surroundings.
Sharon Rocha: “They were just genuinely kind to each other. I mean they seemed to enjoy each other, and helped each other. Worked together in the yard, did things together.”
Grantski: “Yeah, he did a lot of things around the house, and you know, to my knowledge, they did you know, almost everything together.”
Katie Couric: “People said they were really in love. That a lot of people envied their relationship and wanted to be just like them.”
Cassandra Kemple (cousin): “They just seemed like the perfect couple. The two of them together seemed very happy. They had a home. They were building their life together.”
Couric: “Did she talk about Scott to you?”
Cassandra Kemple: “Oh yeah, of course. She just said nothing but wonderful things.”
But after two years, the couple sold the bar and moved to Modesto to be closer to Laci’s family and they planned to start their own.
They bought a $177,000 fixer-upper on a quiet street. and Scott Peterson got a job as a sales rep for an agricultural supply firm. He traveled much of the time, while Laci became a substitute teacher and kept herself busy.
Sharon Rocha: “She was full of life. I mean, Laci had a project going at all times. I mean, every day.”
Grantski: “Like a Roman candle. She was just always going off somewhere and doing something.”
She was an expert gardener, a gourmet cook and by all
accounts, gave some of the best parties in town. You just had to play by
Renee: “Laci had a rule to be on time and to be dressed up. That’s her, and if you were not on time, you heard about it.”
You’d also hear about the most important event in her life. She announced it one year ago today.
Couric: “How did you hear the news Laci was pregnant?”
Sharon Rocha: “Well, she’d been trying for a year-and-a-half to get pregnant and occasionally she would tell me about that, and it was like, okay, I don’t need to hear this information... but by 7 a.m. on Sunday, June 9, I think every one of her friends and family knew.
Couric: “Everyone in Modesto.”
Sharon Rocha: “Everyone in Modesto knew Laci was pregnant. She couldn’t wait to find out what sex the baby was, because she wanted to get the room decorated and the day she was told she was having a boy, she called me, ‘okay Mom, now we can go shopping.”
Couric: “She decorated the nursery. How was the nursery decorated?”
Amy Rocha: “It was like a nautical theme where it was decorated to a T. It was ready to go. Everything was up. Pictures were hung. It was painted. Decorated perfectly.”
The house was ready, yet they were still deciding on names.
Couric: “Did she know right away that she was going to name the baby Connor?”
Sharon Rocha: “No, not in the very beginning they had talked about some other names that we were a little concerned about it.”
Couric: “Like what?”
Sharon Rocha: “One of them was Ripley and I said you know that poor child will be followed with believe it or not, so don’t do that to that boy. Logan was another one that they had considered.”
As Christmas drew near, according to all accounts, Laci Peterson could not have been more thrilled about the impending birth of her son.
Kim: “You could just see how excited she was. And she immediately grabbed my hand and she put my hand on her stomach, and I got to feel him kick. And it was great. And I will always, always remember that. I got to feel him kick.”
Sharon Rocha: “The last time I saw her, she’d asked me to put my hand on her stomach to feel the baby kick, and I did. But I never did feel him move and so I put my ear to her stomach and I said, ‘Hello, little Connor. I said your Nanna loves you. I’m waiting to see you.’ She said that we haven’t completely decided on Conner yet. We’re thinking we might name him Logan and then, that was the last we talked about it. ”
THE PHONE CALL
As many were enjoying the holidays, Laci Peterson’s family and friends were living a nightmare. Her mother had been in the middle of preparing Christmas eve dinner, waiting for the family to arrive, when she got the first phone call from Scott Peterson. He told her Laci was missing.
Couric: “Did he seem frantic when he called you or was he calm?”
Sharon Rocha: Not at the first phone call he didn’t sound frantic at all. The second phone call he sounded a little more concerned and then the third phone call, he sounded a lot more concerned.”
Couric: “I can only imagine the panic, Sharon, that was building up inside of you.”
Sharon Rocha: “I don’t think you can because I couldn’t believe how I was feeling. I just knew something horrible had happened to her. I just knew it.”
But for Laci’s family there would soon be a series of startling revelations, bombshells that would destroy their relationship with Scott.
Amy Rocha: “I was shocked. I was devastated, let alone I know Laci would have been devastated.”
Three weeks after Laci’s disappearance, her family learned that Scott had been having an affair with a massage therapist named Amber Frye.
Couric: “Who told you about the affair?”
Sharon Rocha: “The police did... They knew that it was coming out, so they felt that we should be told.”
Couric: “And what was your reaction, Sharon, when you heard this?”
Sharon Rocha: “I was devastated. I was devastated. I just never would have suspected that. He hid that well.”
Grantski: “Well, you know, I asked him about that a long time ago, so, and then he said no. There was no affair.”
Katie Couric: “You did?”
Couric: “What did you say to him?”
Grantski: “I asked him about his affair. I mean if he was seeing somebody instead of fishing. But it seemed like more of a plausible story to me than going fishing and he said no. So, I said, okay. I’ll stand behind you. And of course, we found out later that it was, you know, different.”
Couric: “Disappointing to say the least.”
Grantski: “This whole thing has been tragic and a nightmare, there are a lot of things been disappointing.”
In an interview soon after his affair became public,
Scott Peterson said Laci knew about the relationship.
Couric: “Scott said in one interview that Laci was aware of this and that she had made peace with the fact that he had had a relationship with another woman.
Sharon Rocha: “I saw that interview, but I don’t believe, no, I don’t believe. I don’t believe that was true. I’d said that before. People close to Laci would have noticed a difference in her attitude. And her personality.”
And the Rochas were also upset that
Scott sold Laci’s car and had been inquiring about selling the house.
Couric: “When all these things were going on, it must have made you think, hey what is going on here? What is the deal?”
Sharon Rocha: “It made everybody think that.”
Grantski: “Yeah, I wish we could answer that for you. We don’t know why he was doing the things he was doing. Just, he was doing them.”
Couric: “It must have been very hard for you all to shift gears. To go from loving Scott, like a son. He called you Mom, Sharon, and feeling that they were a happy family, about to have one of the most exciting things happen to them, have their first baby, and then to suddenly have to shift gears, and to have a completely different mind set, when it came to this young man. Was that a strange and terribly difficult adjustment?”
Sharon Rocha: “It was for me. It was very sad.”
Grantski: “Part of this nightmare.”
Sharon Rocha: “Yeah, just all of it. Everything about it has just been very sad.”
THE BODIES ARE FOUND
In April, after four months of anguish, Laci Peterson’s family’s worst fears had finally been confirmed. First, Connor’s body washed up on a beach along San Francisco Bay. Two days later, nearby, Laci’s body came ashore.
Couric: “That terrible day when they discovered what had been your daughter and your grandson, was it any kind of relief?”
Sharon Rocha: “Only in the sense that at least we knew where she was.”
Grantski: “I would hate to be sitting here today and not knowing where she was. Not knowing, if we’d ever find her again. That’d be too hard.”
Sharon Rocha: “I knew that she wasn’t coming home.”
Grantski: “When we put out the reward of half a million dollars, and you don’t get a call or nothin’, it kind of dampens your hope. And as time went on and things started being reported that it looked pretty bleak, and it turned out to be bleak.”
But even with so-called closure, the unrelenting coverage of the case made the pain even more excruciating:
Sharon Rocha: “And to have to hear, over and over and over in the media, the speculation and the condition of her body, or the condition of the baby’s body, it’s just horrific. It’s absolutely horrific.”
On April 18, Scott Peterson was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. He has pleaded not guilty. At the time of his arrest, he was just 30 miles from the Mexican border, near his parent’s home in the San Diego area.
Couric: “When you heard that Scott had been arrested in San Diego, that he had changed his appearance, he had his brother’s drivers license, $10,000 in cash on him, what was your reaction?”
Grantski: “That is a touchy area right now and honestly, I’d as soon not even talk about that right now.”
But other family members will.
Couric: “What was your reaction when Scott was arrested in San Diego?”
Harvey Kemple: “Surprised.”
Cassandra Kemple: “I was shocked.
Harvey Kemple: “Surprised. Shocked, I guess.”
Cassandra Kemple: “At his appearance I was shocked, I should say.”
In that “Dateline NBC” interview three weeks after Laci’s disappearance, Sharon Rocha still supported Scott and sat with his mother, Jackie. The families had been close since Laci and Scott first dated. Now, of course, there are unimaginable strains.
Couric: “You said that you felt sorry for Jackie and Lee Peterson and their family and they didn’t deserve this... Do you still feel that way, Ron?”
Grantski: “Sure. They didn’t deserve this and neither did we and I guess it’s all new to both them and us and who knows where it goes from here.”
Sharon Rocha: “I was going to say as parents, I’m sure any parent can put themselves in their shoes, that no parent would ever want to have their child charged with murder. Or to even want to believe that it was possible.”
Grantski: “Yeah, it’s got to be very tough on them, but no parent ever wants to hear about their daughter being...”
Sharon Rocha: “Murdered.”
Grantski: “Washed up on a beach in the bay or their grandson, washed up on a beach. So, there’s two families that are suffering for different reasons. And we probably will keep on suffering for a long time.”
Three days after his arrest, Scott Peterson pleaded “not guilty” at his arraignment. On the same day, Sharon Rocha made an emotional statement to the media.
Sharon Rocha: “Laci and her unborn child did not deserve to die. They certainly did not deserve to be dumped in the bay and sent to a watery grave, as if their lives were meaningless. Laci meant the world to me.
Couric: “Sharon, you gave a heart-wrenching statement, following Scott’s arraignment. How tough was that for you?”
Sharon Rocha: “Extremely. It was very, very difficult. I was determined to get through that. I’d worked on that for two days and at one o’clock in the morning, Ron woke up and said, are you still at that computer, and I said, I have to say it the right way.”
Sharon Rocha: “Soon after Laci went missing, I made a promise to her, that if she has been harmed, we will seek justice for her and Conner and make sure the person responsible for their deaths will be punished... I can only hope that the sound of Laci’s voice begging for her life, begging for the life of her unborn child, is heard over and over and over again in the mind of that person every day for the rest of his life.”
Couric: “You never once mentioned Scott’s name in that statement.”
Sharon Rocha: “It wasn’t about Scott. It was about Laci.”
Grantski: “And a mother’s feelings.”
This mother’s feelings have been buoyed by an outpouring of messages from across the country.
Couric: “How do you deal with your anger?”
Sharon Rocha: “My wall gets in the way all of the time (laughter). I get a lot of bruises on my hands.”
Couric: “But you must be enraged, really.”
Sharon Rocha: “At times, just overwhelming. Laci should be here today with us.”
But there’s been no evidence of anger when Laci’s family has been in court, just yards away from the accused.
Couric: “In a courtroom with him, do you have eye contact, even?”
Grantski: “No. I’ve looked at him, but he hasn’t looked at me.”
Couric: “Is it hard to sit in a courtroom, in the same courtroom together?”
Sharon Rocha: “No.”
Sharon Rocha: “Not for me. At least not at this point.”
What is exceptionally difficult is handling the grief of losing a daughter and unborn grandchild, and seeing their son-in-law accused of the murders.
Couric: “Do you believe that Scott did this to your daughter and grandson?”
Sharon Rocha: “That’s not anything we’re going to talk about.”
Meanwhile about a week and a half ago, frustrated and still grief stricken, family members and friends went into Scott and Laci’s house to retrieve some of her belongings. But they will not discuss the incident, nor will they say anything that might compromise the case.
Couric: “I guess the same might go for the theory that’s been floated by the defense that perhaps a satanic cult was involved in laci’s disappearance.”
Sharon Rocha: “oh that’s his theory (laugher). There again, that’s something else.”
Couric: “I can sort of tell from the smile on your face, how you feel about that.”
Grantski: “Ridiculous, yes... no, I can’t say that.”
Couric: “But do you have theories in your mind?”
Sharon Rocha: “My mind, I envision horrible things.”
Couric: “How do you, Sharon, keep those terrible thoughts from entering your head?”
Sharon Rocha: “I have to think of the good times with her. I have to think of her as being alive and things that we’ve done and the times we’ve spent together.”
THE FIRST DAYS IN COURT
On Friday, emotions ran high at a court hearing to determine if Laci and Conner’s autopsy results would be made public. The judge decided that the documents would not be released, at least for the time being. Laci’s mother is still outraged about a leak from Conner’s autopsy results, which she learned about from a TV news report.
Sharon Rocha: “He was my grandson. He was a human being. He was somebody I loved, even though I never got to meet him. And I think it was terrible to say those things. They should have waited until they had the full report and we should have been the first to know about it and not the public. We should have been told in private about it and that’s my feelings about it.”
The media frenzy surrounding this case is almost inescapable. Even at Laci’s old high school, her picture stares out from the library magazine rack.
Couric: “What is it then like having to deal with the ubiquitous press corps everywhere you go, practically, all the time?”
Sharon Rocha: “It hasn’t been that bad for me. I mean, as long as I’m hearing the truth, when they’re reporting. When I hear what I’ve said and it’s reported truthfully, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Grantski: “The press have been, as a whole, I think, just been very considerate. Actually, I’ve seen a lot of them cry at different situations. So, they’re touched by this nightmare and so they have feelings. I think they really care.”
But despite their somewhat surprising attitude towards the media, they are dreading the possibility of a long and very public trial.
Couric: “Are you prepared to deal with some of the very, very difficult things that might come out of this trial?”
Sharon Rocha: “How do you prepare when you don’t know what you’re preparing for? I see nothing good about a trial... My own personal opinion is, is I hope it’s not televised because I feel what’s going to happen in that courtroom is personal. Of course, we don’t have any say in that either, but I mean as far as it being televised, my preference is, it isn’t.”
But the family is confident they will obtain justice for Laci and Conner.
Couric: “What does that mean exactly?”
Sharon Rocha: “Well, I want the person who is responsible or persons who are responsible, should be held accountable for it.”
Couric: “Do you think that will happen... It doesn’t always.”
Grantski: “I think it will this time.”
Sharon Rocha: “I certainly hope it does.”
The Rocha family is supporting a bill that would make it a federal crime to harm an unborn child during an attack on its mother. Lawmakers have renamed it, “Laci and Connor’s Law.”