missing Modesto mother-to-be
San Francisco Chronicle
Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Hundreds of people attended an emotional candlelight vigil Tuesday for a pregnant Modesto woman now missing for a week, as police said for the first time that she most likely had met with foul play.
Laci Peterson, 27, who is expecting her first child, a boy, in February, has not been seen since the morning of Christmas Eve, when her husband, Scott Peterson, left their home for a solo fishing trip at the Berkeley Marina. A neighbor found her golden retriever, its leash still attached, outside.
Investigators have searched nearby creeks, wetlands and rivers, interviewed more than 100 local sex offenders and parolees and looked into whether a burglary at a home across the street from the Petersons' house was linked to her disappearance.
But as more days pass, police say the situation is becoming more grim.
"In investigating the circumstances of her disappearance and in view of the timing of the holiday season, it becomes more apparent that her disappearance is a result of foul play," Modesto police spokesman Det. Doug Ridenour said Tuesday. "The investigation is progressing forward with that main focus, but we have not ruled out any other possibilities."
At the candlelight vigil Tuesday, relatives and friends gathered at East La Loma Park in Modesto, where Laci Peterson usually walked her dog, McKenzie. As a woman sang "Amazing Grace," many wore ribbons of hope -- yellow for the missing woman and blue for her unborn son.
Her voice breaking, Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, told the crowd, "Laci would be so happy to see she has so many friends and supporters. Just keep looking for Laci. Don't give up."
Police said Laci Peterson most likely left her home in a car, not on foot, based on the path of a bloodhound that did not head to the park but instead to a boulevard.
Scott Peterson, 30, is not a suspect, but he has not been ruled out, police said Tuesday. Peterson has not taken a polygraph test, authorities said. Investigators would not say whether they had sought one.
Scott Peterson has been a visible presence at a makeshift volunteer center at the Red Lion Hotel in Modesto. But he has declined on-the-record media interviews because he did not want to detract from the investigation, relatives said.
Scott Peterson's sister, Susan Peterson-Caudillo, 42, said Tuesday that the family "understands that it's normal procedure to look at the husband and close family members."
"It's unfortunate that he didn't choose to go golfing instead of fishing that day because it would have been a lot simpler investigation," she said. "So that is taking more time, and time is very important here in this case."
Scott Peterson had never gone to the Berkeley Marina before Dec. 24 but was interested after he read an article about sturgeon fishing, his sister said.
Police confirmed they had a receipt from a ticket dispenser at the Berkeley Marina, where Scott Peterson said he had launched his small aluminum boat to go fishing on Christmas Eve day.
Police have searched the marina and seized the boat, as well as the Petersons' two cars. They have scoured the couple's home and a warehouse used by the fertilizer company for which Scott Peterson works.
Laci Peterson does not appear on surveillance tapes at a Copeland's Superstore in Modesto as originally believed by a tipster, Ridenour said.
Scott Peterson is devastated that his wife is missing and doesn't know where she is, Peterson-Caudillo said. "If you knew Scott like all of his friends and family know him, there's not even a remote possibility that he would be involved in anything about Laci's disappearance," she said.
The family believes that Laci Peterson was abducted, possibly because she witnessed the burglary of a home belonging to Rudy and Susan Medina on Covena Avenue, across the street from the Petersons' home.
Between Christmas Eve day and Dec. 26, while the Medinas were away for the holiday, a trio of burglars stole a Tec 9mm semiautomatic handgun, a Beretta . 380-caliber handgun, power tools, a camera, a Gucci watch, a Louis Vuitton purse and a safe containing $3,000 in cash and at least $50,000 worth of jewelry, including large-carat rubies and diamonds, police said.
Susan Medina said she did not know whether the break-in was linked to Laci Peterson's disappearance.
A $1,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the identification of the burglars, who fled in a tan or light-brown van, a resident told police.
Laci Peterson's disappearance is especially troubling in Modesto, where residents Bob and Susan Levy anguished over their daughter Chandra after she went missing in Washington, D.C., in May 2001. Chandra Levy's remains were found in a Washington park a year later.
Susan Levy visited the volunteer center Monday to offer her support, Peterson-Caudillo said.
"I told somebody the other day that if I ever go missing, I want to go missing in this community," said Kim Petersen, executive director of the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Modesto started by relatives of two slain Yosemite tourists.
"This community comes together like none I've ever seen," Petersen said. "Unfortunately, this community is experienced with this kind of thing."
A $500,000 reward stands for information leading to Laci Peterson's safe return. Anyone with tips is asked to call Modesto police at (209) 342-6166. A Web site, www.lacipeterson.com, has been set up to help with the search effort.
Chronicle staff writer Janine DeFao contributed to this report. / E-mail Henry K. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.