Illustration by Adam Strange
The Central Valley, often referred to as the nucleus of the state of California, is one of the most productive agricultural regions in America. The Mediterranean climate creates hot, dry summers and wet, cold winters. The dense Tule fog settles in for most of the winter, which makes navigating the country roads slow and dangerous. Spring can be a particularly lovely time in the valley, as the grasslands are rich with California poppies, the beautiful blossoms of the Fremont Cottonwood, aromatic almond orchards, and the ubiquitous Valley Oak tree.
Time moves slowly in the valley. Chances are your friends’ parents know each other, and even residents of some of the larger towns like Fresno, Stockton, and Modesto still have strong ties to the farming communities that surround them. I was born and raised in Oakdale, a small town on the easternmost rim of the valley, where the fertile land connects with the foothills before being swallowed by the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In 2002, I was fresh out of mortuary college, and had recently started my internship at San Francisco’s oldest funeral firm. Like generations of undertakers before me, while attending school I lived and worked part time in a mortuary. It was kind of a rite of passage. Now, I was back living at old, familiar 1114 Sutter Street, ready to start new adventures with the dead.
Since 9/11, I had gotten into the habit of having CNN on all the time, usually with the sound off so I could listen to music. On Christmas Eve 2002, the wife of a Modesto fertilizer salesman went missing from her home near La Loma Park. Modesto is a short distance from Oakdale, so my interest was piqued.
Laci Peterson was very pregnant, with an expected delivery date of February 10. Her husband Scott had gone fishing that morning off the Berkeley Marina. He came home to find their dog McKenzie roaming around outside the gate of their home at 523 Covena Avenue with his leash still on. Scott took his time calling around to friends and neighbors before his father-in-law finally called the police to report Laci missing. The media frenzy that would attach itself to this slow-build, true story drama was about to begin.
Laci Peterson was born Laci Denise Rocha, on May 4, 1975 at Doctors Hospital in Modesto to Dennis and Sharon Rocha. Sharon grew up in nearby Escalon, where Dennis’ family owned a 365-acre ranch. Dennis and Sharon met at Modesto Junior College and began dating, eventually marrying and settling down in a small house on the Rocha family ranch. She had two children with Dennis: Brent and Laci. Small-town family life agreed with them at first, but after Dennis began drinking heavily, Sharon filed for divorce a little over a year after Laci’s first birthday.
Laci had a gregarious nature, and family and friends described her as a “bubbly, energetic, and happy” child. She earned the nickname JJ, which stood for jabber jaw, because she could never seem to shut up. She would ramble at great length about the myriad of subjects that occupy a young girl’s world. She had a broad, winning smile and loved to cook from an early age.
In 1977, Sharon Rocha met Ron Grantski. After an extended courtship, the couple decided to move in together, uniting their extended families together under one roof in Modesto.
After graduating from Thomas Downey High School in 1993, Laci was accepted to California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, about a four-hour drive from Modesto. She settled into a small cottage in the quiet coastal town of Morro Bay. Making friends was easy for the charismatic Laci, and she always performed well in school.
One afternoon, Laci and a couple of her friends were eating lunch at the Pacific Café, a small but popular spot on the Embarcadero. She thought the waiter was very handsome –love-at-first-sight handsome. His name was Scott. Laci left her number, hoping he would call her and ask her out, and he did.
Scott Lee Peterson was born to Jackie and Lee Peterson in San Diego on October 24, 1972. Jackie Peterson had three children before Scott who had been given up for adoption. Jackie ran an antique store, while Lee owned a corrugated box business.
Scott had an upper-middle class upbringing, very much the golden boy, never wanting, never taking responsibility for his actions. As a result, the roots of narcissism grew deep and strong.
Scott attended the University of San Diego High School, where he developed a passion for golf. When he started driving, his parents purchased him a Peugeot convertible. He was well liked by his peers, but had a reputation as a loner and a bit of a womanizer.
Peterson was eventually accepted to Arizona State University with the hopes of becoming a professional golfer. When he discovered he didn’t have the chops of a pro-level golfer, he transferred to Cuestra Junior College in San Luis Obispo, eventually ending up at Cal Poly. While going to school, Scott worked at the local golf club and waited tables at the Pacific Café.
Laci and Scott –Photo by Ignailz
Scott and Laci were married in August of 1997 at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, in nearby Avila Beach. The wedding was well attended, with friends and family coming together on a lovely sunny day to celebrate the couple’s nuptials in style.
The wedding did have its setbacks: Laci’s father Dennis arrived late and drunk, unable to put on his slacks, instead falling down and ripping said pants right through the seat. The resort manager had the creative idea to staple the slacks together, which seemed to work well enough to get the inebriated Dennis through the service. Laci’s dad was obviously still abusing the booze, which was the primary reason for his divorce from Sharon. Scott also added to the dysfunction of the day, as he was seen hitting on the waitress in the bar before the wedding.
Scott and Laci settled into their new life, working and going to school near the crushing waves of the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Scott bought his father out of his half of the family corrugated box business, and Lee naturally and proudly assumed his son would take over the family enterprise. Scott almost immediately and somewhat callously sold the business and invested in a sports bar they named The Shack. The sports bar enjoyed some success, and for a while the couple enjoyed the fruits of their labor, with Laci preparing food as Scott poured beer and soda.
Soon, the responsibilities of owning a business and keeping track of employees began to infringe on whatever private life the Petersons attempted to have. In October of 2000, they decided to close The Shack for good and move to Modesto, where Laci could be closer to her family. It is unknown what level of financial loss they endured, if any, when The Shack went down.
Upon their arrival in Modesto, Scott took a job with Tradecorp, an international company that sold agricultural supplies. Laci had eyes on becoming a mother and homemaker. Scott’s parents gifted them $30,000, which they used to put a down payment on 523 Covena Avenue.
523 Covena Avenue–Photo by William Duke
Laci soon became pregnant. As a result, something very dark seemed to manifest itself in Scott Peterson. Perhaps that darkness was always there, but like most sociopaths, he could pass as a well-adjusted adult until backed into a corner.
Excited about this new chapter in their lives, Laci wanted a bigger house and a new car to go along with the baby. Scott was ill prepared to deal with her ambitions, because in his mind he was still a consummate bachelor, a world traveler, and an avid golfer. After all, his parents had just shelled out $23,000 for his membership to Modesto’s Del Rio Country Club, where monthly dues were about $390. But Scott still needed to confront a much bigger inconvenience – his mistress.
Scott began dating Amber Frey, a massage therapist from Madera, in November of 2002. She was a single mom looking to settle down and play house with an honest man. Scott tearfully told Amber that he was bracing himself for the holidays, as this was his first Christmas alone since he had “lost his wife.” The details, according to Scott, were “too painful to talk about”.”
Amber took Scott to holiday parties as they planned their future together, and Scott even tagged along when she picked up her daughter from school. She sent out Christmas cards to friends that included a cozy photo of her and Scott. Amber Frey thought she had hit the domestic lottery.
Amber Frey–Photo by Andrea Renault-Globe Photos, Inc
Photo by CourtTV
After Laci’s disappearance, the drama unfolded slowly in the eyes of the media. Scott became the poster boy for how not to act if there is even a remote possibility people are beginning to suspect you of killing your wife and unborn child. He acted shady, avoided the press, and claimed he wanted to “keep the focus on finding Laci.”
I watched this story intently as it played out on television. I drove down to the valley just as soon as I could get away from San Francisco, but the police had closed off Covena Avenue to everyone except residents, police, and the media. I was just a looky-loo undertaker seduced by a story I knew was going to turn into a murder investigation, and by that point I was willing to wager on Scott’s involvement.
Amber Frey naturally began to suspect Scott Peterson was too good to be true. Apparently, she didn’t watch the news. She had a good friend who was a police officer, and it didn’t take much detective work to figure out that the Scott Peterson Amber was dating was the same Scott Peterson with the missing pregnant wife from Modesto.
Amber called the tip line, and was soon in contact with the Modesto Police Department. She readily agreed to a phone tap in an attempt to possibly extract information from Scott about Laci’s disappearance.
Interestingly enough, the detective in charge of the phone tap was Officer Steve Jacobson from Oakdale, my hometown. Steve was always cordial to me when we were classmates in high school despite the fact that we were polar opposites. Thanks for not stuffing me in a trash can, Steve.
Early in the investigation, detectives questioned Scott’s whereabouts on December 24. He told police that he went fishing at the Berkeley Marina, almost 100 miles from his Modesto home. He took along his newly purchased boat that was stored at 1027 Emerald Avenue in Modesto, a warehouse space Scott used for business purposes.
1027 Emerald Avenue–Photo by William Duke
Scott wasn’t much of a fisherman. The clandestine boat was privately purchased on December 9, the same day Scott told Amber that he “lost his wife.” Laci’s parents were shocked that he even had a boat, and when initially questioned by detectives about what he was fishing for on the day Laci disappeared and what kind of bait he was using, Scott stated that he “just wanted to get the boat in the water.”
While the Amber Frey phone taps didn’t exactly elicit a smoking-gun admission of murder, they did shine a harsh light on Scott Peterson as a cad, and a compulsive liar. He fed Amber tales of international business travel, wining and dining clients in France, and morning jogs on cobblestone streets in Belgium.
During a well-attended vigil for Laci in La Loma Park in Modesto on New Year’s Eve, Scott was conspicuously silent, never addressing the press or pleading publicly for the safe return of his wife. Instead, Scott was on the phone with Amber, claiming the crowd noise in the background was a wild New Year’s Eve party in Paris. Just chalk it up to another day in the life of international playboy Scott Peterson.
On January 7, 2003, Scott requested that Dish Network add the Playboy Channel to his existing package. A few days later after returning home from his nephew’s christening, he upgraded to a hardcore porn package, then went out and looked for Laci.
Scott and Laci had decided to name their baby Connor. His expected arrival date was February 10, which also happened to be Amber’s birthday. Scott handled this unfortunate coincidence by changing the due date in all media interviews and conversations with police, friends, and family to February 16.
On a sunny and clear day on April 13, the disemboweled body of an infant washed ashore at Point Isabel, not far from the Berkeley Marina. Soon after, a headless torso materialized a little farther down the bayfront. I was very familiar with Point Isabel. When I lived in Berkeley in 1999, I would often walk my dogs around the coastal trails and let them frolic a bit in the bay. Point Isabel was now besieged by police and the media.
Photo by Chris Hardy/SF Chronicle
Photo by William Duke
After the bodies washed ashore, Scott was nowhere to be found, but he had been sniffing around the Berkeley Marina on a number of occasions after Laci’s disappearance. Police had attached a GPS device to his truck so they could track his whereabouts, only to discover that he had been staking out the location of the bodies.
Scott Lee Peterson was arrested on April 18, 2003 near Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, near San Diego. He was getting ready for eighteen holes with some pals, but the Man foiled his plans, as they were still breathing down his neck concerning that pesky murder investigation of his wife and unborn son. He had grown a goatee, and dyed it and his hair an odd orange-blonde mixture. It was almost like he didn’t leave the product in long enough to complete the dying process.
Photo by The California Department of Corrections
He was driving a used red convertible Mercedes Benz that he recently purchased in his mother’s name. In the car, police found $15,000 in cash, credit cards, camping supplies, formal wear, 12 pairs of shoes, Viagra, four cellular phones, and Mexican currency. It didn’t seem like Scott was planning on an immediate return to Modesto to find Laci’s killer.
Peterson was stuffed into a police car and returned to Stanislaus County Jail, where a throng of angry residents awaited with vulgar screams and “baby killer” signs.
The trial of Scott Peterson was moved out of Stanislaus County to Redwood City in San Mateo County, after defense attorneys showed justifiable concern for their client getting a fair trial. The inevitable media circus ensued. Scott, perhaps angered by the new locations close proximity to Stanislaus County, dumped his small-town lawyer in favor of tan and cocky super-attorney Mark Garagos.
But even a high-profile celebrity attorney couldn’t save Peterson, as he was convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife Laci, and the second-degree murder of Connor, his unborn son. On March 16, 2005, Judge Alfred Delucchi sentenced Scott Lee Peterson to death. He was sent to San Quentin, where he remains today awaiting the gas chamber while enduring a long, dismal existence in prison
Photo by The California Department of Corrections
I followed the trial of Scott Peterson closely. Even without the bodies washing ashore in the San Francisco Bay, the totality of circumstantial evidence in this case was overwhelming, yet the lack of physical evidence was perplexing. I think Scott figured he would tell everyone he was golfing that fateful morning, and if the bodies washed up one day, he had an alibi.
Perhaps Scott became paranoid with the possibility of being spotted at the Berkeley Marina, so he had to change his story. He seriously underestimated what a powerful human tragedy this was in the eyes of the public, and how the media just couldn’t resist the titillating possibilities as the narrative slowly unfolded.
To play devil’s advocate, if Scott would have just stuck to his golfing story, there was enough activity around Laci’s disappearance that could have shed the light of reasonable doubt in Scott’s favor. For example, around the time of Laci’s disappearance a burglary occurred ay 516 Covena, the house across the street from the Petersons. Witnesses reported seeing a large brown or medium-dark colored van in the area.
Also around this time, officers were made aware of a report from a sexual assault counselor that chronicled the activity of a group of alleged Satanists living at Woodward Reservoir near Oakdale. A woman came forward and claimed to have been lured into a brown van, where she was later raped and forced to take part in a satanic ritual.
Historically, any time satanic activity comes up, allegations must be taken with a grain of salt. However, at the very least this van business could have possibly planted the seed of reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds, if only Scott would have stuck to his golfing alibi.
In July of 2012, Scott Peterson filed a 470-page appeal. In 2015, the long-awaited response to that appeal came down hard and swift. The essence of that response states the following: “Fueled by the trifecta of selfishness, arrogance and wanderlust, Scott Peterson decided to take matters into his own hands” and killed Laci and Conner Peterson. The document was signed by California Attorney General Kamala Harris and written by a deputy prosecutor, Donna Provenzano.
In August of 2017, A&E released a six-part documentary, The Murder of Laci Peterson. Focusing on the defense side of the story, the series was heavily influenced by a compelling book written by Matt Dalton, a member of the defense team. The book and documentary raise plausible arguments for jury misconduct, as well as serious reasonable doubt questions. I can’t help but speculate that if Scott was ever granted a new trial, there is enough reasonable doubt to exonerate him, regardless of if he killed Laci and Conner.
If you plan to visit these sites, do so on a nice day. Bring a lunch, park near the Peterson house on Covena Avenue and then stroll down to La Loma Park for a brisk hike. The warehouse on Emerald Avenue is located in an industrial section of Modesto near the interstate.
If you choose to pay your respects at the cemetery, do so discreetly. Find the gravesite on your own; it’s a small cemetery. Not everyone appreciates a stranger gawking at a grave just to satisfy the true-crime morbid curiosity that probably inspired you to buy this book in the first place.
Point Isabel and the Berkeley Marina are definitely great hiking spots, with plenty of places in the area to stop and take in the beauty of the San Francisco skyline. I think Laci would want us to remember her with love and beauty in our hearts.
Burwood Cemetery, Escalon – Photo by William Duke
Burwood Cemetery, Escalon – Photo by William Duke
Photo Credit– F.B.I.
Bird, Anne 33 Reasons Why My Brother Scott Peterson Is Guilty (2005) Regan Books ISBN 0060850337
Crier, Catherine A Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation (2005) Harper Books ISBN 0060849630
Dalton, Matt Presumed Guilty (2005) Atria Books ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-5696-1
Frey, Amber Witness: For The Prosecution of Scott Peterson (2005) Regan Books ISBN 0060799250
Rocha, Sharon For Laci: A Mothers’s Story of Love, Loss, and Justice (2006) Crown Publishing Group ISBN 0307338282