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Laci Denise Rocha was born in Modesto, California. Her parents, Dennis Robert Rocha and Sharon Ruth Anderson, met in high school and married shortly after graduation. Their first child, Brent Rocha, was born in 1971. Laci was the couple's second child, born in 1975. Her parents separated after Laci's first birthday. Dennis later remarried and had another daughter, Amy. Laci grew up visiting her father's dairy farm in Escalon, California, and she was a cheerleader in junior high and high school. After graduating from Thomas Downey High School, Laci attended California Polytechnic State University. At Cal Poly, she majored in ornamental horticulture. She hoped someday to open a specialty plant shop. She lived with boyfriend Kent Gain, but the couple later broke up. While at Cal Poly, Laci met Scott Peterson at a small restaurant in Morro Bay called Pacific Café. In December 1996, Scott and Laci became engaged, and they married on August 9, 1997, a few months before Laci's graduation. For the first two years or so of their marriage, they delayed trying to have children, but Laci began to express an interest in starting a family. In December 2000, they decided to try for a pregnancy. Becoming pregnant took longer than expected, and on the verge of scheduling fertility tests, Laci and Scott Peterson conceived naturally in May 2002. It was later reported that Scott said, when asked how he felt about the pregnancy, that he had "hoped for infertility." Sharon Rocha stated in her book that she did not think Laci knew about this. The baby was to be due on February 10, 2003, and the couple planned to name their son Conner Latham Peterson.
Apart from her husband, the last two people known to have spoken to Laci before she disappeared were her half-sister, Amy Rocha, and her mother, Sharon Rocha. Amy cut Scott's hair and showed Laci how to style her hair on the evening of December 23, 2002 at Salon Salon. Later that evening, Sharon talked to Laci on the telephone around 8:30 pm. Shortly after 10:00 am the following morning, a neighbor found the family dog, a golden retriever named McKenzie, running loose in the neighborhood, wearing a collar and a muddy leash. The neighbor then returned McKenzie to the yard. Laci's 1996 Land Rover Discovery SE sport utility vehicle was in the driveway, and her Louis Vuitton purse, containing her keys and cell phone, was hanging in the bedroom closet.
When Scott Peterson returned home from fishing that evening, Laci was not there. He washed his clothes, ate some cold pizza, took time to clean up the kitchen, and took a shower. At that point (roughly 5:15 pm), he called Sharon Rocha to ask if Laci was with her. When Sharon told Scott that Laci wasn't there, Scott said, "Laci's missing." Sharon would later say that she knew in her heart something horrible had happened to her daughter. Scott stated that when he left that morning, Laci was watching an episode of Martha Stewart, and planned to walk the couple's dog, McKenzie, in nearby East La Loma Park. However, Scott would later change his story by telling Sharon he last saw Laci curling her hair the way her sister showed her the night before.
Laci's parents called the police at 6 pm. A search of the park and surrounding areas immediately ensued. It was highly out of character for Laci to leave without a word. Police, family members, friends, and neighbors searched widely on foot, in all-terrain vehicles, patrol cars, and sport utility vehicles, with helicopters equipped with search lights and heat sensors, and with water rescue units, search dogs, and horseback teams. Law enforcement agencies from several counties became involved. Police suspected foul play, doubting that Laci would vanish on Christmas Eve without contacting anyone. At a press conference, detective Al Brocchini said, "That is completely out of character for her."
A $25,000 reward was offered, later increased to $250,000, and finally to $500,000 for any information leading to her safe return. Posters, blue on yellow ribbons, and fliers circulated, and the LaciPeterson.com website was launched. Friends, family, and volunteers set up a command center at nearby Red Lion Hotel to record developments and to circulate information, and over 1,000 volunteers signed up to distribute information and to help search for Laci. Critics alleged that this was another example of missing white woman syndrome, and that similar cases (primarily that of Evelyn Hernandez) were being ignored by the media and the community.
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