Holiday Sorrow

updated 01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/2003 01:00AM

Though the baby boy is not due until Feb. 10, he already has a likely name—Conner—and a nursery decorated to evoke his dad's love of fishing. He also has a Santaclad teddy bear awaiting him by the Christmas tree at his grandparents' home in Modesto, Calif. But the bear, like the wrapped presents set out for Conner's parents, Laci and Scott Peterson, remains untouched as family members anxiously hope for the greatest gift of all: Laci's return.

Around 9:30 a.m. Christmas Eve, Laci, 27, kissed Scott goodbye and left their home in the La Loma section of Modesto to walk their 8-year-old golden retriever mix, McKenzie, in a nearby park. Scott, meanwhile, headed for the Berkeley Marina, a 90-minute drive away, to take his boat out fishing. An hour later, when a neighbor found McKenzie wandering the streets with a leash attached to his collar, she thought nothing of it and returned the dog to the Petersons' yard. When Scott, who told police he had been unable to reach Laci earlier by cell phone, returned home around 5 p.m. to find his wife's Land Rover in the driveway, her purse in the house and Laci nowhere in sight, he began making frantic calls. "He called me a little after 5," says Amy Rocha, 21, Laci's sister. "He was panicked and very emotional. He just said, 'Is your sister with you?' " After about 45 minutes Scott phoned the police.

Since then—despite 500 phone tips and the efforts of 100 professionals and more than 700 volunteers—searches by foot, horseback, boat and helicopter have yielded few clues. "They keep telling us this is like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Susan Caudillo, 42, Scott's sister. "We need to get lucky." Det. Doug Ridenour, the Modesto police spokesman, declines to discuss any specifics of the case but says, "The investigation so far [has] been inconclusive. We haven't ruled anything out and we haven't ruled anything in."

For now, police are treating Laci's disappearance as a missing persons case. Initially they focused on Scott, a manager at a local agriculture company, searching his boat and a business warehouse as well as the Petersons' home, two cars and two computers. Police say that Scott gave them a boat-launch receipt that may verify his day trip; they do not have a second receipt from a Bay Area gas station that Scott's father mentioned at a press conference. "We are not ready to call [Scott] a suspect at this point," says Sgt. Ron Cloward. "What we're trying to do is eliminate him as a suspect."

It appears that Laci's family already has. "There's too much love there," says her stepfather, Ron Grantski, 56. Every day since the disappearance, Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, has talked with Scott. "Mainly I just tell him we love him," says Rocha, 51. As for Scott, says Caudillo, "he has his ups and downs; he laughs and cries."

The family believes Laci's disappearance may be connected to the burglary across the street from the Petersons' three-bedroom ranch house that morning. Around 11:40 a neighbor saw three suspicious-looking men and two vehicles outside the home, but police did not learn of this until Dec. 26, when the owner returned from a trip to discover his back door kicked in and a safe missing (it contained $50,000 worth of jewelry and two handguns). Noting that a police bloodhound lost Laci's scent a short distance from her house, her brother Brent, 31, says, "That leads me to suspect that the robbers probably grabbed Laci right on the street." Ridenour says police are searching for a link but that thus far, "there's nothing concrete to suggest it's involved."

Like slain Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy, Laci grew up in Modesto, where she was a high school cheerleader. "She was the life of the party," says her cousin Gwen Kemple, 52. "Her [step]dad started calling her Jabber Jaws because she was such a talker." In 1995, at a party at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, the petite dynamo met fellow undergrad Scott, a 6'1" outdoorsman and scratch golfer. They married in '97 and moved to Modesto in 2000. Friends say the only apparent cloud hanging over the couple was their three-year struggle to conceive. When Laci finally became pregnant without medical help in June, she quit her job as a substitute teacher and focused on cooking, gardening and preparing for the baby. Says Caudillo: "You could see how happy they were."

Flyers with Laci's image now blanket Modesto. A $500,000 reward is being offered by her family and two anonymous donors. As the search heads into its second week, "we are still hoping that Laci is alive," Detective Ridenour says. Meanwhile her family's Christmas gifts sit waiting. "We're not opening anything," says her stepfather, "until she comes back to us."

Jill Smolowe
Ron Arias and Frank Swertlow in Modesto and John Hannah in Los Angeles

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