05/12/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
They show up every day, at all hours, drawn to the house where once there seemed such happiness. Ever since the bodies of Laci Peterson and her son Conner were identified, mourners by the hundreds have come to gather outside the empty Modesto, Calif., home that Laci shared with her husband, Scott, covering its front lawn with flowers and candles, scribbled poems and stuffed animals. "They leave things they think will comfort Laci's family," says Paula King, a painter who lives nearby. "The reaction to this case has been unreal."
Emotions will likely run high for some time, as prosecutors prepare their double-murder case against Scott Peterson. Although the trial is perhaps a year away, lead prosecutor James Brazelton announced, after meeting with Laci's family, he would seek the death penalty. "There are no winners and losers," Laci's stepfather Ron Grantski told the Modesto Bee. "Six months ago we were all one big, loving family, and now we're talking about life and death for someone."
Meanwhile, Modesto police were tight-lipped about what evidence they do have and what they are still searching for. Investigators would not comment on tabloid reports that they believe Scott beat and then killed Laci in their home on Dec. 23 and that they found Laci's blood on a mop and in Scott's truck. Nor would they confirm reports that Scott had downloaded Bay Area tidal charts on his computer. Authorities also disputed a claim that Laci's remains, which washed ashore April 14, were actually located weeks earlier, when a searcher hired by police used sonar to pinpoint what he suspected was Laci's body in San Francisco Bay. (If those were her remains, say experts, they were dislodged from the ocean floor, probably by a passing tanker.)
As for Laci's loved ones, they are coping with the knowledge that she is really gone. Her friend Stacey Boyers will care for Laci's two beloved Siamese-mix cats, strays she found and "couldn't let go," says Boyers. "They were her babies." MacKenzie, Scott and Laci's retriever-like mix, is with one of Scott's siblings in San Diego. Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, "is doing as well as can be expected," says Carole Carrington, a victim's advocate, who counseled the Peterson family during their ordeal. "She lost not only her daughter and grandchild but probably her son-in-law too. She thought the world of Scott; she loved him like a son."
At Laci's home, volunteers have already scooped up five carloads of stuffed animals and taken them to hospitals. More tokens of remembrance pile up every day. "Most of us didn't even know her," says Marcia Sabastia, a child-care aide who has visited the shrine. "But she touches us with her smiling face. In a way she's touching the whole country."