December 24, 2002
Scott was running late. It was about 4:45 P.M. as he pulled into his driveway, parking next to his wife's Land Rover. In less than two hours, he was due for dinner at his in-laws' home. It had been a busy day already, and there was a long way to go.
Scott entered the backyard through the gate and patted McKenzie, the couple's beloved golden retriever, as the dog bounded out to meet him. He unclipped the dangling leash from the dog's collar and tossed it on the patio table. Passing through an unlocked back door, Scott moved through the dark, quiet house. Stopping to tidy up a bit, he carried a bucket of wash water and two mops outside. He tossed the water onto the lawn, then left the cleaning items by the door. He then headed for the fridge. Cold pizza and milk would pacify his growling stomach, empty since a bowl of cereal early that morning.
Carrying a veggie slice with him, Scott went over to the washing machine, hidden behind bifold doors in the den. He pulled out some dirty towels. Then, stripping down to his underwear, the young man loaded his green pullover, blue T-shirt, and jeans into the washer, covered them with detergent, and started the machine. Then he was off to the bathroom, where he finished the pizza before stepping into the shower. Emerging in clean clothes, Scott checked his watch. It was 5:15 P.M. He picked up the phone.
Sharon Rocha was scrambling to finish preparations for her family dinner that evening when the telephone rang. It was already 5:17; her daughter Laci and son-in-law, Scott, would be arriving soon.
"Hi, Mom," Scott said. "Is Laci there?"
"No," Sharon replied.
"Laci's car is at the house, and McKenzie is in the backyard with his leash on," Scott said flatly. "Laci is missing."
Missing? The word took a moment to register. Her daughter would be pulling into the driveway with Scott any minute, she thought. Laci was a well-mannered, efficient young woman. She wouldn't be late for a family gathering.
Suddenly, a wave of fear washed over her. Laci was eight months pregnant. Had she gone into labor? Was she at the hospital? Trying not to panic, Sharon told Scott, "Call your friends. Ask them if they've seen her. Then call me back!"
Sharon put down the phone and turned to Laci's stepfather, Ron Grantski. His normally jovial face had turned serious as he listened to his wife's conversation.
"Laci's missing," Sharon said, echoing Scott's phrase. Just two or three minutes went by before the phone rang again. Sharon grabbed it on the first ring, nervously running her fingers through her short blond hair.
"I checked with friends," Scott reported, "but nobody's seen her." "Try the neighbors," Sharon commanded, her alarm escalating as she put down the receiver. Laci had sounded fine when they last spoke on the phone at 8:30 the previous evening. There was no reason for her to be missing, unless she was hurt or had been harmed. The wait seemed endless before Scott called back, although phone records would show that only a few more minutes had passed. "I checked around," Scott said again. His tone remained even; the young man was not one for histrionics. "Nobody's seen her." Scott explained that Laci had planned to walk their dog that morning. Her usual path would have taken her through East La Loma Park, located at the end of their street on Covena Avenue. But he reminded Sharon that McKenzie had been at home when he arrived, trailing his leash.
By then it was 5:32 P.M., fifteen minutes since Scott's first call. In hindsight it seems surprising that Scott could have gathered information from so many people so quickly, but Sharon wasn't going to waste any more time. She told Scott to meet her in the park, then hung up, phoned her friend Sandy Rickard, and asked her to help search for Laci.
Moments later, Sandy pulled up in front of the house. "I'm going to look for her," Sharon yelled out to Ron. "Call the police." Then she raced out the front door.
For months, Laci had been taking McKenzie for morning walks in the nearby park. Sometimes Sharon went along, but in recent weeks, Laci had begun tiring easily, and Laci's yoga instructor and obstetrician had both recommended that she give up the walks until the baby was born. At first, Laci resisted -- she was always headstrong -- but now her body was insisting that she slow down. The narrow, sandy footpath that sloped down toward the park entrance no longer provided sure footing, and Laci was less inclined to complete her regular half-mile loop around the leafy grounds.
Sharon knew it was unlikely that Laci had taken that walk. At 5:47 P.M., Ron Grantski dialed 911.
"I'd like to report a missing person," he told the dispatcher. It was Christmas Eve, so only a skeleton crew was on duty, but the Modesto Police Department knew the emergency line would probably stay busy. Many people find Christmas one of the loneliest times of the year, and the department often logged an especially large number of calls from people whose anxiety levels jumped during the holiday season.
Grantski gave his own address -- 1017 Marklee Way -- then Laci's -- 523 Covena Avenue, between Encina Avenue and Edgebrook Drive. Their houses were less than two miles apart in the small city of Modesto, southeast of San Francisco and about ninety minutes from the Pacific coast.
Grantski told the dispatcher that he was relating information from his son-in-law, who had notified him that his stepdaughter, Laci Peterson, was missing.
The dispatcher who took the call made the following notes:
STEP-DAUGHTER, LACY [sic] PETERSON, PORTUGUESE/ WHITE FEMALE, 26 YEARS, LEFT TO WALK DOG AT DRY CREEK PARK & NEVER RETURNED HOME. SUBJECT IS 5 FOOT 1, DARK HAIR & DARK EYES, 8 MONTHS PREGNANT, UNKNOWN WHO LAST SEEN WITH. DOG RETURNED HOME WITH LEASH & UNABLE TO LOCATE WOMAN ANYWHERE. REPORT RECEIVED FROM WOMAN'S HUSBAND, SCOTT PETERSON. HUSBAND IS NOW LOOKING FOR WIFE IN THE PARK. OFFICER JOHN EVERS DISPATCHED TO THE PARK AT 17:48. AT 17:58, OFFICERS DERRICK LETSINGER AND MATT SPURLOCK AND SGT. BYRON DUERFELDT DISPATCHED TO 523 COVENA AVENUE.
An adult missing person report rarely generates a major response within the first twenty-four hours, but the emergency operator recognized that Laci's condition made her situation different. The young woman might be injured or experiencing a problem with her advanced pregnancy. And, of course, there was always the possibility of foul play. By 6:00 P.M., officers from the Modesto Police Department were en route to both the couple's home and East La Loma Park.
Dry Creek Park spans twelve city blocks and is parceled into several small mini-parks. East La Loma Park, barely three blocks from the Peterson home, was the area where Laci usually strolled with the dog. McKenzie had been a gangly, energetic puppy when Laci gave him to Scott for Christmas just a month after they met. He was almost eight years old now, sprouting white whiskers around his muzzle, but Scott still warned strangers that the retriever was very protective of Laci. Sharon Rocha was growing increasingly worried as her friend Sandy steered them into a parking lot just west of El Vista Avenue. Jumping out of the vehicle, Sharon hurried across the stubby grass, Sandy trailing behind her.
During the short ride from her house, Sharon had called Scott and arranged to meet him at El Vista Bridge to begin the search. Now she raced through the park calling out, "Laci!" and peering into the shrubbery, checking trash cans lined along the pathway. She and Sandy were nearly breathless when they reached the site. Sharon later recalled that it seemed like "forever" before...
Excerpted from A DEADLY GAME © Copyright 2005 by Catherine Crier. Reprinted with permission by ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.