Video: A mother's pain

NBC News
updated 1/10/2006 4:42:23 PM ET 2006-01-10T21:42:23

The wind was all she could hear.  The water was all she could see. But Laci Peterson’s mother felt a presence.  She says she knew Laci and Conner were out there, somewhere, in San Francisco bay.

In that beautiful setting, Sharon Rocha had a rare, comforting moment.  It was back in March, 2003, month before the bodies washed ashore.  She had been e-mailed a prediction by a psychic:

Sharon Rocha: I needed to go to Berkeley.  I just felt I had to go there. I knew Laci was there.  I knew she was there.

On Sunday’s "Dateline NBC," she spoke out for the first time since Scott Peterson’s trial.

Katie Couric, NBC News: You write that you fantasized about kidnapping, drugging or torturing Scott Peterson.

Rocha: I didn’t fantasize that.  I talked about it.  I had to actually kind of hold back because I had friends, they were ready to do this.  But I know I really couldn’t do that.

Couric: But you were so desperate for the truth.

Rocha: I wanted him to tell me where Laci was.  Because I knew he knew where Laci was. 

In her new book, “For Laci”, she recounts her past three years of heartache and grief... a nightmare that has never ended.

It began on Christmas Eve, 2002.  That night, her 27-year-old daughter, Laci Peterson, seven and a half months pregnant, was reported missing by Scott, Laci’s husband.

Family, friends, and the Modesto, California police began a weeks-long search, in the glare of national publicity.  

Even then, the police had deep suspicions about Scott Peterson. But Sharon Rocha didn’t know that until later. She sat with Scott’s parents in a “Dateline” interview two weeks after Laci was first reported missing:  

Rocha, two weeks after Laci’s disappearance: The people who know Scott and Laci have no doubt whatsoever that he has nothing to do with her disappearance.

Rocha: Every single time I said that I meant that. He was my son as far as I was concerned.  And he loved my daughter I thought.  And I know how Laci loved Scott.  And for the longest time it was hard to separate those two.  It was hard to separate my son-in-law from a murderer. 

But now, looking back, Sharon Rocha says she, too, had doubts she just couldn’t shake.

At one point early in the investigation, she says, Peterson had a bizarre request.  

Couric: Scott at one point wanted to hire a dog psychic to interview Laci’s dog, McKenzie?

Rocha: Yes.

Couric: And did you think?

Rocha: “Why aren’t we getting a people psychic?” (Chuckles) You know, if you’re gonna hire a psychic… At that time I was just “What are you talking about?” It was, to me, absolutely ridiculous.

She was mystified as to how Scott Peterson seemed to keep his composure while his wife and unborn son were missing.    

Rocha: And I remember him holding his head back, you know, and telling me that, “Somebody asked me today how am I.”  And “I said ‘I’m fine.’”  And I was looking at him. And he said “and that really surprised me because I really am fine.” I mean, I felt like somebody had just hit me in the stomach.  It just took my breath away. Laci’s been gone three weeks, how can you say “you’re fine”?

Her doubts began to grow. And the next day, Sharon Rocha would receive devastating news about her son-in-law. About three weeks after Laci disappeared came the bombshell:  Scott Peterson had been having an affair with a woman named Amber Frey—who hadn’t known about Laci or her disappearance.   

Before Laci disappeared, Peterson told Amber Frey he had been married but that he had lost his wife and that this would be his first Christmas without her.

Couric: What was your reaction when you heard that?

Rocha: I’ve heard over and over “Just because he had an affair didn’t mean that he murdered his wife.”  Well, that’s true.  But we were told a lot of things that people didn’t know we were told.  I remember them showing us pictures of Scott and Amber.  And it was just nauseating to me.  The only thing I remember, you know, right at that moment was I just said or cried, “He didn’t have to murder her.”  I mean I knew.  When they said those words I knew any of the suspicions I’d been having, you know, all of his unusual behavior, his odd behavior, I knew that moment.  That just confirmed everything—I was afraid to admit to myself and afraid to even think about.  That he had killed her.

Couric: You, at one point called him, and accused him of murdering Laci.  When was that?

Rocha: January 16th.

Couric: And what did you say?

Rocha: I think it was in that conversation where I asked him, “Where is Laci?  Where did you put her?  I want to bring her home.”  And he kept denying it.  And it just—the more he denied it, the angrier I got.  Because he’s so unconvincing.  When I asked him “Did you murder Laci?”  And he said “no.”  I mean it was so unconvincing.  I would have been saying—

Couric: “What?!!!”

Rocha: Exactly. “Why on earth would you think that?  Why would you ask me that question?”  You know some kind of emotion there, something.  No.

As you’ll see later, Sharon Rocha knew much more about the case against Scott Peterson than she ever talked about in public. Throughout her trauma, she rarely gave interviews. So many observers were surprised that she decided to now write a book.

Couric: Some people might say, you know what I’m gonna ask you.

Rocha: Uh-huh.

Couric: “Ick.”

Rocha: Right. And that was my first reaction myself.

Couric: She’s profiting from her daughter’s murder.

Rocha: Right.  But I don’t feel that I’m profiting from it.  In the beginning, I just kept saying. “No, there’s no way I can do this.”  But my intention is to contribute to this.  I contribute to other organizations, to a scholarship fund.  I plan on using the money to help other people.

She says she’s already donated $200,000 dollars to the “Laci and Conner” fund which she set up to help pay expenses for future search and rescue cases.

Another reason she wrote the book, she says, was to speak “For Laci,” to tell Laci’s story: Not just the story of a victim, but of a daughter, a wife, and a mother-to-be.

She was a beautiful brown-eyed girl. Laci was born May 4, 1975 and grew up around Modesto. After her parents divorced, when she was one year old, she spent weekends as a country girl on her father’s dairy farm just outside town.

Couric: She really was an irresistible child, wasn’t she? I mean, you can see it.

Rocha: She was fun.  Laci was fun.  She was funny.  She was cute.  She was—like I said, all the words I’ve used to describe her, you can see it in her pictures. I just got the biggest kick out of her all of the time.

Couric: You’ve also, I think, probably been able to find some things that are eerily prophetic in the things that she’s written.  I know you have an old school paper from junior high.  And she wrote about scary movie villains.  Her conclusion was, quote, “Watch out who you meet in your dreams.”  That must have sent a chill up your spine when you read that.

Rocha: It did.  

In 1994, Laci met Scott Peterson while she was in college.  It was a relationship that seemed to be everything a mother could hope for.  Now Sharon Rocha wishes she had known more about the man who stole her daughter’s heart—and ultimately, her life.

Katie Couric sits down with Sharon Rocha.
As far as Sharon Rocha knew, everything was looking up for her 19-year-old daughter. It was in 1994 while Laci was a college student at Cal-Poly on the Central California coast that she met Scott Peterson who was two years older and working at a nearby restaurant.

Katie Couric: You write you would have given him "three stars out of four."

Sharon Rocha: Yes.

Couric: That’s a pretty good ranking.

Rocha: He was very impressive.

Couric: Why?

Rocha:  He was such a gentleman.  He was very attentive, well-mannered, and nice-looking.  Laci was absolutely crazy about him...

The couple married in 1997. At the beginning, after Laci’s graduation, they had a commuter marriage. Police later said Scott had been having an affair around this time --- but Laci’s mother never heard anything about it.

From her perspective, Laci and Scott seemed very happy.

And in the spring of 2002, Laci announced she was pregnant.

Couric: Laci kept a diary about her pregnancy.

Rocha: She had started a diary, yes.

Couric: Tell me what you learned from that or the things she’d had written.

Rocha: She was thrilled to be pregnant. 

Couric: Looking back on it, what was Scott’s reaction?

Rocha: Well, I was surprised at his reaction. I remember Laci and I were standing at one end of the dining room table and Scott was sitting at the other. And she said, “Oh, Scott’s having a mid-life crisis.”  And I looked over at Scott and I said, “A mid-life crisis?”  I said, “Why are you having a mid-life crisis?”  And as usual, Laci answered—she said that—“Oh, he’s feeling that way because he’s turning 30 and becoming a father all in the same year.” And I looked over at him and, you know, I said, “Oh, get over it.”

Couric: Around that time you write, “I just feel like there’s a dark cloud hanging over me.”

Rocha: What I was feeling was I had this concern that Laci wasn’t going to survive her pregnancy.  And I don’t know why I felt that.  I just—

Couric: Like a very frightening premonition.

Rocha: Yes.

The final events that made that premonition come true came as Christmas approached.  Scott Peterson was dating Amber Frey. Two and a half weeks before Laci’s disappearance, he was confronted by a friend of Frey’s who had heard he was married.  

Two days later, he searched the classified ads for a small boat.

On Christmas Eve 2002, having no idea what was happening with her son-in-law, Sharon Rocha received the call that would change her life forever.  

Couric: And around 5:15 the phone rang.  And it was Scott.  And what he said frightened you immediately didn’t it?

Rocha: He said that when he had gotten home that the car was in the driveway and McKenzie was in the backyard with his leash on, and Laci’s missing.  And I can remember thinking, missing? That’s not something you say. Looking back at it, I was the very first person he called, and he used the word “missing.” He didn’t call her doctor, he didn’t call the hospital.  He hadn’t called anybody else, yet he told me she was missing.  Because he knew she was.  He knew she was gone.

She first noticed Scott acting strangely that very night, in the Modesto park where the search for Laci began.

Rocha: I remember when we got down into the park, I jumped out of the car and I was running everywhere just screaming her name. And I remember watching him walk near the creek, he never opened his mouth, he never called out her name.  And I was screaming his name.  And I remember thinking “I know you can hear me. Why aren’t you turning around and acknowledging me?” 

The day after a candlelight vigil, eight days after Laci’s disappearance, Sharon Rocha met with Peterson:

Rocha: I described to him what I was going to do to the person who took Laci when we get Laci back. I was making like I had a knife in my hand and I said I’m just going to, you know, take chunks out of his body.  And go up one side and down the other side.  I mean that’s just how I felt about this.

And he just smiled.  And I remember thinking afterwards, you know, there was no, “Well, I get him first” or “you’re gonna have to get in line” or “I’m gonna help you.” It was just a smile.

Couric: And he was actually grinning, like full-out grinning?

Rocha: Uh-huh.  I never once heard him say, “Mom, where’s Laci?  Who would have done this? Why can’t we find Laci?”  Never, ever, ever did I hear him say anything to that effect. Not only to me, I never heard anybody else say that he said it to them.

Couric: All in all, these things do not add up to a devastated, distraught, sick with anxiety man, worried to death about his wife and child.

Rocha: No, they didn’t.

Couric: You write about—and this just breaks my heart.  I mean many things do. But about being obsessed with what happened to Laci.

Rocha: I mean I was just beside myself thinking about what he had done to her.  And did she know it was happening?  And how could he have done anything to Laci.  There was no reason?  There was no reason for him to kill Laci.  Other than pure selfishness.

The bodies of Laci and Conner were found washed ashore in San Francisco bay in April, 2003, nearly four months after Laci disappeared… almost exactly where that psychic who sent her there had predicted.

The bodies were held by the medical examiner.  And Laci’s mother was in deep mourning as she waited for months to bury her daughter and grandson.  In a passage from the book, she described an agonizing moment two days before the funeral:

“I went into the bedroom and picked up some of Laci’s clothes, which I’d placed in a plastic bag to preserve her smell.  I also grabbed a teddy bear that I’d bought for Conner.   I sat in Laci’s rocking chair and put the clothes up to my face and breathed in my daughter’s scent. I could smell her so clearly and as I did she came back to life in my mind. A different memory appeared with each breath. I could see her see her, hear her, almost touch her. I held everything close to my heart.”

As unbearable as it seemed to her at the time -- she attended almost every day of Scott Peterson’s trial.  

Rocha: I was there because I wanted to know what happened to Laci.  There were so many times I would look over at Scott and he was just in another world.

Which is what he did the day that I was testifying. I’m waiting for him to acknowledge that I’m sitting here, and he never once looked at me.  And that just infuriated me.  Because he leaned over to Geragos and they were laughing. And I’m thinking, just how disrespectful all the way around. I’m sitting here talking about Laci and how this has affected me.  How much I miss her.  What he’s done to her.  And he’s laughing about it.

Scott Peterson was found guilty of murder on November 12, 2004. A month later, he was sentenced to death.   

Couric: Did you believe that Scott should get the death penalty?

Rocha: You know, as far as I was concerned, if he was convicted, it was the death penalty, because he was going to die in prison.  I mean the life—life in prison is the same as the death pen—penalty, as far as I’m concerned.  He’s not going anywhere.  All I needed to hear was that the jury had found him guilty.  And the trial was over for me.

Couric: When he was sentenced to death did you feel anything?

Rocha: I didn’t. 

Sharon Rocha became an advocate for new federal legislation known as “Laci and Conner’s law” that makes it a separate federal offense to kill an unborn child when the mother is attacked. She went to the White House for the bill signing.

Couric: And why was that so important for you?

Rocha: Because Conner was a human being.  Actually, when they found him they actually thought, at first, he was full-term.  And had he given the—been given the opportunity, he may have survived.  But Scott didn’t give him that opportunity.  So as far as I’m concerned, Scott murdered two people.  He didn’t murder just Laci, he murdered Laci and his own son.

In a story filled with heartbreak and unimaginable horror, Sharon Rocha says she has one over-riding message:

Rocha: One point I would like to get across is, I want these men to stop murdering our daughters.  I mean, this is not their way out.  If they’re unhappy in a relationship, then get a divorce.  Don’t murder your wives, don’t murder our daughters.”

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