Ten years ago, Sharon Rocha was expecting her pregnant daughter, Laci Peterson, at dinner on Christmas Eve. Instead, she received a call that Laci was missing.
Teams of police and community members scoured the woods and fields near Modesto, California, that night, again on Christmas Day, and for weeks afterward, but there was no sign of her. Four months later, her body washed ashore 90 miles away in the San Francisco Bay. She was 27.
But it is Christmas, not springtime, that stirs a deep sadness in Laci Peterson's mother.
Every Christmas season brings a reminder that Laci's life and her unborn son's were taken during what should have been a time of joy and anticipation.
"It's still hard to believe it happened, and that it's been 10 years," Rocha said Thursday over the phone, speaking slowly, her voice cracking. As the bright lights go up in the neighborhood and Christmas carols fill the air, she says, "My mind wanders back."
The words do not flow easily. Even now, Rocha finds it difficult to speak of her heartbreak without being overcome by tears.
The parents of the 6- and 7-year-olds slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, are just embarking on the painful journey that Rocha has been on for a decade. If anyone knows the pain of celebrating the holidays when they are indelibly connected to tragedy, it is Sharon Rocha.
Does she have any advice for the parents of Newtown?
Not really. You just go on. You have no other choice.
With a decade's worth of hindsight, Rocha sees a pattern in her sadness now. The holidays are particularly hard. "It will probably be like this forever," she sighs. This year was one of the hard ones, perhaps the hardest. Her unease began months earlier.
Her son Brent and his family also live in California, and Rocha has four grandchildren. They help fill the void left by the deaths of Laci and her unborn child, a boy who would have been born that February and named Conner. One of her grandsons is close to the age Conner would be.
The grandkids help Rocha enjoy the holidays, "to an extent," she says. "If it weren't for the grandkids, though, I wouldn't have a Christmas."
She thinks often of the grandson she never knew, wondering what Conner would have looked like, what his personality would have been like.
Laci's half-sister Amy (they shared a father) is a hairstylist and still cuts Rocha's hair. Rocha may not be related to Amy by blood, but she feels closer to Laci when she's with Amy, and has gotten to know her better over the years. Amy is expecting her first child, a son, in February. Is it an eerie coincidence, or perhaps just sisters in sync?
For years, Rocha would burst into tears when she used her blow dryer. Now she knows why: Amy was teaching Laci how to style her long, straight, glossy hair with a curling iron right before Laci vanished.
The weeks after Laci disappeared were a blur as Rocha waited to hear from her daughter or find out what had happened to her. Rocha and others slowly grew suspicious of Laci's husband, Scott Peterson. They came to believe from his odd behavior that he not only knew what happened to her, he killed her himself. By the time his wife's body washed up, Scott seemed poised to flee the country. He was arrested in San Diego County. He had dyed his hair.
Prosecutors posited this theory at his trial: Peterson, who was having an extramarital affair with a massage therapist, smothered or strangled Laci in the bedroom of their Modesto home on December 23 or 24, 2002. He then dumped her body in the San Francisco Bay during a Christmas Eve fishing trip.
But there was little forensic evidence, and Peterson maintains his innocence to this day.
The former fertilizer salesman, who was married to Laci for five years, was convicted of murdering Laci and Conner. He was sentenced to death, which appears to be years away. Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse and cheered the jury's decision.
Rocha doesn't follow the news about Peterson. But she knew something happened in his case last summer because of all the voice mail messages she received. Peterson's attorneys had just filed his appeal and the media wanted her reaction. She read no further than the first page of the court filing, which asks for a new trial.
Rocha sold the home she lived in when Laci disappeared, but she still lives in Modesto. Laci and Scott's house on Modesto's Covena Avenue is for sale again, listed at less than half the 2005 purchase price of $390,000.