Update!

Why the Laci Peterson Murder Case Has Been Unable to Rest Despite Scott Peterson's Conviction

Scott Peterson, whose death sentence has been overturned on appeal, maintains that he's innocent of the 2002 murder of his pregnant wife.

By Natalie Finn Aug 24, 2020 9:50 PMTags
Laci PetersonModesto Police Department

Scott Peterson's time on death row may be over.

Fifteen years after he was sentenced to die for the 2002 murder of his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, the California Supreme Court has overturned his death sentence, determining that his trial judge erred in dismissing prospective jurors who indicated that they opposed capital punishment but would be willing to impose it. Those dismissed should have been questioned further to get a fuller picture of whether they could've acted fairly or not, the court's decision stated.

The conviction, however, still stands, and prosecutors can either pursue another penalty trial to see if they can end up with the same result or agree to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. A spokesman for the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office told reporters afterward, "We are going to have to review the decision and get together with the victim's family before any decision is going to be made."

For Laci's family, justice was served when Scott was convicted of her murder—a brutal, chilling crime that has haunted everyone involved for the better part of two decades—and given the death penalty. Scott, meanwhile, has insisted that he's innocent and has argued that the media circus surrounding the case prevented him from getting a fair trial so close to home.

The high court pointed out in its ruling that the uproar was "intrinsic to the case, not the place," and that many a criminal defense has had to persevere in the midst of a publicity storm.

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Laci Peterson disappeared on Dec. 24, 2002, with Scott saying he last saw her at their Modesto, Calif., home when she was about to go walk their dog in a nearby park. He said he left at 9:30 a.m. to go fishing at the Berkeley Marina, which is about 86 miles away, and never saw her again.

She was 8 months pregnant with the couple's first child, whom they had already named Conner. The nursery was waiting, painted blue and decorated with a nautical theme.

At 2:17 p.m., Scott left this voicemail on Laci's cell phone: "Hi, beautiful. I just left you a message at home. 2:15. I'm leaving Berkeley. I won't be able to get to Vella Farms to get the basket for Poppa. I was hoping you would get this message and go on out there. I'll see you in a bit, sweetie. I love you. Bye."

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Practically from the day she was reported missing, the case had all the makings of a media sensation—a pretty, young, expectant mother with a handsome husband; tragedy striking a family in a quiet California town on Christmas Eve; a community coming together to search for its homegrown daughter. Cable news was, suffice it to say, obsessed.

"Whoever has her could have some compassion," Brent Rocha, Laci's brother, told reporters. "She's a human being. She's pregnant. She needs to take care of her baby. She's a wife, a daughter, a sister. Please return her."

But barely three weeks after Laci's disappearance, the story took a turn that suggested not every member of the family was torn apart.

ZUMA Press/ZUMAPRESS.com

On Dec. 30, Amber Frey contacted the Modesto Police tip line after finding out her lover, Scott Peterson, was the guy in the news whose wife had gone missing.

Frey, a 27-year-old massage therapist and single mother from Fresno, Calif., met Peterson Nov. 20, 2002, on a blind date set up by a friend when the 30-year-old fertilizer salesman was in Fresno on business.

"I was introduced to him. I was told he was unmarried. Scott told me he was not married," Frey told reporters at a Jan. 24 press conference at the Modesto Police Station, organized to briefly explain her role in the investigation after the tabloids, starting with the National Enquirer, had gotten wind of her existence.

"He said he lived in Sacramento, that he also had a condo in San Diego, and he had found a couple that wanted to purchase the condo [and his] Land Rover," Frey (who went on to write the book Witness: For the Prosecution of Scott Petersontold NBC News in a 2005 interview, recalling their first date, dinner at a Japanese restaurant. "So, I thought, 'Wow. That's a pretty good deal.'"

She also recalled Peterson telling her that he was unmarried and had just been too busy traveling to settle down—no wife, no girlfriend, not even a dog.

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Carvalho/FilmMagic

They spent that first night together, and then she saw him several times over the next three weeks. On Dec. 9, 2002, Peterson told Frey that he had been married, but he had "lost" his wife and was coming upon his first Christmas without her. They logged 241 cell phone calls in 93 days, starting five weeks before Laci disappeared.

Frey recalled deciding at the time that it wasn't appropriate to press him for details, so she told Scott she wasn't mad and understood why he had lied. But, Frey later claimed, she eventually grew suspicious that he wasn't being truthful with her in general. A cop friend of hers in Fresno did some digging and that's when the articles about the young wife who'd gone missing in Modesto turned up.

At the behest of Modesto police, she agreed to tape her phone conversations with Scott, to see if she could confirm their suspicions that Laci's husband was hiding something.

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On New Year's Eve, Scott called Amber and said he was in Paris. In reality he was in Modesto, where he attended a candlelight vigil for Laci, sitting in the crowd with friends instead of up front with her family. On Jan. 6, he admitted to Frey that he hadn't really gone to Paris but was in Modesto helping to search for his wife, saying she was alive but missing. He also told his mistress that he wanted a future with her, but "didn't want to have any children."

Frey would continue to record her phone conversations with Peterson for the next two months and they talked nearly every day until Feb. 19.

AP Photo/David Paul Morris, Pool

"[Seeing] this woman, knowing she's missing, she's pregnant," Frey recalled to 20/20 in 2017. "Being a mother...at that point, it wasn't about me. It was about finding this woman."

On Jan. 15, 2003, aware that the whole world would know soon, police told Laci's immediate family that Scott had been having an affair, showing her mother, Sharon Rocha, and stepfather, Ron Grantski, a photo of Scott with Amber. "Sharon buried her head in her hands and said, 'Why did he have to kill her?'" Modesto Police Detective Jon Buehler recounted to People in 2005.

Hours before Frey would speak out on Jan. 24, Sharon, Ron and Laci's brother, Brent, told reporters that they were no longer supporting Scott Peterson—who had not yet officially been named a suspect—as police continued their investigation.

"Scott has not been forthcoming with information regarding my sister's disappearance, and I am only left to question what else he may be hiding," Brent said. Added Sharon, "There are no words that can possibly describe the ache in my heart or the emptiness in my life. I know someone knows where Laci is. I am pleading with you to please, please let her come home."

Kimberly White-Pool/Getty Images

Frey, who ended up hiring the media-savvy Gloria Allred as her attorney, said at the Jan. 24 press conference, "I am very sorry for Laci's family and the pain this has caused them, and I pray for her safe return as well."

Scott's sister-in-law Janey Peterson told CNN, "There is absolutely no way Scott had anything to do with Laci's disappearance." Even if he did have an affair, "frankly, it wouldn't matter," she said. "It's a distraction from what our primary focus needs to be, and that's to bring Laci home." On Jan. 17, his mother, Jackie Peterson, left him a voice mail advising him to "deny, deny, deny" whatever the cops claimed he did. On a police wiretap Jackie was heard telling her son on Jan. 26, "I can't imagine anyone being stupid enough to say they went fishing in the Berkeley Bay after having committed a crime there. I mean not even you, Scott.'"

After the emergence of Amber Frey blew the lid off of Peterson's worried husband act, which authorities had doubted anyway, he sat down with ABC News' Diane Sawyer on Jan. 28 and admitted to cheating.

But, he insisted, he had told Lacey about the affair and she had forgiven him. They were looking forward to having their baby, he said.

"Did you murder your wife?" Sawyer asked.

"No, no, I did not," Peterson said with a small shake of his head. "And I had absolutely nothing to do with her disappearance. And use the word 'murder,' and yeah, that is a possibility [that Laci's dead]."

He smiled, as if he were not talking about the possibility of his wife being dead, but almost jollily agreeing that the worst was possible but he wasn't worried about that yet. "It's not one we're ready to accept, but it creeps in my mind late at night, and early in the morning. And during the day all we can think about is the right resolutions to find her...well."

People do smile when they're nervous or scared sometimes, but it's really hard to reasonably match Scott Peterson's facial expressions with the topic at hand.

He called violence against women "unapproachable...the most disgusting act, to me."

ZUMA Press/ZUMAPRESS.com

On April 13, 2003, a little less than four months after Laci vanished, the remains of a male fetus, umbilical cord still attached, washed up on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, in Richmond. A piece of a woman's torso was found the next day wedged beneath a rock at Point Isabel about a mile south. Point Isabel is roughly two miles north of the Berkeley Marina, where Scott had said he'd gone fishing on the morning of Dec. 24, 2002.

On April 18, the same day then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer confirmed the remains belonged to Laci and Conner Peterson, Scott was arrested outside the Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif. When authorities caught up with him, he had grown a goatee, his hair was dyed blondish and in his vehicle he had camping gear, a driver's license issued to his brother, four cell phones, almost $15,000 in cash and 12 Viagra tablets (the last of which wasn't admitted as evidence at trial).

"He was just calm, like he always was, after they put the handcuffs on him," Buehler told People in 2005 about Peterson's arrest. "When we got him back to the offices, and he had his pool-dyed hair or whatever he said it was, we sat him down. He was not angry. He didn't ask a whole bunch of questions. The only thing he said was, 'Is that my wife and son?' At that point it was sort of like, 'Come on, Scott.' So I said, 'You know the answer to that question.' Then he did fake sniffles."

Detective Al Brocchino, also recalling the road that led to Scott's arrest, told People, "I had a gut feeling [from the beginning], and the patrol officers out there had gut feelings. He went fishing 90 miles from home on Christmas Eve with an 8 1/2-month-pregnant wife. When we questioned him a couple of hours after he got home, he didn't know what he was fishing for or what bait he was using. Those were red flags."

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Defense attorney Mark Geragos would try to turn the cops' early suspicions against them at trial, arguing that police bias and the media's demonization of Scott had doomed his client from the start. Before the trial started in June 2004 in Redwood City (the defense had requested a change of venue from Laci's hometown), Geragos publicly asked anyone with information about what really happened to Laci to come forward. He floated the idea that she had been kidnapped by cult members, saying an abduction was the "only thing that makes sense."

The first big point of contention when the trial got underway—and still a sticking point for those who question the guilty verdict—was the matter of the clothing Laci was wearing when she disappeared.

On the morning of Dec. 23, Laci bought $100 worth of groceries at Trader Joe's in preparation for hosting a family dinner on Christmas Eve. Two witnesses for the prosecution testified that they had seen Laci in a white top and black pants on Dec. 23 when she came in for a wax at the spa where they worked shortly after noon. (The spa's owner, Michelle Buer, said that Laci had mentioned she wasn't sleeping well, but she had never complained about her husband.)

Scott had said that when he last saw Laci on Dec. 24 she was wearing a white shirt and black pants.

Modesto Police Department

Laci was found, however, in khaki pants (or the torso that was recovered was wearing the remnants of khaki pants). Her half-sister, Amy Rocha, testified that she saw Laci wearing light-colored pants on the evening of Dec. 23, when Laci and Scott visited the salon where Amy worked and she cut Scott's hair. The prosecution left open the possibility that Laci could've been killed on the 23rd, after which Scott dumped her body in San Francisco Bay (using a boat that he had secretly purchased) and concocted the Dec. 24 story about her proposed walk to the park.

However, according to a police report that became part of the overall case file, on a tour of the Peterson home with authorities on Feb. 18, Amy identified a black shirt with cream-colored flowers found in the hamper and cream-colored pants hanging in the closet as the clothes her sister had been wearing on the 23rd. Under cross-examination by the defense, Amy testified that the clothes she saw Laci wearing on Dec. 23 appeared to be all at the house, a slight hitch to the prosecution's stipulation that Peterson could have murdered her when she was wearing her outfit from the night of the 23rd, hours before he claimed to have last seen her.

Amy also testified that Scott had offered to pick up a gift basket for her from Vella Farms in north Modesto because he planned to go golfing near there; that's the basket Scott was referring to in the voicemail he left on Laci's phone on Dec. 24. She next talked to Scott when he called her at 5:15 p.m. on Dec. 24, and "he was panicked," she said.

Meanwhile, the jury didn't think the quibbling over Laci's outfit or the exact time of her death was a reason to doubt Scott's guilt. Nor was anything else.

Scott Peterson was convicted of two counts of murder (first-degree for his wife, with special circumstances, and second-degree for her unborn baby) in November 2004 and, in February 2005, a judge sentenced him to death.

"Oh, it was crazy there," Peterson recalled hearing the verdict in an interview from death row featured in the 2017 A&E docu-series The Murder of Laci Peterson. "Just like this amazing, horrible physical reaction I had. I couldn't feel my feet on the floor. I couldn't feel the chair I was sitting in, my vision was even a little blurry."

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"You can't tell me these people kidnapped and killed her [as the defense suggested], took her and changed her clothes and drove out to Berkeley and dumped her where Scott was fishing, all to frame him. It's not possible," Peterson juror Richelle Nice, who was accused in one of Peterson's appeal as having had it in for Scott before the jury was even seated, told the Modesto Bee in September.

Geragos called her a "stealth juror" who had omitted from her voir dire questionnaire that, when pregnant, she got a restraining order against her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend and feared for her unborn child's safety—and in turn she wanted to punish Scott, so she did her best to get picked.

"[The boyfriend's ex] never threatened to kill me, to kill my unborn child, to beat me up," Nice told the Bee, insisting she never tried to hide anything or misrepresent herself. "When I filled out that questionnaire, my situation never came into my mind because it was not similar at all." She said that she and the ex-girlfriend had long since made peace and get along fine.

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The defense did their best to pick apart the prosecution's case, which ultimately was circumstantial, there being no forensics definitively tying Scott to the murder. (Police tracking dogs did indicate that Laci had left the house by car and not on foot, as a walk to the park would entail, and had recently been in Scott's boat, but the evidence was ruled "iffy" and therefore inadmissible at trial.)

Being a cheater didn't make Scott Peterson a murderer, Geragos argued. Amber Frey was mad at Scott for lying to her and set out to trap him. The police botched their own investigation, he said, alleging that they zeroed in on Scott from the beginning and let any and all other leads fall by the wayside while they sought to railroad his client.

Fred Larson-Pool/Getty Images

The prosecution and Laci's loved ones would argue, meanwhile, that Scott sealed his own fate when he murdered his wife and unborn child.

The Petersons' cleaning lady testified that she had last washed the kitchen floor with water and a pine oil-based cleanser. Investigators had said they smelled bleach when they first came to the Peterson house.

Witnesses who initially rallied around Scott, but then soon grew suspicious of him, testified that he was eerily calm when Laci was first reported missing. They thought it strange that he didn't talk to the media when most would have wanted to get the word out to as many people as possible, instead telling her brother and stepdad, "This isn't about me, this is about finding Laci."

"She will be giving birth real soon. We need to bring them home and I think that's the best way we can do it all," Peterson told police at the time.

Laci's mom, Sharon, recalled on the stand Scott randomly blurting out to her, while police combed the house and yard in those early days, "'I wouldn't be surprised if they find blood on my truck because I cut myself frequently.'"

Ron, Laci's stepfather, testified, "I said [to Scott], 'I think your Berkeley fishing trip is a fishy story. Did you do something else? Do you have a girlfriend?' He said, 'No,' and he turned around and walked away."

The defense would suggest that learning about Scott's affair had tainted the family's recollections of that day, that maybe only in hindsight he acted so suspiciously. Brent Rocha testified under cross-examination that Scott seemed devastated when his in-laws found out about Frey.

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Laci's family also speculated at trial that Scott didn't seem entirely gung-ho about becoming a father.

"He looked at me and said, 'I was kinda hoping for infertility,'" Laci's sister-in-law Rosemarie Rocha testified. She acknowledged, however, telling police in January 2003 that the Petersons had seemed like a happy couple to her.

Sharon testified that she and her daughter were very close and talked almost every day. Their last phone conversation was at 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 23 and lasted only a couple of minutes.

The next night, Scott called Sharon and said Laci was missing. "When he said 'missing,' that's what concerned me," Sharon recalled. "It wasn't that she wasn't there, or he couldn't find her, but that she was missing."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the 2017 ABC News special Truth and Lies: The Murder of Laci Peterson, Sharon recalled experiencing the horrifying realization that her son-in-law had murdered her daughter. "That's the last person you want to think had anything to do with the disappearance of your daughter—her husband," she said. "The person that was a member of your family, somebody that you loved and cared about, and thought he felt the same way about your daughter. And knowing how she felt about him."

But Sharon was also haunted by something her daughter said the last time she ever saw her. 

Having put her hand on Laci's stomach to try to feel the baby kicking, Sharon recalled Laci leaning "over to me and she said, 'Mom, Scott doesn't like to do this. I've asked him about, you know, feel my stomach when the baby kicks, and he never wants to touch my stomach.'

"That really, really bothered me," Sharon said. "And that was the last time I saw her."

Anne Bird, a half-sister Peterson didn't know he had until they met in 1997, wrote a book about the case called Blood Brother, in which she detailed being initially very protective of Scott before becoming increasingly convinced of his guilt. Asked if she felt she was betraying her new family, which she hadn't grown up with but said she had grown to love, with her tell-all, Bird told NBC News in 2005, "I do feel that I'm betraying them on some level. I feel sad and, you know, I don't intend for this to be hurtful in any way. I think at the very least, Laci and Conner deserved the truth."

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Juror Richelle Nice told the Modesto Bee that she regretted ever sounding too pleased about Peterson's fate in interviews after the trial.

"Did I say some things after the trial that people are upset with? Yeah. I was pissed off at that point," she said. "He murdered his wife and unborn child. He never gave Conner a chance at life. He could have easily left and walked away. Laci would have been just fine being a single mom.

"I wasn't fixated on punishing Scott," Nice insisted. "But Conner was not given a fair shake at life. He was taken away by his father, somebody that should have protected him, somebody that should have taught him to play ball, taught him how to play golf. He could have left Laci to raise him. He just didn't give him a fair chance."

She admitted, "The trial took a toll on me. Here's a man who probably told Laci he loved her every day, told her she was beautiful, and all the while he was planning to kill her. So that made me trust people less, how some people can be so deceiving. Even their family members, everyone thought they were this perfect couple. And deep down inside, he was a monster."

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To this day, however, there are still some who are more inclined to agree with the defense's version of events—that Scott Peterson is innocent and the victim of shoddy police work and an unfair trial—then with the small solace that justice was served when he was convicted of murder.

When he first arrived on death row, women called up to propose marriage and the letters poured in, earning him the nickname "Scotty Too Hotty." Peterson had always been attractive to the opposite sex—Frey wasn't the only self-proclaimed other woman to come forward—and being a convicted murderer did nothing to dissuade a hearty faction of would-be new girlfriends.

Two avenues of appeal are open to death row inmates in California—direct appeal, based on the trial and the judge's actions during the proceedings; and a habeas corpus review, a chance to introduce new evidence or other findings and information that wasn't considered during the trial in an effort to exonerate the convicted, or at least win a new trial.

Peterson's appellate attorney Cliff Gardner filed a direct appeal in 2012, alleging that Judge Al Delucchi, who died in 2008, made questionable rulings during jury selection. Moreover, Gardner's 423-page filing stated, "Before hearing even a single witness, nearly half of all prospective jurors admitted they had already decided Mr. Peterson was guilty of capital murder."

The trial should have been moved way further out of town, Gardner continued, writing, "After the guilty verdict was announced, the 12 jurors departing to await the beginning of the penalty phase—and decide whether Mr. Peterson would live or die—were met with wild applause and cheering."

In her 2015 response, California Attorney General Donna Provenzano called Delucchi "an experienced and respected jurist" and stated that the jury had "fairly concluded that [Scott Peterson], in an unmitigated act of selfishness and arrogance, extinguished two beautiful lives." He was fueled by "selfishness, arrogance and wanderlust," Provenzano argued.

Attorney Lawrence Gibbs, who filed Scott's habeas corpus appeal in late 2015, announced he was retiring in March 2017, telling the Modesto Bee that another lawyer would take over for him and the defense would stay the course. In the habeas corpous petition, among other things, was the allegation that Richelle Nice had lied in order to get on the jury and punish Scott because she was fixated on Conner's death (she referred to the unborn child as "little man" in later interviews). The appeal also criticized Geragos as lead defense counsel, saying he failed to call witnesses that could have poked bigger holes in the prosecution's account (some of whom reportedly gave interviews for the 2017 A&E series), and didn't make enough of the fact that a neighbor had broken into the Peterson home in January 2003 and stole Laci's wedding dress (which was later returned to the family).

AP Photo/Al Golub, pool

Nice, who wrote to Peterson six times once he was on death row, insisted to the Bee in September that the story as laid out in the appeal was "not accurate." And she didn't write Peterson to become his pen pal, she said, but because he had never testified during the trial.

"My questions to him was why, why did he do this? There was no friendship. There was no pen pal," Nice said. "Did I expect he would confess? No. But I wanted to hear from him. That was my whole reason for writing to Scott."

The Modesto Bee noted that no juror the paper had contacted over the years ever openly second-guessed the verdict or the decision to give Peterson the death penalty.

In response to the habeas corpus petition, meanwhile, documents filed with the California Supreme Court in August 2017 contended that Geragos did a fine job representing his client at trial.

Lead prosecutor Birgit Fladager, who became Stanislaus County District Attorney in 2006, called AG Provenzano's rebuttal of the defense's claims "truly an example of the highest caliber of professionalism that all attorneys should strive to emulate."

Modesto Police Department/A&E

Geragos continued to insist his former client was wrongfully convicted. He appeared at a panel, as did Gardner, Scott's current attorney, at the 2016 American Documentary Film Festival for the premiere of Trial by Fury: The People v. Scott Peterson (which lay heavily on the side of Peterson deserving a new trial), and he participated in the 2017 A&E docu-series.

He told CNN's Ashleigh Banfield in August 2017 that he saw Peterson when he visited other clients at San Quentin State Prison, about every other year. Scott "has adjusted as well as anybody could who believes that they are innocently behind bars and on death row," the lawyer. "And as [Scott] has said before, during and after, this pales in comparison to having your family wiped out and that you're accused and convicted of doing it."

Geragos continued, "I had told Scott when he was convicted, when he was sentenced, that it was going to take at least 10 years for the public kind of outcry over this to subside so there could be some dispassionate analysis. Because once you do dispassionate analysis, you realize there was no circumstantial evidence, there was no crime scene, there was no time of death, there was no [conclusion as to] manner of death."

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Jackie Peterson maintained that her son was innocent until her death in 2013.

No one has been executed in California since 2006. The separate habeas corpus challenge, which, according to Gardner, includes "new forensic and eyewitness evidence of innocence," is still under review.

In a statement to the Modesto Bee, Gardner said following the California Supreme Court's ruling on Aug. 24, 2020, "We are grateful for the California Supreme Court's unanimous recognition that if the state wishes to put someone to death, it must proceed to trial only with a fairly selected jury. Prosecutors may not rely on a jury specifically organized by the state to return a verdict of death.

"And while we are disappointed that such a biased jury selection process results in a reversal of only the death sentence, we look forward to the Court's review of the new forensic and eyewitness evidence of innocence presented in Mr. Peterson's separate and still pending state habeas petition."

Laci's family has yet to comment on the latest development.

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In a December 2007 interview with the Modesto Bee, Sharon Rocha reflected on what it would be like to be a member of Scott's family in this situation. But only momentarily.

"If it was my child, that would be extremely difficult to deal with," she acknowledged. "But he's not my child. He murdered my child. So as far as I'm concerned, he's where he needs to be."

"I miss everything about [Laci]," Sharon said. "It just changes your life totally and completely. There is nothing about my life that is like it was before. Even though it's been almost five years, it still feels as though it was just yesterday. It changes, but it doesn't go away. There are many times that it seems like forever since I've seen Laci. I've gone through a day and think, 'Wow, I finally didn't cry today.' But it wasn't that I didn't think about her, because I always do. There is always something that makes me think about Laci."

(Originally published Dec. 24, 2017, at 6 a.m. PT)