The families of both Laci and Scott Peterson were in seclusion Tuesday while the nation's attention was momentarily diverted form the war in Iraq to the latest events in the saga of the missing Modesto woman.
In a statement, Laci Peterson's family requested that the media leave them alone while they waited for the results of DNA tests on the decomposing remains of a woman and a newborn infant boy that were found in San Francisco Bay.
"We believe that if this is Laci, God has allowed her to be found because our family needs to know where she is and what has happened to her," said the statement, which was read by Kim Petersen, executive director of the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Foundation.
"If this turns out to be Laci, we want the animal responsible for this heinous act to pay," the statement said. "During this time of waiting, we ask that you respect our privacy and our need to be together as a family. We will not be conducting any interviews prior to the test results."
Modesto police and authorities in Contra Costa County said it could be several days and possibly weeks before the forensic DNA testing was completed on the remains of what has been described in news reports as a headless female adult torso and an infant male child with his umbilical cord still attached.
Laci Peterson was nearly eight months pregnant at the time she disappeared on Christmas Eve day while Scott Peterson said he was fishing on San Francisco Bay, not far from the locations where the remains were discovered.
Modesto Police detective Doug Ridenour said Scott Peterson had still not been named as a suspect in the disappearance that last month was declared a homicide, nor had he been ruled out. The fertilizer salesman and expectant father has moved out of the couple's home and was last reported with his own family in the San Diego area.
"I don't know where he is, and if I know where he was I couldn't tell you," said Ridenour, who has gone from an everyday cop to the department's point man for a national media that has made the baffling disappearances a staple of their coverage since another Modesto woman, Chandra Levy, vanished in the nation's capital.
The California Attorney General's office says an average of 26,000 open cases are in its missing persons databases at any given time. Most don't get much media attention at all let alone the kind of intense coverage given to the stories of Laci Peterson and others such as Danielle van Dam and Elizabeth Smart.
"In my opinion, this story has indeed received much more coverage than a 'normal' disappearance, and probably much more than its news value merited," said Jeff McCall, a broadcast journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
McCall told United Press International that the Laci story did not have any real effect on most Americans, however it had the ingredients to be a powerful draw on the morbid curiosity of both press and public.
"Even news reporters are really storytellers of sorts," he observed. "They are attracted to certain stories more than others. This story has more drama, and more of a sense of the bizarre than most disappearances."
Laci's disappearance on Christmas Eve day had all of the hallmarks of a tragedy in the making. The substitute schoolteacher was eagerly anticipating the birth of her son, Conner, in February and her husband was a successful fertilizer salesman.
Things began to unravel, however, when no sign of Laci was found in the neighborhood and it was learned that Scott Peterson had picked the day before Christmas to drive some 75 miles to the bay to go fishing by himself in a new skiff rather than sticking around the house to help his pregnant wife prepare for the holidays.
The case took an even more ominous turn when it was revealed that Scott Peterson had a girlfriend in Fresno who was unaware that he was a married man.
"You have the angle of the love triangle, obviously, and the whole rather incredible notion that the husband indicates he is clueless about the disappearance, etc.," McCall said. "In addition, you have the attractive young, pregnant, helpless woman as the victim. Then you have the location -- California -- where everything seems to be bigger and more dramatic."
A random pole of television viewers who have followed the Laci story largely concurred with McCall, finding that the helplessness of the victim and the strange circumstances of her disappearance struck an emotional chord.
"I think people feel that if something this horrid could happen to a very normal middle-of-the-road kind of person living a fairly quiet normal life in a fairly quiet normal place, then it could happen to them and they begin to identify with it," said Kate Adams, a Brentwood executive.
Boston resident Melissa Friedman told UPI that Laci's pregnancy also brought the story closer to home for her because her sister had recently had a baby.
"She just seemed like an all-American girl with a wonderful family and all of a sudden she's gone," Friedman said. "It just felt too close."
Lily Whiteman, an environmental writer in Washington, also was among those who found the idea of someone coldly killing a pregnant woman to be appalling, however she conceded that sad fact was also something that would hold people's attention.
"It's not only that the Laci case is a classic whodunit, it's that a pregnant victim is particularly sympathetic," she said. "It's a combo platter."