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Mourners remember Laci Peterson

Brent Rocha, Laci Peterson's brother, fights back tears as he speaks at the service.
Brent Rocha, Laci Peterson's brother, fights back tears as he speaks at the service.

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Mourners marked Laci Peterson's 28th birthday by reflecting on her life. CNN's Rusty Dornin reports (May 5)
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MODESTO, California (CNN) -- Family and friends of Laci Peterson mourned the slain woman and her unborn child at a memorial service Sunday at First Baptist Church on what would have been her 28th birthday.

The memorial was held in lieu of a funeral because Peterson's remains have not been released. The church, which can accommodate 3,500 people, was packed.

The Rev. Donna Arno officiated the ceremony, referring to Peterson as "bubbly, vivacious and the life of the party."

Peterson's brother, Brent Rocha, spoke briefly along with two of her cousins and several of her friends.

Struggling to hold back tears, Rocha said his sister would never have wanted anyone to grieve her death and would be surprised to know that so many had turned out to celebrate her life.

His sister, a substitute teacher, was last reported seen alive Christmas Eve by her husband, Scott Peterson, who told authorities he left his eight-months-pregnant wife that morning at their house to go fishing.

Her body and that of her unborn child were found washed ashore in early April near the Berkeley Marina, where Peterson said he had launched his boat on that fishing trip.

"On the 50th day that she was missing, I woke up that morning, and I'm mad," recalled Addie Hansberry, Laci Peterson's cousin. "I wanted to know why. Who would take Laci and her unborn child?

"We still had hope that we would find her and prayer was on our side," Hansberry said. "Today, I come to you with a heavy heart because I know that Laci is never coming back."

Between speeches, the audience heard musical tributes and saw a video featuring still shots of Peterson, including baby pictures, prom and cheerleading pictures. Some people wept.

Terri Western, a family friend, said she watched Peterson develop through more than 20 years of birthdays, boyfriends, homecomings and proms.

Friend: Peterson would have been proud mother

Western said she would have been a proud mother to the child she and her husband had planned to name Connor.

"It was as if she had waited all her life to become pregnant," Western said. "And as she talked to me about the upcoming birth of her baby, Connor, and the upcoming baby shower, she asked me to stop by and see the nursery."

Western never got a chance to stop by.

"I don't know much about letting go, but I'm learning," she said.

Peterson's 13-year-old cousin, T.J. Vasquez, read a tribute.

"When I think of Laci, I think of how she helped me with my math. She explained it in a way I would understand. She was a good teacher."

Crying as he left the podium, T.J. said, "Happy birthday, Laci."

Several of Peterson's friends joined together at the podium to recount experiences with her, conjuring both laughter and sorrow.

"We're all better people after knowing Laci," one of her friends said.

They said they have received thousands of letters and phone calls from well-wishers.

Absent from the service was husband Scott Peterson, 30, who is in the Stanislaus County Jail, awaiting trial on two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife and the child, who was due to be born in February. He has pleaded innocent. Last week, the Stanislaus County sheriff turned down his request to attend the service.

Saying they did not want their presence at the service to turn it into a circus, Scott Peterson's family members also stayed away, saying they would grieve for their in-law at their home in San Diego.

Peterson's next court appearance is set for Monday. A bail hearing, originally set for Tuesday, has been postponed.

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