MODESTO, Calif. -- Thousands of people packed a church Sunday to remember Laci Peterson on what would have been her 28th birthday, nearly three weeks after her body washed ashore along with the remains of her unborn son.
Many mourners who had never met the young woman filled the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Modesto for a nationally televised service that reflected the extraordinary way in which Peterson's story has touched so many Americans.
"Even though Laci is not with us here today, she will always be in my heart and in my memories," her 13-year-old cousin, T.J. Vasquez said as he choked back tears. "Happy birthday, Laci."
In a series of eulogies, family and friends remembered Peterson as a woman who connected with people naturally and easily. There was no mention of her husband, Scott Peterson, who has been arrested and charged with killing his wife and unborn son.
"So many questions and no answers. No real answers," Laci Peterson's cousin Addie Hansberry said. "Today I come to you with a heavy heart because we know now Laci is never coming back."
The crowd overflowed the huge church, and many of the mourners ended up watching the service on closed-circuit television. But despite the long wait, mourners said they were glad they attended.
"My daughter just had a baby. I can imagine what the family is going through," said Lisa Maldonado, who drove from San Jose with her husband and two children. "It's made me feel better that I came."
Vanished before Christmas
Peterson was eight months pregnant when vanished just before Christmas, setting off a media frenzy in the following months as investigators searched for the body and her husband admitted to having an affair with a massage therapist.
Last month, people walking along the eastern shoreline of San Francisco Bay found Laci's body near that of her unborn son that she and her husband had planned to name Conner.
Scott Peterson, 30, was arrested April 18 in San Diego and has pleaded innocent to two counts of murder. A bail hearing is set for May 6.
His request to attend the memorial service was denied by the Stanislaus County Sheriff, said spokesman Kelly Huston.
Outside of the church before the service, two young girls near the front of one line waited to honor Laci Peterson, who served as their substitute teacher.
"She was very easy to love," said Tiffany Collins, 14, as she waited to enter with her friend Angelina Carpenetti, 15.
Danelle Herran, 24, of San Francisco helped pass out flyers when Peterson was still missing. She attended the memorial and wore several small pictures of Peterson pinned to her shirt.
"I thought it was important to be here and show respect and support for her family," Herran said.
At the Peterson house hours before the memorial service, streams of people toting small children approached the home leaving flowers and balloons. The street is blocked with yellow cones but people parked their cars and walked to the house where they posed for family photos in the front yard.
"It's been pretty chaotic around here," said neighbor Linda Caudle.
It was a far different scene than a month ago when media swarmed the house day and night, Caudle said. Now, it's just a steady flow of onlookers.
"We're ready for it all to quiet down and be our neighborhood again," Caudle said.
She called the passers-by "tourists" and "gawkers."
"I just can't see how any good can come from walking up and looking at the house. I just cannot understand the curiosity with a house," Caudle said. "This goes on morning, day and night. It's almost ghoulish."