Debra J. Saunders

The parking lot outside the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff was packed with TV vans, camera equipment and shivering reporters on Tuesday morning. To the public, we probably looked like vultures, ghoulishly itching to feast on what factual remains we could scavenge from two corpses that had washed up on the Richmond shore over two days, corpses that might be of Modesto resident Laci Peterson and the unborn baby whom she planned to name Connor.

In fact, however, there was little appetite for this story. Many reporters didn't want to be there.

Many don't think the Peterson story deserves the media attention it has garnered. If it weren't for cable news, this would be a local story -- local for Modesto, not for California, not for the nation.

Why is Laci Peterson a big story while countless other missing people rate a back-page story, if that? A reporter from a rival publication lists the traits he thinks helped to inflate her story: white, very pregnant and from Modesto, home of the late Chandra Levy. And she disappeared on Christmas Eve, another newspaper reporter added.

I don't think the story would be as big as it is if Laci Peterson weren't so cute, and so, well -- at least we thought -- happily married.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Janine DeFao, who has covered the story for months, told me earlier that she frequently hears from journalism students writing papers on why this missing-person case has received so much media attention.

The question is more than academic. Just ask Modesto resident Donna Raley, whose beloved 36-year-old step-daughter Dena Raley-McCluskey disappeared in 1999. Raley has had to watch a media whirlwind follow Levy, then Peterson, but largely bypass her step-daughter.

Raley doesn't begrudge the Laci coverage. "Laci's family, they got what they deserve. It just didn't happen for my family," Raley said. The focus on Levy and Peterson, she believes, prompted police to focus on Dena's disappearance with a stronger understanding of the epidemic of violence against women.

Raley and Chandra's mother, Susan Levy, founded a group, Wings of Protection, to support the families of individuals "missing under suspicious circumstances. "

Debra J. Saunders

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