SACRAMENTO — Joanne Arpino remembers Polly Klaas. She thinks a lot about Caylee Anthony. She said she will never forget JonBenét Ramsey's sweet face.
But lately, the retired nurse has been haunted by the images of another girl whose life ended in tragedy, Sandra Cantu of Tracy.
Arpino lives across the country in Knoxville, Tenn., but the discovery of the 8-year-old's remains this week somehow feels personal.
"I am devastated that they did not find her alive. I am absolutely devastated," said Arpino, a mother of three and grandmother of six.
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Thousands of people who never knew Sandra or her family but who followed news of the case are in mourning this week.
They are making pilgrimages to a memorial outside the trailer park where the girl last was seen alive, dropping off toys and flowers and ceramic angels. They are writing notes to the Cantu family and pleading with police to find the person who killed the girl and dumped her body in an irrigation pond.
When a child goes missing in this era of the Internet and 24-hour news coverage, the country and the world respond.
Striking an elemental chord
In Sandra's case, thousands of people, some from as far away as Europe, have posted heartfelt messages on an online memorial page in The Modesto Bee and other newspapers. They write poems and prayers and offer words of comfort to a family they likely never will meet. They share stories about their children and grandchildren.
The reaction is not surprising, said psychologist Debra Moore of Sacramento.
"As human beings, we are evolutionarily programmed to feel this way," Moore said. "Protecting our young as a way of continuing the species is about as primitive as it gets.
"When a child is harmed, everything inside of us screams out that this cannot be, that we cannot have this. When we see the images of someone so vulnerable, we react."
Yet, it is almost impossible to predict which cases will capture the public's attention, said Scott Webb, executive director of the Modesto-based Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, which works with investigators and families in missing person cases.
"It's sometimes hard for me to understand," he said. "We have people go missing every day, and many of them are small children — and most do not get the coverage and community support they deserve."
Webb said law enforcement's quick response in Sandra's case, and the media's aggressive reporting, are largely responsible for the public reaction.
"As the story unfolded, people put themselves in this family's situation," he said. "They tried to imagine what it would be like if their child was missing. They started living it. When the worst happened, it was overwhelming."
Arpino is among nearly 1,700 people who offered condolences to the Cantu family this week on newspaper Web sites maintained by Legacy.com.
"There is no doubt that the Nation mourns for you and for the loss of your beautiful daughter," she wrote. "We feel heartbroken and our thoughts and prayers are with you now."
Arpino, who writes poetry in her spare time, shared a poem she titled "Not Gone," that she said she hoped would offer the Cantu family some comfort. The poem speaks of hopeful messages from deceased loved ones, in the form of warm sunbeams and gentle breezes.
"I cannot imagine losing one of my children, especially that way," she said in a phone interview. "I just wanted to maybe be a tiny part of helping this family through a tragedy."
Eleanor Merola-Calderon, a mother of two from Brooklyn, N.Y., had similar feelings when she reached out to the Cantus through the online service.
She ended her missive with a warning. "Please keep your other children in your view, always. Never let them out of your sight. The world is sad now without Sandra's beauty."
From mother to mother
Reached at home Thursday, Merola-Calderon said she wishes she could "put my arms around Sandra's mother." Since she cannot, she decided to write to her.
"Sandra was a second-grader. She was exactly my son Ian's age," Merola-Calderon said. "When I saw the video of her skipping through her neighborhood, it felt so poignant. It was almost as though she was skipping to her own demise.
"As a mother, you feel an attachment to another mother."
Hayes Ferguson, Legacy's chief operating officer, said the "guest books" serve as online versions of the books that mourners sign at funeral services.
"We figured that this would allow people who might not be able to attend services to immediately share their thoughts, and see what others had to say," she said. "Because they were able to write in the comfort of their homes, people had time to share detailed stories, and they felt freer to share their emotions."
Legacy, founded in 1998, posts "guest books" for celebrities and ordinary people. Last year, more than 13,000 people signed a guest book for actor and comedian Bernie Mac, making him the most popular Legacy figure of 2008.
Overwhelmed by the memorial outside their Tracy mobile home park that had grown as long as a city block, Cantu's family asked Thursday that mourners stop adding to it.
Moore, the psychologist, said whether people feel a connection to someone who has died seems to have little to do with whether they knew the individual or even lived on the same continent.
"The only distance that matters is the distance to that person's heart," she said.
Writing messages helps people process their emotions in the face of unimaginable tragedy, and receiving them helps grieving families heal, she said.
"It's very beneficial for these families to know that we are all connected, and that someone has taken the time and the effort to visit a memorial or to write," Moore said. "That's very powerful. This is a great gift that people are giving."
Sacramento Bee researcher Sheila A. Kern contributed to this report.
Leave condolences for Sandra's family at www.legacy.com/obituaries/modestobee.