Central Valley

With Tracy girl gone a week, fear grows

TRACY — With every agonizing day that comes and goes with no sign of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, history warns of a disastrous end.

Today, the Tracy girl will have been missing one week. That is a significant amount of time in cases involving missing children in which immediate reporting and "swift investigative measures" are crucial to ensure a positive outcome, according to a 2006 study by Washington state's attorney general and the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Hours and even minutes are critical in an abducted child investigation," the report says.

With that in mind, at least one child advocate is wondering why Tracy police waited 10 hours to contact the media about Sandra's disappearance.

Even then, police acknowledged that many media outlets did not find out until later because the department's media list was outdated. Police outreach efforts were inadequate, said Marc Klaas, who became a national advocate for missing children after the kidnapping and murder of his 12-year-old daughter, Polly Klaas, in 1993 in Sonoma County.

"And as a result of that, an opportunity for the media and for the public to reach out and assist in her recovery was lost," Klaas said Thursday. "And we know and understand full well the implications of that kind of shoddy police work."

Earlier this week, Tracy police Lt. Jeremy Watney said investigators responded almost immediately but acknowledged that city police have little experience in this area.

"We haven't had a missing-child case like this in the city of Tracy," Watney said at a news conference. "We're living and learning."

Sandra last was seen at 4 p.m. March 27 in the Orchard Estates mobile home park off Interstate 205, where she lives with her mother and grandparents.

Family members reported her missing about 8 p.m.

Her disappearance sparked a communitywide effort, with hundreds of volunteers pasting fliers with the girl's face all over the city. Over the past week, hundreds of tips have poured in, but police have said little about their investigation.

Case considered wide open

On Thursday, they continued to describe the case as wide open. They have not ruled out, or confirmed, any scenario, including that Sandra had been kidnapped or had run away.

No one questioned by police has been ruled out, Watney said. "Everybody's a person of interest," he said.

The prolonged uncertainty is taking its toll.

Across the street from the mobile home park, Sandra's aunt, Angie Chavez, wept before cameras Thursday.

"Oh, Sandra, we love you so much," she said, "We want you home, baby."

Police have served search warrants involving two trailer park residents — one who admitted kissing Sandra in the park's pool when she was 6 — but aren't calling them suspects.

Sandra's estranged father, Daniel Cantu, who lives in Mexico and works in Southern California, spoke to investigators Wednesday and was questioned again Thursday.

Their search has scoured from sky to river bottom: Investigators have used helicopters, cadaver dogs, divers, boats and bulldozers.

Landfill workers Thursday unearthed a Hello Kitty shirt like the one Sandra was last seen wearing. Authorities later said the girl's mother, Maria Chavez, said the shirt was not Sandra's.

So the mission continued.

At the mobile home park's entrance, Tracy police officer Mike Reyna kept watch and spoke with residents who drove up, eager to help.

About a dozen people came by the past two days asking for fliers to hand out.

The more fliers, the better, he said.

There were no protocols for law enforcement agencies to disperse information to the public or one another when his daughter was abducted, Klaas said.

It might have cost Polly her life: Two deputies helped her killer, Richard Allen Davis, pull his car out of a ditch soon after she disappeared but let him go without knowing of the kidnapping.

Now, largely as a result of Polly's murder, protocols promote early notification.

Often in missing person cases, the California Highway Patrol issues Amber Alerts statewide at the request of law enforcement agencies.

None had been issued by Thursday night.

Tracy police have not declared Sandra's disappearance an abduction — a requirement for an Amber Alert. Officials said they have no vehicle or suspect information to post.

CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said her agency has used other avenues to spread the word about Sandra, including posting an "urgent message" to the statewide Emergency Digital Information Service and distributing a flier to all law enforcement agencies.

Tracy police also entered Sandra's name in a missing- person database.

Anyone with information should call the Tracy Police Department at 831-4550 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-843-5678. The Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation is offering a $22,000 reward for information that leads to Sandra's safe return.

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