Central Valley

Search for missing Tracy girl ends in tragedy as her body is found

TRACY -- For 10 days, people prayed for 8-year-old Sandra Cantu to be found. When it finally happened Monday, no one wanted it to be true.

Farmworkers discovered the Tracy girl's remains in a suitcase in a collection pond two miles from the mobile home park where she last was seen skipping through the neighborhood March 27.

She was found in the same clothes she wore that day, black leggings and a pink Hello Kitty shirt.

The gruesome finding brought a heartbreaking end to a communitywide effort to locate the girl, while igniting a new mission for authorities: finding her killer.

"We will be determining the person or persons responsible for this reprehensible act and we will bring them to justice," pledged Police Chief Janet M. Thiessen.

During a somber news conference Monday night, police declined to discuss any leads in the case. They would not say whether any new evidence points to any of three men who have been the subject of search warrants.

Police could not say how long Sandra's body had been in the pond or how she was killed. Those answers will come after an autopsy, which is to be performed today.

The suitcase surfaced Monday morning as farmworkers drained a collection pond just off a county road in an agricultural area north of Tracy. They pulled the suitcase to the edge of the pond and called authorities, said police Sgt. Tony Sheneman.

Workers told authorities the pond had been filled for at least two weeks -- longer than Sandra had been missing -- and that the container wasn't there before it was filled.

Area checked twice

Police had swept the area around the pond twice in their quest to find Sandra: the first weekend when authorities and volunteers fanned across the region, and again this past weekend, Sheneman said.

Even before opening the container Monday evening and discovering Sandra's remains, authorities treated the area as a crime scene. They combed for clues -- tire marks, footprints, "anything that's lying in the area that they could categorize as evidence," Sheneman said.

Investigators used a laser device to map the scene and had the Federal Aviation Administration declare a no-fly zone overhead.

More than five hours passed after the container was found and before police held an initial news conference to stress that there was no indication whether the container held anything relevant to the case. But they said that they had to exercise "caution and due diligence" in case it did.

"If there's nothing inside, we've lost nothing," Sheneman told reporters. "You can't go back and re-create a scene."

Any hint of hope in Sheneman's voice had vanished hours later, when he and other police officials gathered to deliver the news.

"It's very difficult for everyone involved," the sergeant said. "Everybody was optimistic and hopeful we would be finding Sandra alive and well. So it's not easy for any of us."

Police have served search warrants targeting the homes and cars of three people, one of whom admitted to kissing the girl in the pool of Orchard Estates mobile home park, where they both lived, when she was 6. But police have not named any suspects.

They have questioned Sandra's estranged father, Daniel Cantu of Mexico, on several occasions but have not specified his role in their investigation. Repeatedly, police have said they have not ruled out anybody.

Until Monday night, they declined to characterize the circumstances surrounding Sandra's disappearance as anything criminal.

Sandra last was seen the afternoon of March 27. Family members reported her missing that night, after she failed to return to the double-wide mobile home she shared with her mother and grandparents.

The mobile home park was the scene of candlelight vigils night after night last week. Monday evening, it was the site of a makeshift shrine where Tracy residents delivered children's toys and stood in silent reflection.

Candles and balloons

Several saints' candles burned next to stuffed animals and Disney character balloons. Word of the girl's discovery had not yet spread there, and some people tied notes to a tree imploring Sandra's kidnapper to let her go.

Hours later, about 50 residents gathered for a makeshift memorial service.

Daniela Rodriguez, 18, said she attended church with Sandra and was "shocked" by her death.

"She was only 8," Rodri-guez said. "I walked to school when I was 8."

Outside City Hall, where police announced their findings, the grief was palpable.

Stockton resident Madeline Freitas, who grew up around the corner from Sandra's home, sobbed for the girl.

"You don't want it to end like that," she said.

Sheneman, the police sergeant, described Sandra's death as an "unimaginable loss" for any parent, and an ordeal for the community.

Asked what advice he had for parents, he paused.

"Watch your children," he said, "and give them a hug tonight."

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