Central Valley

Sorrow Grips Tracy

TRACY — Under a somber gray sky, it seemed as though the entire town of Tracy was in mourning Tuesday.

Sandra Cantu's face still smiled from "missing" posters plastered in windows and on telephone polls across the neighborhood where she disappeared March 27. But a day after farmworkers found the 8-year-old girl's remains in a suitcase floating in an irrigation pond, fear and grief replaced hope in this town of 80,000 people.

Police refused to disclose leads or name suspects in the case. But three men, including a pastor who lives in the mobile home park from which Cantu disappeared, have been the subjects of recent search warrants. Police searched the pastor's church Tuesday night, but maintained that he is not a suspect.

"Whoever did this is still out there, and that's my biggest fear," said Doreen Duarte, who placed a bouquet of flowers at a shrine to the girl that grew minute by minute, even in the pouring rain.

"I'm scared to death for my nieces," ages 8 and 10, Duarte said.

Police said they are combing through hundreds of tips and are "heading in a direction" in the case, but refused to be specific. Tracy Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said that Lane Lawless, pastor of the Clover Road Baptist Church — a short distance from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where he and Cantu lived — is just one of numerous people questioned and is not necessarily suspected of any involvement in the girl's death.

"We have not closed our interest on any particular person," Sheneman said.

Lawless has been a pastor at Clover Road Baptist since 1981, according to a church Web site. FBI and Tracy Police investigators began searching church grounds at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. Several large evidence trucks parked along the back of the church as investigators combed the ground between the building and the back fence. Inside, FBI agents dressed in white sterile suits poked through boxes stacked on shelves.

Neighbor Charlie Correia said there usually isn't a lot of action at the church.

"The congregation was real small," Correia said. "If there were five cars there (on a Sunday) I'd be shocked." Correia said he never met the pastor or any of the congregation.

Cantu was last seen skipping through the mobile home park in a working-class neighborhood in central Tracy. A massive search of the area turned up no clues until Monday, when farmworkers found a suitcase in a collection pond two miles from Cantu's home. Police identified Cantu based on the black leggings and pink shirt that she was last seen wearing.

An autopsy on the girl's body was completed Tuesday, but it could be as long as eight weeks before coroner's officials get the results of toxicology and tissue tests needed to establish a specific cause of death, San Joaquin County Sheriff's deputy Les Garcia said.

As police vowed to solve the case, hundreds of brokenhearted men, women and children made a rainy pilgrimage to the makeshift memorial in front of the mobile home park. Most of them knew the Cantu family only from news reports about the case, but still felt a personal loss.

"When I heard that they had found her body, my heart just sank," Duarte said. "I didn't want to believe it. I had been hoping and praying every day that she would be found safe."

Duarte was among hundreds who arrived by car and on foot, pushing strollers and clutching the hands of young ones to pay tribute to Cantu. They brought bunches of calla lilies from their gardens, vases of roses from the florist, toy bears and dogs, red Mylar balloons in the shapes of hearts, and angels of all shapes and sizes. As the afternoon wore on, dozens of stuffed animals grew soggy from the drizzle.

It is the second time in recent months that a criminal case has shined a national spotlight on Tracy. In December, a teenager with a chain shackled to his ankle fled a Tracy home where police said he had been held captive and tortured for more than a year. Four people have been arrested and charged with various crimes in the case.

Story continues below video.

Now, as then, television satellite trucks, cameras, microphones and hordes of reporters are converging on the area.

"This is a very closely knit community," said Steve Torres, assistant manager of a Best Western hotel across the street from where Cantu vanished. "It's a country type of town.

"Usually these types of things are associated with big cities. When something like this happens in Tracy, it affects all of us."

Monique Agenter brought her 5-year-old son, William, to the memorial, setting down some flowers and a Piglet doll and then quietly hugging the boy to her chest as rain soaked their sweat shirts.

"I want my son to know about strangers," she said after they stepped away. "I don't want to scare him, but I want to teach him about what he needs to do" if a stranger tries to lure him into a home or car, she said.

Was the person who harmed Cantu a stranger? Police declined to discuss the subject, but the girl's mother has told reporters that her daughter would never trust someone she didn't know.

Officers prevented reporters from entering Orchard Estates on Tuesday. Lawless, the pastor who lives in the park, could not be reached for comment. But The Bee spoke by telephone with his wife, Connie Lawless. She said she and her husband have "cooperated fully" with police but declined to discuss specifics of their interviews.

"They are not leaving anything untouched and not leaving any stone unturned," Connie Lawless said.

Sandra Cantu was playmates with one of the Lawless's great-granddaughters, she said, and the girl spent many hours inside the couple's mobile home.

Connie Lawless said her family was devastated to learn of Sandra's death.

"We loved her so much," she said. "She had been in many of our church's prayers."

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star

  Comments