Central Valley

Tracy seeks comfort in wake of child's death

TRACY -- Residents of this beleaguered city gathered for Easter services Sunday, brought together by grief and the need to understand how the killing of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu and the arrest of a neighbor could have happened.

At Clover Baptist Church, where Melissa Huckaby, arrested in connection with Sandra's slaying, taught Sunday school, worshippers in the 20-member congregation were somber. They sang hymns and prayed, asking God to comfort their community.

"People think we're going on, business as usual," said Huckaby's uncle Brett Lawless, who delivered the sermon about overcoming adversity.

"Nothing will be usual after the events of the last 10 days," he said. "Not for the community, not for the church, not for our immediate family and certainly not for the family of Sandra Cantu." Lawless' voice cracked as he spoke and several church members wiped tears.

Huckaby's family, speaking publicly for the first time, said they were shocked by the arrest.

"Melissa is a quiet, nice person, very peaceful," said Huckaby's grandmother, Connie Lawless, after the noon service. She called her granddaughter a loving mother.

"This is completely out of character," Lawless said.

The small church, which had a "Missing: Sandra Cantu" flier posted near the entrance until shortly before the worship service, is down the street from Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where Huckaby was arrested Friday night. Huckaby lives about 75 yards from the Cantu family.

Huckaby is being held without bail at the San Joaquin County jail. She is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday on charges that she kidnapped and killed Sandra Cantu before stuffing her body in a suitcase and dumping it into a dairy drainage pond.

The Cantu family was not available for comment.

Sandra, a second-grader with long brown hair, had disappeared March 27 and last was seen on a video skipping in the street in front of her home.

Remembrances left

The town was paralyzed for two weeks while authorities searched for her.

On Sunday, Sandra was remembered in Easter services and memorials across Tracy, a city of 80,000.

All day, people dropped off stuffed bunnies and Easter cards outside the entrance to the mobile home park.

"I think we could have been friends," said Arianna Rodriguez, 6, whose family drove 20 miles from their home in Brentwood so she could drop off a letter she had written to Sandra.

"When I get to heaven we will play," part of it read.

At Victory Outreach, the Rev. Manuel Aguilar told churchgoers "our hearts in the community are heavy this week." Later, he said he had to mention Sandra in his Easter sermon because "that's all that people have been talking about. This is something that has really hit a lot of people hard, especially parents of young children."

At Fry Memorial Chapel on South Central Avenue, visitors left stuffed animals, notes and pictures in front of a picture of Sandra while a slide show of the smiling 8-year-old played overhead.

Rebecca Wheeler, who teaches second grade, brought her two daughters to the chapel to sign a guest book for the Cantu family.

"This just doesn't happen here in Tracy," Wheeler said. "This is a lot for everyone, especially for the children, to handle."

Many said they found it hard to believe that a mother of a playmate and a Sunday school teacher had been arrested.

At Clover Baptist, longtime member Elizabeth Edwards asked the congregation to pray for "sister Melissa."

"Please God, cleanse her soul," she said.

Answering the media

After the service, family members faced the dozens of reporters who packed onto the church property.

Her family said they had not been allowed to see Huckaby, who moved to Tracy from Southern California during the summer.

A woman who would identify herself only as Huckaby's aunt said she was distressed such a tragedy could have happened.

Huckaby's 5-year-old daughter and Sandra's playmate has been on a long-planned vacation and is staying with relatives, Connie Lawless said.

The church, where Huckaby's grandfather is pastor, has been searched by police.

A public memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at Merrill West High School, 1775 W. Lowell Ave., Tracy.

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