Tracy girl case attracts scrutiny

TRACY -- Police called the disappearance of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu a missing person case, not an abduction, for 10 days -- until farmworkers drained an irrigation pond and found her body stuffed in a suitcase.

Some residents and a law enforcement expert say authorities in Tracy should have publicly expressed more urgency about the case and warned of the danger that could be lurking in their community. But police say that despite their initial uncertainty about Sandra's fate, they did everything they could, scouring the area, calling in re- inforcements and exploring theories from dealing with a runaway to looking for a kidnapper.

"Until we had an indication that Sandra had been killed, we were treating this as a missing persons case," said police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman.

"We had no indication of an abduction," he said. "We wanted to be as careful as possible."

Sandra's body was found Monday a few miles from her home. Police have interviewed hundreds of people and served more than 15 search warrants, including one at a church, but say they have no suspects.

An autopsy on the girl has been completed, but results will not be available for weeks, a coroner's spokesman said Wednesday. Officials declined to discuss any preliminary findings.

Hundreds of volunteers and police searched for the girl and pictures of her smiling face were posted all over town, but some wonder if a different approach by police might have made a difference. Three days after she last was seen, Sheneman had expressed confidence that she was "alive and well."

"If it would have been my daughter, I would've wanted everyone watching, everyone to be suspicious," said Ana Morales, 24, a mother of two who on Wednesday visited a sprawling makeshift memorial for Sandra outside the mobile home park where she lived.

"We always had the sense that she was going to be OK," Morales said. "(Police) statements were a little misleading -- their statements led us to believe they knew something about how she was doing."

Her brother, Luis Morales, 27, chalked it up to inexperience: "This usually happens in large cities, not in small towns like this."

Sheneman acknowledged that "we've never handled a missing persons case such as this." But officials say Tracy police quickly asked for help, calling in the San Joaquin Sheriff's Department, other neighboring law enforcement and the FBI.

Hours after Sandra's family reported her missing the evening of March 27, the city opened its emergency operations center, normally reserved for earthquakes and fires, according to city spokesman Matt Robinson.

Police say they never issued an Amber Alert because they had no information on a suspect or mode of transportation connected to an abduction, which normally is required for the alert.

Joseph Pollini, deputy chairman of the law and police science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he disagreed.

"Even if it's just some nuance of information, we still want to get that out there," said Pollini, who headed the kidnapping and cold-case homicide units during his 33 years with the New York Police Department.

With time a crucial factor in recovering an abducted child, publicizing a description of Sandra as broadly and quickly as possible would have made sense, Pollini said.

"It's not like it's going to cost a lot of money to put the transmission over the air," he said. "You're still dealing with a life."

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, defended the Tracy police's handling of the search for the girl and said they made the right call in not issuing the Amber Alert. Broadcasting an alert with only a physical description is not an appropriate use of the system, he said.

"The response of the Tracy police in this case was swift and serious. It's hard to imagine what else they could have done," said Allen, whose organization's hot line received hundreds of tips regarding Sandra's disappearance.

Joined by some of Sandra's relatives outside the mobile home complex, the girl's uncle Joe Chavez told reporters Wednesday that he wanted to see the responsible party get the death penalty.

"It's complete innocence taken for absolutely no reason," Chavez said.

"When that word came in (that the girl's body was found), I heard screams that I'd never heard come out of human beings before," he said. "Primal screams of love and fear like the worst horror movie you could ever watch."

Robinson, the city spokesman, said he understood public frustration over the lack of answers but urged patience.

"This is a town in which we protect our own. We had an unsuccessful ending with Sandra, and that's going to eat at people," he said. "Now the next step is letting police do their jobs."