Sandra Cantu Found in a Suitcase; Police Closing In on Suspect

Sandra Cantu was found stuffed into a suitcase, 10 days after going missing.

March 30, 2009, 3:28 PM

April 7, 2009— -- Police say they are closing in on a suspect in the death of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, whose body was found stuffed into a suitcase Monday, 10 days after the second-grader vanished from the mobile home park where she lived.

"It's not as big a mystery as it was," before, said Tracy, Calif., police Sgt. Tony Sheneman to, "and we believe we're getting significantly closer."

"We're hopeful that we will have something in the next couple of days," he said.

The discovery of the suitcase by farmworkers brought a tragic end to a massive search that had enveloped the town. Police were aided by hundreds of volunteers, dogs, horses and the FBI.

In the end, it was a twice-yearly practice of draining a collection pond used for irrigation that led police to Sandra's body.

When the pond, about 125 to 150 yards long and about 30 yards wide, began to empty, the suitcase appeared.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had translated missing posters into Spanish to alert the largely Spanish-speaking population, many of them migrant workers, that live in the area.

"They saw the suitcase come up to the surface and thought it was odd," Sheneman said.

When the luggage was opened at the morgue, investigators found Sandra's body inside, still dressed in the pink Hello Kitty T-shirt and black leggings she was wearing March 27, the day she disappeared.

Autopsy results are expected later today.

Sandra's uncle Joe Chavez declined to comment on her death, telling that "the family has no comment" right now.

Barbara Sokoloski, the family's neighbor in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, told today that everyone there is "devastated."

Sandra, along with other neighborhood children, would often visit her home to get homework help or play games with her son's girlfriend. Sokoloski said she bought Sandra the Hello Kitty shirt for her birthday a few weeks earlier.

"She just liked to visit with people," Sokoloski said. "She was an innocent, sweet girl."

Last month, Sandra's aunt Angie Chavez described the little girl as "bright, bubbly and friendly" who loved Hannah Montana and visiting her friends in the neighborhood.

Sheneman declined to elaborate on possible suspects in the case. Police have questioned everyone that lived in the 100-home trailer park, including a man police and Sandra's family have said was looked at closely after kissing the little girl on the mouth at the park's pool nearly two years ago.

Area television station KCRA identified that man as Frank Wohler, who told them that he had nothing to do with her disappearance and that he kissed her at the pool "to be nice." Wohler also said the police had taken "a couple of CDs" from him.

Local news media have also reported that Sandra's father, Daniel Cantu, who has been living in Mexico and had little contact with his daughter, was also interviewed, but not detained.

Sheneman said he could not comment on whether or not Cantu was a person of interest in the case.

Extensive Search for Missing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu Ends in Tragedy

The outgoing second-grader went to visit a friend Friday and never made it home.

The family and police launched a large-scale search in the area in and around the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park.

Angie Chavez said last month that her niece, who lived with her mother, grandparents and three older siblings, had played at a friend's house in the park after school Friday before coming home to check in around 4 p.m.

She told her family she was heading over to another friend's house. That was the last time she was seen.

"She usually checks in with her mom," Angie Chavez said. "It was dinnertime and she wasn't here."

Video from a surveillance camera outside the family's house showed Sandra walking away from her home and also away from the only exit to the mobile home park. Angie Chavez said the family learned later that the friend Sandra had set out to visit wasn't home at the time.

Angie Chavez described Sandra as a little girl who is very talkative, would make friends wherever she'd go and was always eager to help.

Angie Chavez said Sandra would have never run off and knows better than that.

"She's always been told not to go outside the mobile home park," she said. "And she never has."

Angie Chavez said Sandra's mother, her sister-in-law, was "very distraught."

"It's really difficult for her," she said.

Investigating Every Lead to Find Sandra's Killer

Sheneman said police got a 911 call from the family at 7:53 p.m. Friday. Police initially searched her home and then expanded their efforts to the entire park when they couldn't find her, he said.

During the weekend, dogs, equestrian teams, ATVs and a helicopter from the California Highway Patrol were brought in to search for Sandra in the town of 81,000 residents, 70 miles south of Sacramento.

"Every dog team we could find was brought in," Sheneman said.

Divers were also brought in to search a river, miles from her home, but found nothing, he said.

Angie Chavez said the children at the park would often play at one another's homes and also in the park's open spaces, including a basketball court and a pool.

It was at that pool in the summer of 2007 that the Chavezes placed a call to police about the kiss by the pool.

"My mother-in-law saw him march over, sweep her hair off her face and give her a kiss on the lips," Angie Chavez said.

"He has been interviewed and may be interviewed again," Sheneman said before Sandra's body had been found, but he also noted that all residents of the park have been interviewed.

Angie Chavez said she has always known Orchard Estates to be a family-friendly place that is safe for children.

The manager Marilyn Zuniga agreed, telling ABC News that "this is a very nice park" with about 100 homes.

"It's always been a very safe park," she said.

In addition to local police and the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had a team of retired law enforcement professionals, part of a program called Team Adam, helping both law enforcement and Sandra's family.

The Carole Sund-Carrington Foundation had offered a $5,000 reward to find Sandra, which is in addition to a $2,000 reward offered by the FBI and Trace Crime Stoppers for information concerning Sandra's whereabouts.

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