Sandra Cantu's Family Crushed By Death as Police Continue to Hunt Her Killer

Family of young Sandra Cantu speaks out-- their only comfort? Finding the killer

BySarah Netter and Laura Marquez
March 30, 2009, 3:28 PM

April 9, 2009— -- The family of the 8-year-old California girl whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase this week is "holding up as best they can," according to the girl's aunt, while police continue their intensive search for the killer.

"We want to find out what happened to our little girl," Sandra Cantu's aunt, Angie Chavez, told "Good Morning America" today. "She did have a full life ahead of her. She was full of life."

The death of Maria Chavez's youngest child has been extraordinarily devastating for her and the entire family, Chavez said. The family has taken some comfort in the vast swath of candles, balloons, stuffed animals and handwritten notes the community has left in support outside the Tracy, Calif., mobile home park where the family lived.

The San Jose Mercury News reported yesterday that both the girl's mother and grandmother had to be hospitalized after learning her body had been found.

"The community has just been overwhelmingly generous," Chavez said. "We're very thankful to the community and to the police and to the FBI."

Sandra's body was found Monday stuffed into a suitcase in an irrigation pond a few miles from her house, 10 days after she was reported missing from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park.

She had told her mother she was going to visit a friend. The last known image of Sandra was a surveillance video showing her skipping happily down the street.

The police have remained relatively mum on the progress of the murder investigation, which so far as included interviews with dozens of people and a search of a local church.

"We have a great deal of pressure to catch the person or persons that are responsible," Tracy Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman told "Good Morning America."

The police have assembled in excess of 15 search warrants for both people and places, all being sealed by an area judge.

"We're headed in the right direction," he said. "We're just waiting to make as strong a case as possible."

Sheneman told ABC News Tuesday that police are closing in on a suspect in Sandra's death.

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

Deputy Les Garcia, spokesman for the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, which includes the coroner, told that the autopsy on Sandra's body was completed on Tuesday, but that it could take four to eight weeks to determine how she died.

"We're waiting on our tissue samples as well as toxicology results from the lab," he said.

Sheneman wouldn't comment Wednesday on how police were tipped off to a possible connection with the Clove Road Baptist Church or what they found only saying the search was based on information learned as part of the investigation.

Police and FBI agents began working at the church, located about 500 feet from Sandra's home, around 2 p.m. on Tuesday and continued into the evening, Sheneman said.

ABC's KGO-TV in San Francisco reported that a team of FBI agents removed items from inside the church and from the pastor's home which is located in the same mobile home park where Sandra lived. FBI agents were also seen searching a crawl space under the church.

The pastor's wife, Connie Lawless, told KGO that they are cooperating with police. She confirmed that investigators removed some items from their home. "They took the usual stuff -- phone, computers, things of that nature. We were very open to them taking anything they wanted to take."

Sheneman had harsh words for some local media outlets who turned their focus on Pastor Lane Lawless as a possible suspect in Sandra's slaying, saying the pastor and his wife were just two of the hundreds police have interviewed.

"For them to name the pastor as the primary suspect and that he was about to be arrested was not only incorrect, but irresponsible," Sheneman told Wednesday.

Joani Hughes, the Lawless' daughter, told today that all the media attention directed both at them and the church has exhausted her parents.

Her father has been the pastor of the Clove Road Baptist Church for about 30 years, she said, and their great-granddaughter was one of Sandra's playmates. Hughes said Sandra's death has been very hard on her parents and that they feel "devastated" for her family.

As for the church involvement, Hughes said they are taking it in stride and will do anything police ask. They want the killer to be brought to justice as much as anyone, she said.

"They're saddened that the church is needing to be searched, but they're completely open to whatever the police are needed to do," she said.

Sheneman said there are have been reports circulated that a suitcase had been stolen from a home in the trailer park, apparently circulated by local news media based on an interview with neighbors.

"We have been unable to verify that anyone has lost any luggage," he said.

Finding Sandra Cantu's Body

The discovery of the suitcase containing Sandra's body by farm workers 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 the day she disappeared.

Barbara Sokoloski, the family's neighbor in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, told Tuesday 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, Angie Chavez described the little girl as "bright, bubbly and friendly" who loved Hannah Montana and visiting her friends in the neighborhood.

Revisiting a Disturbing Incident

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 earlier this week he could not comment on whether or not Cantu was a person of interest in the case.

Angie Chavez said last month that her niece 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.

"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.

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