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

ByABC News
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.