Sandra Cantu's Murder Latest in High Profile Crimes for Tracy: Hoping for Strength Out of Tragedy

Small town Tracy, Calif., has had to grapple with numerous high-profile crimes.

April 15, 2009, 2:54 PM

April 16, 2009— -- The town of Tracy, Calif., is preparing to say goodbye 8-year-old Sandra Cantu today, but the folks in this San Francisco suburb are also struggling to understand a rash of crimes against their children.

On the day that a preacher's daughter was arraigned on charges of raping and killing Sandra, a man who had been a substitute teacher in Tracy's schools for the last five years was in another courtroom in the same superior court to face charges he molested about a dozen children and possessed child pornography.

These twin shocks came just months after an emaciated teenager, with shackles still around his ankle, escaped the clutches of the family he had been living with.

"This area has never experienced anything like this," Tracy Unified School District spokeswoman Jessica Cardoza told "These past few months have been very difficult."

The area was particularly alarmed in the days after Sandra went missing, she said.

"We didn't know if someone in the community would be preying on another child," she said.

Andrea Stagmeier, a Tracy mother of four and the PTA co-president at Sandra's Jacobson Elementary School, said the adults in Tracy are dealling with the murder and other crimes "a lot worse than the kids are."

Sandra's murder hit particularly close to the Stagmeier home -- her youngest daughter Grace, 7, was a recess and after-school playmate of Sandra's and the two would switch desks in their second-grade classrooms for different subjects.

Telling Grace, who had watched her father join the search for Sandra, that her friend was found dead was "was the hardest thing I've ever done."

"She didn't understand how somebody could do that," Stagmeier said.

It's a question the adults in Tracy are grappling with as well, especially when the person alleged to be responsible was a Sunday school teacher who many in the community trusted with their children.

If seemingly normal people can commit the types of crimes seen recently in Tracy, she said, "then what about your neighbors? What about other people at the schools?"

Sandra's private funeral services were held Wednesday. Her casket, covered in messages written by her family and her second-grade classmates, was carried down the street in a horse-drawn carriage. A public memorial service is scheduled for today.

ABC News has learned that the woman charged in her death, Melissa Huckaby, has received credible death threats, prompting high security during her court appearance.

Tracy made the news back in December when a 17-year-old emaciated boy came into the In-Shape Sports Club with a padlocked chain around his ankle, asking a gym employee to hide him. He was dirty, seemed confused and appeared to have been beaten, police said.

Tracy police arrested four people in the case on a variety of abuse charges: 44-year-old Carmen Ramirez, the boy's aunt, Kelly Lau Schumacher, 31 and her husband, Michael Schumacher, 34 and their neighbor Anthony Waiters, 30.

Police told in December that the boy had been living with the Shumachers after running away from a group foster home in 2007.

Witnesses said last year that he had jumped a fence to get into the gym, a short distance away from the Schumachers' home. According to local media reports, all four have been indicted and all but Schumacher, who has not entered a plea, have pleaded not guilty.

A Trusted Teacher Arrested on Pornography, Lewd Acts Charges

Then last month, Tracy police arrested long-time substitute teacher Jesse Llorente III and charged him with child pornography, and several counts of felonious lewd acts with a child.

The arrest came after fifth- and sixth-grade students in Tracy's George Kelly Elementary School reported he made them feel uncomfortable when he stroked their hair and shoulders.

Llorente, whose case is being played out in San Joaquin Superior Court alongside Huckaby's, pleaded not guilty Tuesday.

Just days after Llorente's arrest, Sandra disappeared. Her body was found 10 days later stuffed into a suitcase that had been thrown into an irrigation pond a few miles from her house.

So far, no motives have been offered in Sandra's death. The charges of special circumstances of rape, kidnapping and lewd acts with a child when accompanying a murder charge mean Huckaby could be sentenced to death if convicted.

Huckaby's 5-year-old daughter Madison was once Sandra's playmate. Police have told they believe Sandra was killed shortly after being seen skipping across the street in her neighborhood, an image that has been ingrained in the minds of Tracy residents.

The San Joaquin District Attorney's office is prosecuting four cases from Tracy right now, according to Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau, the fourth being rape charges against plastic surgeon Peter Chi. Chi, 46, has not entered a plea but is accused of raping eight female patients and commissioning a lewd act with a 16-year-old, according to ABC affiliate KXTV.

But Himelblau told in an e-mail that Tracy doesn't present his office with more crime than any other town in his district.

"I believe that Tracy has just hit a bad run of high-profile cases," he said.

'Gory Details' of Sandra Cantu Case Too Much to Bear

The more violent circumstances of the cases -- from the shackled teen's apparent ongoing abuse to Sandra's alleged rape and murder -- are almost too much for some people to bear.

Stagmeier said extremely disturbed hearing the charge against Huckaby that Sandra was raped with a foreign object.

"I could have gone the rest of my life without the gory details," she said.

But now school officials have asked parents whose children may have spent time with Huckaby to question their children to determine whether others may have been assaulted. And things like that make residents worry what else could happen in Tracy.

"I kind of do wait for the next shoe to fall, unfortunately," Stagmeier said. "I wish it wasn't that way unfortunately."

And it makes her sad, because she said Tracy is the type of small town people hope to live in: Her family moved there about three years ago for a quieter life.

"I just hope that our town gets over this," she said. "I really think that it's just a bad stroke of luck."

Cardoza said the outpouring of support in the wake of Sandra's death has been stunning. The school district has received offers from around the country of psychologists for students and teachers and for benches, trees, gardens and murals in Sandra's name.

Long's Drugs, an area pharmacy chain, even sent over Easter baskets for Sandra's entire second-grade class at Jacobson Elementary School, Cardoza said, adding that the district did take up one offer for books on safety, also for Sandra's classmates.

In turn, school officials have been open to answer a flood of concerns from parents, especially in the days after Llorente's arrest and Sandra's disappearance.

"When things like this happen, it's personal to all of us," Tracy Mayor Burt Ives told

Like any other American town, Tracy has seen its fair share of sadness from car accidents and soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the rash of outrageous crimes in the last few months is something different.

"Getting national attention is not something we're used to," Ives said, "nor do we want to get used to (it.)"

Sandra Cantu Case Is Tracy's 'Slice' of Evil

Tracy, a suburb of the San Francisco Bay area is home to about 80,000 people. About 70 percent of its workforce commutes to the Silicon Valley, Ives said, yet the town still relies heavily on its agricultural roots growing tomatoes, alfalfa and peaches, among other crops.

The town was only 15,000 people strong in the 1970s, but has increased in popularity and population as the Bay Area continues to sprawl outwards. Ives said the residents are a mix of white and blue collar workers.

While Sandra's disappearance from a mobile home park -- some have called it a trailer park -- has painted the town as rural or backwoods, Ives said there are only a few such parks in town and Orchard Estates where Sandra lived is a "clean, nice little neighborhood."

"This could have happened anywhere," he said.

But it didn't -- it happened in Tracy.

Ives said that while the community is rallying behind Sandra's family – he called her the town's "little adopted daughter" -- they aren't too sure how to deal with her alleged killer's family.

"I think it's really hard to know how to treat them right now," he said.

"There's evil in this world and unfortunately, we got our slice of it as well," Ives said. "We'll bend, but we won't break."

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