Police Focus on Pastor in Search for Tracy Child Killer

Police search church, pastor's home

Police on Tuesday searched a local church and questioned neighbors of an 8-year-old girl whose body was stuffed in a suitcase and dumped in a pond, as residents were left wondering who would do such a thing in this quiet, working-class community.

"I hope they catch whoever did this. I lived here my whole life. I used to feel safe, but I don't anymore," said 19-year-old Melissa Landrum, who lives in the mobile home complex where Sandra Cantu was last seen alive March 27 and had known the girl since she was born.

The investigation has touched on everyone who lives in the complex, including a pastor who became a focus Tuesday. Investigators cordoned off Pastor Lane Lawless' home and Clover Road Baptist Church for a search after questioning him for three hours the night before.

Lawless and his wife, Connie, told reporters that they had been interviewed because they lived down the street from Sandra's family and their great-granddaughter often played with her. They said they had nothing to do with her disappearance.

"We're very open to them taking whatever they want today," Connie Lawless said. "We feel the more people they can eliminate, the quicker they will be able to get to the truth."

Police have not named any suspects in the case.

"He has been interviewed as have hundreds of people," Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said of Lawless. "Everyone that we speak to could be considered a person of interest. We have no specific person that we are looking at at this time."

Sandra's body was discovered a few miles from her Tracy home Monday when farmworkers draining an irrigation pond to water nearby fields found the suitcase. Police said she was found wearing the same clothes she had on when she was last seen: a pink "Hello Kitty" T-shirt and black leggings.

Investigators surmise that the person who dumped the body in the pond must have known the rural area, just north of the city. "Someone would have to be familiar with that area to know to go there to place that suitcase," Sheneman said.

The sergeant noted that police have found no link between Lawless and the suitcase.

Sandra's disappearance -- she had last been seen on surveillance video skipping down the street near her home -- sparked a widespread search that included hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials, including the FBI, and drew more than 1,000 tips.

Pictures of the outgoing girl with dark brown eyes and golden hair were posted all over town, on business fronts, car windows and fire hydrants in this city of 78,000 about 60 miles east of San Francisco.

The tragic ending to the 10-day search was the second blow in recent months to Tracy, which had just digested the shocking news that a local Girl Scout leader and her husband were among those accused of kidnapping and torturing a 16-year-old boy in their home for more than a year. Kelly Layne Lau and two other suspects have pleaded not guilty, and husband Michael Schumacher is expected to enter his plea later this month.

"This community has been tested severely," said City Manager Leon Churchill Jr. "There's a cultural ethic here. You're expected to be a good neighbor. This is a kinder, gentler place.

"We need to grieve as a community, but eventually we will have to ask ourselves 'What are we going to do?"' he added.

Longtime residents remembered a small-town atmosphere that has given way to some big-city problems in the past decade, as Tracy began absorbing sprawl from the San Francisco Bay area.

"We have more people here and that's loosened serenity of this town," said Joe Atuna, 62, who's lived here for 25 years. "Tracy is getting bigger and scarier."

On Tuesday, Atuna and other mourners stopped by a makeshift memorial outside the complex where Sandra lived, shedding some tears and leaving stuffed animals, cards and other trinkets for a girl they say could have been one of their own.

Sabrina Cason, 31, brought her 5-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to drop off a bouquet of purple lilies and said she had a hard time explaining what happened to Sandra to her three children.

"This has shaken our little town up," Cason said. "For her to be so close to home and this to happen. I think we all had a lot of hope that she would come home safely."

A spokeswoman for the Tracy Unified School District said extra psychologists and counselors were on hand Tuesday at schools throughout the district, including Jacobson Elementary where Sandra was a second-grader. The district sent a letter to students' families with advice to parents on how to talk about Sandra's death and also share safety tips with their children.

"The entire Jacobson family knew Sandra. I think every student there knew her," said spokeswoman Jessica Cardoza. "She was vivacious, happy, and outgoing. She was a very popular student."

Katie Wales, 31, who has lived in Sandra's mobile home complex for most of her life, said she plans to keep tighter reins on her own 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

"They're not going outside, not alone anyway. They're not leaving my block," Wales said. "We don't know if it's our neighbor or not."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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