Video: Missing Calif. girl’s body found

updated 4/7/2009 8:43:47 PM ET 2009-04-08T00:43:47

Police investigating the death of an 8-year-old girl whose body was found in a suitcase dumped in a pond cordoned off a church they planned to search Tuesday, a day after questioning its pastor and taking a computer and other items from his home.

Pastor Lane Lawless was stopped by a swarm of reporters Tuesday as he drove by Clover Road Baptist Church with his wife, Connie. He said he was questioned by police for three hours Monday night. Connie Lawless said they were being interviewed because they live down the street from the victim, Sandra Cantu, and their great granddaughter played with her.

Police have not named any suspects in the case and no one has been arrested.

"He has been interviewed as have hundreds of people," Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said of Lane 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."

With reporters pushing up against their sedan, Connie Lawless said the couple was fully cooperating with police. She said investigators took phones and a computer, among other items, from their home.

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

'It breaks our hearts'
Connie Lawless said they had nothing to do with the girl's abduction.

"She was the sweetest little thing. It breaks it our hearts to think that anyone would take such a tiny little thing and abuse her and murder her," she said.

Sandra's body was discovered a few miles from her Tracy home Monday when farmworkers draining a pond to water nearby fields found the suitcase. She was last seen alive March 27, skipping down the street near the mobile home park where she lived.

An autopsy had been planned for Tuesday. The gruesome discovery ended a search that included hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials, drew more than 1,000 tips and compelled people to put up posters of the girl on storefronts, car windows and fire hydrants all over town.

At a news conference Tuesday morning held across the street from Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park and just steps away from a makeshift memorial for Sandra, Sheneman said the church had been cordoned off and would be searched later in the day. He said investigators had interviewed the church's pastor Monday but didn't say why police were interested in the church.

Sheneman also said police searched a location at the park Monday night, but wouldn't give any details.

Pastor's property searched
Orchard Estates resident Penny Morgado said she saw several law enforcement vehicles pull up to Lawless' home Monday. Resident Katie Wales, 31, said a caravan of investigators swept into the complex Monday and searched only the pastor's property.

Sheneman said police had interviewed everyone at the mobile home park before Sandra's body was found. He said police were pursuing many leads, and no one had been detained or arrested.

Sandra was found wearing the same clothes she had on when she was last seen: a pink "Hello Kitty" T-shirt and black leggings, Tracy police Chief Janet Thiessen said Monday.

"Our heartfelt sympathies go to Sandra's family and friends," Thiessen said. "We will determine the person or persons responsible for this reprehensible act, and we will bring them to justice."

On Tuesday, mourners left stuffed animals, cards and other trinkets at a makeshift memorial outside the mobile home park, which resembles an apartment complex, complete with a swimming pool.

Second blow in recent months
The tragic ending to the 10-day search was the second blow in recent months to Tracy, a city of 78,000 about 60 miles east of San Francisco.

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 before he escaped in December. Kelly Layne Lau and two other suspects have pleaded not guilty, and Lau's 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.

"This community will be more resilient because of this," he added. "We need to grieve as a community, but eventually we will have to ask ourselves, 'What are we going to do?'"

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."

'This has shaken our little town up'
Wendy Rios, 29, and her sister-in-law Sabrina Cason, 31, brought their two young daughters to drop off a bouquet of purple lilies.

"It's tragic. How could you do that to a little girl," said Rios, as her teary-eyed 8-year-old daughter, Monica, held onto her.

Cason said she had a hard time explaining what happened to Sandra to her three children.

"This has shaken our little town up," Cason said as she held her 5-year-old daughter, Alyssa. "We're saddened. 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."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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