Maria Chavez
Glenn Moore  /  AP
Maria Chavez is embraced by her daughter Miranda during a memorial service for her slain daughter Sandra Cantu on Thursday in Tracy, Calif.
updated 4/16/2009 8:42:01 PM ET 2009-04-17T00:42:01

Thousands of people gathered Thursday to remember an 8-year-old girl who most only knew as a smiling face on fliers but who many felt close to after the massive search for her body.

Family members and community leaders recalled Sandra Cantu as an exuberant, loving girl who enjoyed skipping down the city's streets. Her remains were found last week in a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond near her home.

"This little girl, Sandra, in two weeks became much more than a little girl who lived down the street in a town in California," Tracy police Chief Janet Thiessen said. "Sandra Cantu became our little girl, a child whose spirits touched us as we searched for her and prayed for her safe return."

Images of Sandra graduating from preschool, blowing out birthday candles and opening Christmas presents played on two screens at a high school auditorium, which drew a crowd of about 2,600 people.

An overflow crowd of more than 600 people watched the ceremony on a screen in the high school's cafeteria and listened to it through speakers on the football field. Many in attendance wore T-shirts with the little girl's face.

Sandra's relatives, including her mother, father and sisters, lined the front row of the school gymnasium, holding each other and crying at times.

Sandra's aunt, Angie Chavez, thanked supporters for their help in the 10-day search for girl, who disappeared March 27, and the outpouring of sympathy in the days after her body was found.

A local Sunday school teacher whose daughter was a playmate of Sandra's has been accused of the killing. Melissa Huckaby, 28, who lived just a few doors down from Sandra's family, was arraigned Tuesday on charges that she kidnapped, raped and murdered the child.

"For this time, lay down your judgment, your bitterness, your rage, so that our remembrance is done in love and dignity," Tracy police chaplain Don Higgins told the crowd. "And in so doing, we can begin to take the first steps of healing and renewing our strength together."

Mayor Brent Ives said life would go on in Tracy, a small city 60 miles east of San Francisco, but not as it had before.

"The community will forever be changed, different," he said. "Hopefully, very keenly aware of the evil in this world and cautious and wiser, trusting yet verifying, but definitely stronger as a community as we watch over one another and one another's children."

More on: Sandra Cantu

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Video: Thousands mourn slain 8-year-old

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