By Terry COllins and Juliana Barbassa
TRACY, Calif. — 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 a few miles from this quiet, working-class community.
The investigation into the death of Sandra Cantu has touched on everyone who lives in the neighborhood, 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.
Police have not named any suspects in the case and Sgt. Tony Sheneman insisted Tuesday that Lawless "is not at the center of the investigation and never was." He added that he was dismayed to hear media reports that the pastor was a main suspect.
"He has been interviewed as have hundreds of people," Sheneman said. "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."
Lawless was stopped by a swarm of reporters Tuesday as he drove by his church with his wife Connie. Connie Lawless said they had been interviewed because they live down the street from the victim, and their great granddaughter played with her.
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 was 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.
Residents were left wondering who in their quiet, mobile home complex would commit such a crime.
"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 had known Sandra since she was born.
Connie Lawless said she and her husband were fully cooperating with police and had nothing to do with the girl's abduction.
"She was the sweetest little thing. It breaks our hearts to think that anyone would take such a tiny little thing and abuse her and murder her," she said.
Connie Lawless 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."
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."
On Tuesday, 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."
Katie Wales, 31, who has lived in the 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.
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"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."