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Murdered girl’s tearful mom: ‘She was happy’

Police say they are making progress in the search for whoever abducted and killed an 8-year-old California girl, whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase and dumped in an irrigation pond after she was captured on security video skipping happily down the street near home.“I’m confident that the investigation is headed in the right direction,” Tracy, Calif., Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman told re
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Police say they are making progress in the search for whoever abducted and killed an 8-year-old California girl, whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase and dumped in an irrigation pond after she was captured on security video skipping happily down the street near home.

“I’m confident that the investigation is headed in the right direction,” Tracy, Calif., Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman told reporters during a news conference Thursday. “We want to find who is responsible for this, but we don't want to rush to judgment. We don't want anyone tried in the press. We want to identify the people who or person who is responsible for this and develop a strong enough case that they will be brought to justice.”

Sheneman would not say if the 77-year-old pastor of a nearby Baptist church is a suspect in the abduction and murder of Sandra Cantu, but on Tuesday police searched the church and seized several bags of evidence.

The pastor, Lane Lawless, has a granddaughter who was one of Sandra’s regular playmates and has said he’s cooperating with police. He’s denied any involvement in the murder.

“He has been interviewed, as have hundreds of people,” Sheneman told reporters who asked if Lawless was a suspect. “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.”

While the investigation continues, Sandra’s mother, Maria Chavez, is racked with grief. Sitting with her sister-in-law, Angie Chavez, the mother attempted to talk about Sandra Thursday with TODAY’s Matt Lauer, but was unable to get more than a few words out.

“I loved her so much. She was happy,” Maria Chavez said before being overwhelmed by wrenching sobs.

“She was so fun-loving and just full of energy, full of life,” said Angie Chavez, clutching her sister-in-law’s hand tightly as they sat outdoors in the well-manicured trailer park where Sandra had lived. The girl’s aunt said Sandra loved TV's “Hannah Montana,” gardening, singing and cooking.

“The last time I saw her, she helped me make breakfast,” Angie Chavez said.

Outside Maria Chavez’s home, friends and neighbors and well-wishers have left countless flowers, candles, stuffed animals and messages of condolence for the family.

“There’s a huge memorial out here, from what I understand second to Princess Diana, which speaks to the support of this community,” Angie Chavez said.

Sandra disappeared on the afternoon of March 27. Police initially treated the case as a missing-persons investigation.

Some residents and a law-enforcement expert say authorities in Tracy should have publicly expressed more urgency about the case and warned of the danger that could be lurking in their Northern California community. But police say that despite their initial uncertainty about Sandra's fate, they did everything they could, scouring the area, calling in reinforcements and exploring theories from dealing with a runaway to looking for a kidnapper.

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TODAY

Sandra Cantu's mother, Maria Chavez (right), and aunt, Angie Chavez, talk to Matt Lauer about the 8-year-old's murder April 9.

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“Until we had an indication that Sandra had been killed, we were treating this as a missing-persons case,” said Sheneman, the police spokesman. “We had no indication of an abduction. We wanted to be as careful as possible.”

Nine days after she disappeared, farm workers found the suitcase with her body inside.

The girl's uncle, Joe Chavez, told reporters Wednesday that he wanted to see whoever was responsible get the death penalty.

“It’s complete innocence taken for absolutely no reason,” Chavez said.

He said that when police notified Maria Chavez that Sandra’s body was found, “I heard screams that I’d never heard come out of human beings before, primal screams of love and fear like the worst horror movie you could ever watch.”

Police have questioned everybody in the trailer park, and Maria Chavez and her family have praised the efforts of investigators, who have interviewed hundreds of people and served more than 15 search warrants, including the one at Lawless’ church.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.