FBI agents and Tracy police detective Keith Hooks marked as evidence a paper towel that was left by the fence of Clover Road Baptist Church, where police served one of a few search warrants Tuesday, including one in the mobile home park where 8-year-old Sandra Cantu lived and from where she went missing March 27.
As of late Tuesday, no arrests had been made and no suspects named. An autopsy is under way to determine how Sandra died, but Tracy police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman said he can’t say when the coroner’s office will release a preliminary report, let alone when they’ll say for certain how the Jacobsen Elementary School second-grader died.
Police have said very little about how close they are to finding a killer, though they’ve interviewed hundreds of people and plan to search several more homes “during the course of the investigation,” Sheneman said.
Investigators on Tuesday evening took a few items from the Clover Road church and looked inside the crawl spaces and a water heater shed out front.
The pastor of the church, 77-year-old Clifford Lane Lawless, told reporters that police questioned him and his wife, Connie, for three hours Monday night because Sandra used to go over a lot to play with their great-grandchild.
Lawless and his wife told reporters that they had nothing to do with Sandra’s 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.”
The church sits near a dead-end country road just yards away from where Sandra lived.
Sheneman refused to name any suspects or “persons of interest” and shot down rumors that Lawless was a suspect.
"He has been interviewed, as have hundreds of people … We have no specific person that we are looking at this time."
Lawless, a pastor of the church since 1981, has no criminal history and no civil lawsuits against him in San Joaquin County, court records show. The only property he owns in San Joaquin County is his mobile home.
But the Clover Road Baptist Church seems as physically isolated from the rest of the city, one of the last buildings on a dead-end street, as it seems culturally set apart from other churches in town.
Several Tracy pastors said they don’t know that much about Lawless; he doesn’t join the 15 or 20 other pastors in town for Thursday prayer breakfasts.
Tim Heinrich of the Crossroads Baptist Church said Lawless declines to network with fellow pastors in town. Other pastors said the church has few events and focuses on church history because it disagrees with some of the tenets of others churches.
No one in the neighborhood surrounding Orchard Estates said they attend the Baptist church — surrounded now by yellow crime-scene tape. About a dozen neighbors said they don’t know anyone who does and that it has a tiny congregation.
Folks from a Jehovah’s Witness church across the street from Clover Road Baptist said they've never talked to anyone from the congregation. Pastors, members and elders of a handful of other churches in northern Tracy said the same thing.
The pastor’s name is the fourth to have come up in the missing person-turned murder investigation. Police served a search warrant on 60-year old martial arts teacher Frank Wohler, who lived behind Sandra’s home and said he kissed her on the lips two years ago just to be nice.
Christian Sinclair, 49 — who’s depicted in court records as abusive and alcoholic — was arrested last week for obstructing the investigation. Police searched his home, too.
Sinclair’s friend, David Slayter, 44, was then taken to the police station for questioning last week as the FBI and Stockton and Tracy police searched his home and took out several items.
The courts sealed 10 search warrants served up until Tuesday and will likely seal those ordered Tuesday and the several others Sheneman said will be served during the course of the investigation.
Dairy farm workers found Sandra's body Monday morning when they drained an irrigation pond to water nearby fields. Police said she wore the same pink “Hello Kitty” T-shirt and black tights she had on when she was last seen alive.
Investigators said whoever left her body in the pond must have been familiar with the rural outskirts north of Tracy.
“Someone would have to be familiar with that area to know to go there to place that suitcase,” Sheneman said Tuesday, adding that he knows of no link between Lawless and the black suitcase.
The little girl’s disappearance sparked a massive search that included 18 agencies and several hundred volunteers. It drew more than 1,000 tips and $26,000 in reward money.
Photos of the lively blonde-haired, brown-eyed girl plastered cars, utility poles and buildings across Tracy — a town of 82,000 — and in the Bay Area and southern Central Valley. Schoolmates said she was a popular student.
The tragic close to a 10-day search wielded a devastating blow for a town that has seen news that some of its residents are accusing of kidnapping and torture, that a teacher and softball coach allegedly downloaded child pornography and that a plastic surgeon is accused of molesting upward of 30 patients.
"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.
Longtime Tracy residents remember a small-town atmosphere that has given way to some big-city problems in the past decade, as the town 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 a huge pile of stuffed animals, cards and other trinkets for a girl they say could have been one of their own.
Members of a local church youth group sang “Amazing Grace” and other hymns Tuesday, holding hands and swaying by the memorial, crowded by dozens of mourners during the day and hundreds at nightfall. Twin sisters Lilly and Layla James — both Sandra’s age — burst into tears after placing bouquets among the other gifts.
Sabrina Cason, 31, took her 5-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to drop off some 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."
• Associated Press contributed to this report