Monday, May 10, 2010

Do You Remember Sandra Cantu?

Just over a year ago, an 8-year-old girl named Sandra Cantu disappeared.  Today, her killer pleaded guilty to her murder.  I know that I, along with many of you, followed Sandra Cantu's disappearance and the arrest of her killer carefully when it happened.  In the intervening year, however, the details have faded to the point where the name Sandra Cantu only vaguely rang a bell when I saw it in the headline.  I knew I knew something about her, but couldn't place it.  I'm guessing many of you can't, either.

Let me help you out.  Sandra Cantu lived in Tracy, California trailer park.  On the day she disappeared, surveillance cameras captured images of her skipping through the neighborhood.  Ten days later, her body was found a few miles away in a suitcase in an irrigation pond on a dairy farm.  The woman arrested was a former Sunday school teacher and the mother of one of Sandra's friends.  In addition to her kidnapping and murder, the killer was charged with various counts of sexual assault.  These were dropped as part of the plea deal.

If you, like me, are now saying, "Oh, yeah, I remember her," it suggests an obvious question:  how could we know so much about this case and forget it in a relatively short time?  How could this story capture our attention so thoroughly and then let it go almost as quickly?

First of all, part of what captured our attention in the first place was the mystery of what happened to this little girl.  While the search was still going on, we paid attention because we were waiting for new information.  Once the body was found and an arrest made, we still paid attention because we wanted more information about what had happened.  But after a while, we stopped getting new information.  We knew who had killed her and what they had done, and we realized we weren't going to get any more details about the motive or the killer, so we stopped paying attention and the media stopped reporting.  Without the daily dose of new details, we lost interest and started to forget.

Another part of why we were interested initially is that the case scared us personally.  Whether you were a parent concerned for your own child or just a person who wondered what on earth the world was coming to, as long as Sandra Cantu was missing or her killer was "out there," the world didn't seem very safe.  Once her killer had been caught, and once the initial shock that it was a woman and a neighbor had worn off, we weren't scared anymore.  The boogie man wasn't out there, and she wasn't a man.  She was a woman in jail, and we could go back to pretending that bad people don't exist.

This is, in fact, a fairly adaptive response.  As I'm fond of saying, we live our lives based on what is likely, not what is possible.  Sandra Cantu's murder made us acutely aware of what was possible.  But we can't go through life like that, and so, when the initial hubbub died down we allowed ourselves to put this case to the side.  The alternative would be to look suspiciously at everyone we know and keep our children locked in the house all the time.  With the exception of those who lived in the same trailer park as Cantu and her killer, we recognize that that would be an overreaction.  A little forgetting is good.

So, now the Sandra Cantu case is over.  Her killer faces 25 years to life in jail.  A case that took up so much of our collective attention a year ago now ends with more of a whimper than a bang.  Perhaps that's how it should be.  Perhaps this footnote on her death will allow those who loved her to remember her not as much for how she died, but as we all wish to be remembered -- for how we lived.


Laura said...

I don't think I ever heard about this, was it national news? And her killer could only be in jail for 25 years? That doesn't seem harsh enough to me. My ex-husband's brother killed 3 people and was given 2 life sentences.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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