April 16, 2009 05:25 PM

The rural area of Tracy, Calif., just north of the hometown of Laci Peterson and Chandra Levy, has seen its share of shocking murders.

But the community is reeling from the horrific slaying of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, apparently by her 5-year-old friend’s mom. As a public memorial began Thursday at Merrill West High School, 3,000 people filled the school’s gym and cafeteria and more members of the public were being seated in a school stadium. Photos of Sandra were displayed on screens. A poem in the program read: ” The girl who changed our lives/The girl we never knew./ Our faith is now put to the test/ we tried so hard we did our best/ We know you are now safe.”

Meanwhile, the family of accused murderer Melissa Huckaby, 28, is in shock. “I wish I could make some sense of this. If I could maybe it would make it all easier to comprehend. There are no words, Melissa father, Brian Lawless, 48, told PEOPLE on Saturday, hours after Melissa was arrested in connection with Sandra s death.

Huckaby, who is charged with rape by a foreign object, kidnapping and murder, wept at her first court appearance Tuesday but deferred entering a plea. Her next court appearance is April 24. Prosecutors have not yet announced whether they will seek the death penalty.

Last Seen Alive

Sandra was last seen alive March 27 at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park. Melissa Huckaby has told reporters and police that Sandra played that day with her daughter, Madison. In the following days, hundreds of volunteers helped authorities search the area. On April 6, Sandra’s lifeless body was discovered stuffed in a suitcase in an agricultural pond about two blocks from the park.

On April 10, after Huckaby told a local newspaper that the suitcase was hers, police brought Huckaby in for further questioning and arrested her. Police have offered no motive for the crime. According to some media reports, Huckaby told investigators that the death was an accident.

Huckaby taught Sunday school at the nearby church, where her grandfather is pastor. Those who know her say she has had some physical and mental problems, but call her a nice woman who seems incapable of committing such a crime.

“You just can’t believe something like that can happen right where you grew up and lived your whole life. But then to find out it was someone you knew, well, it just doesn t seem possible, says Matt Duncan, 28, Melissa’s former boss at the nearby Food Maxx.

At the memorial, Tracy’s mayor, Brent Ives, spoke about the loss. “Life here in Tracy will go on,” he said. “Little League games will be played on Saturday. School will begin on Monday, and we ll get to and from work as we have before. But the community will forever be different – hopefully very keenly aware of the evil in this world, and cautious, wiser, trusting yet verifying. But definitely stronger as a community, as we watch over one another.”

For more on the murder and arrest, pick up the April 27 issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

With reporting by SUSAN YOUNG

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