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Big story drops into a struggling paper's lap

April 14, 2009|Alexandra Zavis
  • Tracy residents Joe Pettinichio, right, his fiancee, Jamie Broad, and their 3-year-old son, Joe Pettinichio Jr., place an Easter bunny at a memorial to Sandra Cantu.
Tracy residents Joe Pettinichio, right, his fiancee, Jamie Broad, and… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

What was once a packed newsroom is now a sea of empty cubicles. Like the rest of the newspaper industry, the Tracy Press has been struggling.

But when an 8-year-old girl went missing at a local mobile home park, the paper went into action.

Although the discovery of Sandra Cantu's remains in a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond would bring all the major TV networks and several big-city papers to the Central Valley city, it was the Tracy Press that would get the interview that investigators credit with breaking open the case and leading to an arrest.

"We're just a scrappy little newspaper," said Editor Cheri Matthews, who is married to the paper's publisher, Bob Matthews. "We know the people who live here, we know this town, and sometimes we get things that nobody else can."

The 111-year-old Tracy Press is one of a handful of family-owned papers left in California. It has been in the Matthews family for three generations. The presses, which occupies most of the paper's ground floor in downtown Tracy, also prints a slew of independent community papers.

Tracy was once a sleepy, largely agricultural community of fewer than 30,000. But the city and the paper grew rapidly in the 1990s as families relocated from the pricier Bay Area during the tech boom. Now the city numbers more than 80,000.

At the paper's peak, about 25 people staffed the second-floor newsroom and Matthews worried about running out of desks. But when the real estate and retail market collapsed, the city and its paper were hit hard, she said.

In a bid to stay afloat, the paper, which is distributed free to about 20,500 people, has made major cuts. It now publishes twice a week instead of daily, and employs just two news reporters and one sports writer.

When a big story breaks, everyone pitches in. Matthews and City Editor Eric Firpo have been working the phones and mining the police blotter for tips since a photographer first spotted a helicopter looking for Sandra the day after she was reported missing March 27. Reporters Jennifer Wadsworth and Justin Lafferty, both 22, have been combing public records, staking out the mobile home park and chasing tips.

On Friday morning, Wadsworth was pursuing two rumors: that a woman had been hospitalized in connection with Sandra's case, and that the suitcase belonged to the family of Clifford Lane Lawless, a Baptist minister who lives five doors from the girl's family.

When Wadsworth was given suspect Melissa Huckaby's name, she searched court records and found a prior conviction for petty theft. More important, Huckaby's address matched that for Lawless, who is her grandfather. There was even a cellphone number listed.

It took several tries, but eventually Wadsworth got through to Huckaby. "She was going to hang up on me," Wadsworth said. "But she said, well, you're from the home paper."

Over the next 40 minutes, Huckaby told Wadsworth that she had just been released from the hospital and that the suitcase belonged to her, although she claimed that it had been stolen from her driveway.

However, she did not tell the Tracy Police Department the suitcase belonged to her. When Wadsworth's story was posted on the paper's website, investigators asked Huckaby to come in for another interview, Police Sgt.Tony Sheneman would later say.

After five hours of questioning, Huckaby, 28, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and killing Sandra Cantu.

Suddenly, the Tracy Press was the center of the story. Wadsworth said she is struggling to get enough reporting time in between all the TV interviews.

Sheneman said Monday that prosecutors may also include the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object and lewd and lascivious conduct with a child in their complaint against Huckaby.

Huckaby will appear for arraignment today. She is being held without bail at the San Joaquin County Jail.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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