TRACY — While her granddaughter is jailed on murder charges, Connie Lawless is staying strong in her Baptist faith and stands firmly by the character of her church and family.
The Lawless family and the Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy have faced dark times during the investigation into the kidnapping, rape and slaying of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu — from news reports that the girl was killed at the church to suspicions cast on pastor Lane Lawless and the April 10 arrest of his granddaughter, Melissa Huckaby.
Connie Lawless, in a telephone interview, denied all accusations.
"There is no pattern of anything like that," she said. "There has never been a hint of any kind of scandal," she said. "We are open people. Our church is open and friendly and lively. We don't have anything to hide."
While Connie and Lane Lawless are in Southern California with family and friends, their tiny, close-knit congregation gathered in the sparsely decorated church Wednesday night for regular midweek services. As the murder investigation continues to singe the airwaves and keep the church and Tracy in the national media's attention, worshipers sang hymns of finding strength in life's trials — the members' booming voices filling the modest building.
Connie Lawless' brother, the Rev. DeWayne Harris, came from Salinas to give a spirited sermon on how Baptists struggle to preserve the truth and how the national media spotlight has rocked their little church.
"Knowing the history of this Tracy church, I know this is your darkest hour, but I'm going to talk about light," he said. "I hope that through this tragedy that God gets the attention of not only Tracy, but the nation."
He spoke harshly of what he called false media reports on the case, and he said he felt sorry for the likes of news commentators Nancy Grace and Dan Rather.
Recent news reports have linked Lane Lawless to an FBI investigation into old child abuse claims at a church in rural Washington. The pastor's wife maintains that he has only led California congregations. He's been at Clover Road, established in 1955, since the early 80s.
"Lane is the last person on the Earth that you would ever suspect of abusing anyone," she says, describing him as trustworthy, hardworking and strong.
Lawless also denies media reports that Huckaby was ever molested, abused or involved in serious crime, and she would not confirm whether Huckaby has suffered from depression.
"I look at her and look at my family, and they never have done drugs or alcohol or anything," Lawless said.
She described Huckaby as a "dutiful and involved" mother who seldom left the mobile home she shared with her grandparents, who lived a few doors from the slain girl. When she did go out, her 5-year-old daughter was with her. Huckaby monitored what her daughter watched on TV and with whom she played.
Lawless said she and her husband provided a support system for Huckaby, who was divorced several years ago and had financial problems. And she helped them as well, Lawless said.
"They were a delight. She (Huckaby's daughter) just kept us in stitches," she said. "Her mother doted on her, and she on her mom."
The extended family remains rooted in their Christian faith, Lawless said. Huckaby's parents, Brian and Judy Lawless, remain involved in the church in Orange County, where Melissa Huckaby was born and raised, and their younger children, two boys, are a U.S. Marine and EMT/college student.
"We are all respectful of one another and think a lot of one another. It is like we teach our children that, and they teach their children that," Harris said. "Melissa has always been very respectful of me."
Lawless describes her oldest grandchild as kind, sweet, quiet and good with children.
They've had an outpouring of support letters and prayers from across the nation and have no plans to close the church. Despite numerous FBI and police searches, many congregation members do not believe Sandra was killed there.
The Clover Road church has about 30 members — Lawless family relatives, area school teachers and multigenerational families. Members come from Tracy, Lathrop, Turlock and Modesto.
Members say they like the intimacy of a small congregation. Like other independent Baptist churches, Clover Road is conservative and autonomous.
Church member Cynthia Browning of Manteca, Connie's Lawless' sister, said the absence of Huckaby and her daughter, who is with family in Southern California, have been noticeable. The church prayed for her during the service.
"God can bring good out of bad circumstances," Browning said. "God's work can transcend evil."
Reach Paula King at 925-779-7189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.