California Sunday School Teacher Charged With Murder, Rape, Kidnapping of Sandra Cantu, 8
A female Sunday school teacher kidnapped, raped and murdered an 8-year-old girl who was the close friend of her 5-year-old daughter, then stuffed her body in a suitcase and dumped it into a pond, prosecutors contended Tuesday.
Charges were filed against Melissa Huckaby, 28, in the killing of little Sandra Cantu ahead of her afternoon arraignment, which was held about 4 p.m. EDT (1 p.m. PDT).
Huckaby, led into the San Joaquin County courtroom in a red jumpsuit and shackles, did not enter a plea.
She cried as a judge read the charge: one count of murder with the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 and murder in the course of a kidnapping.
Authorities have not said how or where Sandra was killed, nor discussed a possible motive.
They say they don't expect other arrests and believe she acted alone.
The gruesome crime has shocked and terrified residents in Tracy, a city of about 78,000 people, 60 miles east of San Francisco.
Huckaby, a volunteer Sunday school teacher at her grandfather's Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy, was arrested Friday after hours of interrogation by police after a 10-day-long search for Sandra and a suspect in her killing.
The special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd acts with a child under 14 and a murder during a kidnapping mean that Huckaby, if convicted, could face life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
Prosecutors said they have not decided whether to seek capital punishment. She is being represented by a public defender.
Huckaby's arraignment was attended by an onslaught of journalists. Only 20 seats were allotted for reporters — some of them chosen by lottery and some assigned by officials — in addition to space for two television cameras and a few others using other media equipment.
Huckaby's family said they are shocked by the latest disturbing allegations against her.
"That is not my daughter. My daughter is a loving mother," her father, Brian Lawless, told KTVU before his daughter was arraigned. "I cannot comprehend that she would do anything like that. That is not my daughter."
Sandra disappeared March 27, and was last seen on a surveillance camera skipping outside the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy where she lived just five doors down from Huckaby.
A 10-day search by law enforcement and the community ended on April 6, when farmworkers draining an irrigation pond a few miles away from the mobile home complex found the suitcase that was later determined to contain Sandra's body.
Police have said Sandra was found wearing the same clothes she had on when she was last seen: a pink "Hello Kitty" T-shirt and black leggings. They have not said how, why or where she was killed, and the coroner's office has said autopsy results are pending.
The complaint said the murder happened "on or about" March 27, but gave no other details.
Huckaby was arrested Friday, hours after she told a Tracy Press reporter that the suitcase was hers but it had been stolen the day Sandra went missing.
In the days after Sandra's body was found, police searched Clover Road Baptist Church, interviewed Huckaby's grandfather, Pastor Clifford Lawless, and took items from the family's home. Huckaby lived with her grandparents.
Huckaby grew up in Southern California and spent the several years since high school bouncing back and forth between Tracy and Orange County, her family said.
They've described her as a loving mother who had a strong religious background and wouldn't hurt anyone.
Relatives visited Huckaby at San Joaquin County Jail Monday night, where she had been under observation. That was the first time they'd seen her since her arrest.
Huckaby's father, Brian Lawless, said the family cried and prayed together during the visit.
"She's not getting much sleep but in spite of all that that she looks good," he said after. "We're in shock."
The slaying had already aroused fear among parents in Tracy and especially in the mobile home complex, where residents described a tight-knit community. News of the rape allegation heightened concern for children.
The little girl's family broke down in tears when they were told of the additional allegations.
"I'm in shock. The whole thing is unimaginable," Sandra's aunt, Angie Chavez, said Monday.
A public memorial service is scheduled for Sandra on Thursday.Madeleine McCann has become an Icon for Missing Children