- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Prosecutors say an 8-year-old Northern California girl may have been raped and molested before she was killed and her body put in a suitcase.

Melissa Huckaby, a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher, was arrested Friday on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Sandra Cantu.

Huckaby was scheduled to be arraigned in Stockton on Tuesday. San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himmelblau said Monday a murder charge against Huckaby could include the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and murder in the course of a kidnapping.

A conviction on any of them would make Huckaby eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without parole, Himmelblau said, although his office hasn’t decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Sandra disappeared on March 27, prompting a wide-reaching search in Tracy, a city of 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco. On April 6, Sandra’s body was found in a suitcase by farmworkers draining an irrigation pond located only a few miles from Sandra’s home in a mobile home park.

Huckaby lived with her grandparents five doors down from Sandra in Tracy. The little girl was a playmate of Huckaby’s 5-year-old daughter, Madison.

Police have not said how, where or why Sandra was killed, but Sgt. Tony Sheneman said investigators believe Huckaby acted alone.

“We have not been provided with one (a motive),” Sheneman said Monday. “We don’t know why a mother would kill another mother’s child.”

Neither Himmelblau nor Sheneman would provide details on any evidence leading prosecutors to consider the sexual assault allegations.

“I was hoping that wasn’t the case,” Sandra’s aunt, Angie Chavez, said through tears. “I’m in shock. The whole thing is unimaginable.”

In the days after Sandra’s body was found, investigators searched Clover Road Baptist Church, where Huckaby volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and her grandfather, Clifford Lawless, is the pastor.

Investigators also interviewed the pastor and seized items from his home. Her family has said they do not know what police were looking for.

Huckaby’s family visited her late Monday at the San Joaquin County Jail, where she was being held without bail. Himmelblau was not aware if Huckaby had an attorney.

“We’re in shock,” Brian Lawless, Huckaby’s father, said. “The young lady I see on film, that’s not my daughter.”

Lawless said during the visit, the family cried and prayed together.

On Sunday, outside the church after Easter services, Huckaby’s relatives described her as a loving mother with a strong religious upbringing.

“The allegations are so far outside what I know about my niece,” Huckaby’s uncle, Brett Lawless, 48, of Lakewood, said. “Of course there are doubts in my mind. But we understand the police doing their jobs might have some probable cause.”

In 2006, Huckaby was convicted of petty theft in Los Angeles County.

Separately, in January, she pleaded no contest to a petty theft charge in San Joaquin County Superior Court. She was sentenced to 3 years probation on the condition that she participate in a county mental health program.


Associated Press writers Terry Collins in Tracy, Calif., and Evelyn Nieves in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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