- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

STOCKTON, CALIF. (AP) - The neighbor of an 8-year-old Northern California girl whose body was found in an irrigation pond has made her first appearance in court to face a murder charge.

Twenty-eight-year-old Melissa Huckaby was led into a San Joaquin County courtroom in a red jumpsuit and shackles for the Tuesday afternoon arraignment. She cried as a judge read the charges: 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.

She did not enter a plea.

Authorities have not said how Sandra Cantu was killed, nor discussed a motive.

The Sunday school teacher was arrested Friday, four days after the girl’s body was found stuffed in Huckaby’s suitcase in the pond.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) _ A woman kidnapped, raped and murdered an 8-year-old girl and stuffed her body in a suitcase that was dumped in a pond just a few miles from home, prosecutors alleged Tuesday.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, was charged with murdering her daughter’s playmate, Sandra Cantu, in a gruesome crime that has shocked and terrified residents of Tracy, a Northern California city of about 78,000, 60 miles east of San Francisco.

Huckaby, who volunteered as a Sunday school teacher at her grandfather’s Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy, was due to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon.

Prosecutors filed the murder charge Tuesday before Huckaby’s scheduled court appearance and included in their allegations 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.

The special circumstances mean Huckaby, if convicted, could face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors have said they have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Sandra disappeared March 27, last seen on surveillance camera video skipping outside the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where she lived just five doors from Huckaby.

A 10-day search by law enforcement and the community ended April 6, when farmworkers draining an irrigation pond a few miles away from the mobile home complex found the suitcase containing 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.

A criminal complaint said the murder occurred “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.

She grew up in Southern California and bounced back and forth between Tracy and Orange County after high school, said her family, who described her as a loving mother with a strong religious background.

Relatives visited Huckaby late Monday at the San Joaquin County Jail, where she was being held without bail. Authorities were not aware if Huckaby had an attorney.

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

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

The slaying had already aroused fear among parents in Tracy and particularly 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 sexual assault 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.

___

Associated Press writers Marcus Wohlsen and Evelyn Nieves contributed to this report.

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