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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Kidnapping - Rape (the victim was sexually assaulted with a rolling pin)
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 27, 2009
Date of arrest: April 10, 2009
Date of birth: February 23, 1981
Victim profile: Sandra Cantu, 8
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Tracy, San Joaquin County, California, USA
Status: Pled guilty to the murder on May 10, 2010. Sentenced to life in prison without parole on June 14, 2010
photo gallery

The Sandra Cantu homicide occurred on or about March 27, 2009, in Tracy, California. Sandra Cantu (8 years old) was reported missing on March 27, 2009, wearing a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt and black leggings.

After several days, investigators began losing hope until on April 6, a man named Jose Luis Franco, while working at a dairy farm, found a suitcase in a pond containing the body of Sandra Cantu. Two days later, on April 9 investigators also found a note "From Sandra, to my killer" on a tree in the trailer park where she lived.


On April 10, 2009, police arrested 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby and charged her with the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Cantu. The black Eddie Bauer suitcase that contained the body of Cantu belonged to Huckaby, who reported to have left it in her driveway on the day Cantu went missing.

Police did not at the time provide details as to why Huckaby was arrested, but there is evidence to suggest that a police investigator leaked to a reporter that Huckaby was a key suspect. With their investigation blown, police arrested Huckaby after a story was published in the Tracy Press in which Huckaby claimed ownership of the suitcase. She was placed under arrest after interrogation on April 10. Reports after her arrest indicated that in the days prior, Huckaby attempted suicide by swallowing knife blades; Huckaby reportedly denied this.

It has been reported that police in Tracy believe she murdered Cantu in the church where she worked as a Sunday school teacher for five children, and where her grandfather served as a minister.

According to the pathologist's report, Sandra had been strangled with a torn piece of cloth that had been knotted into "a noose." The cause of death was determined to be "homicidal asphyxiation." Some of Sandra's injuries were also consistent with a rolling pin with a bent handle and bloody smudge found inside the church. The pathology report revealed that the smudge on the rolling pin matched Sandra's blood. The report also showed she was sexually assaulted with the object.

Huckaby was indicted by a grand jury on charges of kidnapping, murder, and rape in the death of Cantu. The prosecution subsequently announced that the death penalty would be sought at trial. However, Huckaby pled guilty to the murder on May 10, 2010, sparing her from a possible death sentence. All other charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. On June 14, 2010 Huckaby was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the crime.

Melissa Huckaby

Melissa Huckaby (born February 23, 1981) is a former Sunday school teacher who pleaded guilty to the murder of Sandra Cantu. Born in Orange County, California, Huckaby is the granddaughter of Clifford Lawless, pastor of Clover Road Baptist Church, in Tracy, California. Before her arrest, Huckaby lived at the same mobile home park as Cantu, and she is the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, a close friend with whom Cantu played.


Sandra Cantu sexually assaulted with rolling pin before being strangled, stuffed in suitcase

Huckaby was sentenced for the murder of 8 year old Sandra Cantu whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase in a pond in April 2009


June 19, 2010

STOCKTON -- Newly released grand jury transcripts show Melissa Huckaby drugged 8-year old Sandra Cantu and sexually assaulted her with a rolling pin before strangling her with an alcohol soaked noose.

Sandra"s body was found with a blood-soaked cloth knotted into a noose, and her official cause of death was listed as "homicidal asphyxiation," according to court records that had previously been under gag order.

At a press conference at the Tracy Police Department, prosecutor Thomas Testa said there was evidence of isopropyl alcohol on the cloth, which authorities believed was used to smother the girl.

The 2000 pages of transcripts include the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who conducted the autopsy.

Omalu told jurors that the way the child's body was put into a suitcase after the killing showed that it was premeditated.

According to Omalu, the murder showed a "calm, calculating mind at work."

Testimony confirms it was Huckaby herself who led police to identify her as the only suspect in the killing.

Huckaby approached three FBI agents and two Tracy police officers the day after Cantu disappeared and gave them a handwritten note she said she had found near the community mailboxes at her trailer park. "CANTU LOCKED IN STOLIN SUIT CASE THROWN IN WATER ONN BACHCHETTI & WHITEHALL. WITNESS," the note read.

Huckaby told the group that her suitcase had been stolen the day before.

Cantu's body was not found until eight days later when the water level had gone down.

Testimony also reveals detectives visited Huckaby in the hospital eight days after the murder where she was admitted after swallowing a razor blade.

The documents show Huckaby told investigators she accidentally swallowed the blade while sleepwalking.

Testa told members of the grand jury the action showed the "consciousness of guilt."

Melissa Huckaby, 29, was sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole after she pleaded guilty to murdering Sandra.

Their investigative summary said the girl had injuries to her external genitalia that were consistent with a bent, bloodstained rolling pin found inside a church where Huckaby had taught.


Cantu Was Murdered In Church

June 14, 2010

CBS News has learned that police in Tracy believe 8-year-old Sandra Cantu was murdered in the church where her accused killer was a Sunday school teacher.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, was arrested early Saturday morning and charged with kidnapping and murder.

Huckaby's grandfather is pastor of the Clover Road Baptist Church, near the mobile home park where Sandra Cantu's family lives. Police searched the church Friday in the hours before Huckaby was arrested, filling a van with evidence bags.

Police and residents in Tracy responded with shock when the suspect in the murder of a young girl turned out to be a woman, the mother of the slain girl's best friend.

Melissa Huckaby was on suicide watch Saturday at the San Joaquin County Jail, where she is held on suspicion of kidnapping and killing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu. The girl's body was found in one of Huckaby's suitcases in an irrigation pond nearly a week ago, police said.

"This was an anomaly in the murder of a child," police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said at a news conference Saturday. "Finding out that it is a woman who is responsible for Sandra's kidnapping and murder, and then finding out it is a member of the community is another blow."

FBI statistics show women are involved in just 7 percent of murders of any sort. Solo killings of children by women are even more unusual.

"A review of data from the 2007 Uniform Crime Report confirms that the arrest of Melissa Huckaby in the Sandra Cantu murder investigation is uncommon," said FBI spokesman Steve Dupre in Sacramento.

Sandra disappeared on March 27 and hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials turned out to search for her. Pictures of the girl with dark brown eyes and light brown hair were posted all over Tracy, a city of 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Police said they received 1,500 tips in the hunt for Sandra and her killer.

"It's very unusual for women to be involved in an abduction and murder of a child," said Candice DeLong, a retired FBI profiler based in San Francisco. "Sometimes we see this when the woman is working with a male partner. It does not appear to be the case this time. But this was not a sexually motivated crime."

Huckaby attended the second of the several vigils for the slain girl, Sheneman said.

On April 6, farmworkers draining an irrigation pond found the suitcase.

Sheneman said investigators have no motive for the slaying, which drew national attention. Police declined to say where or how the girl was allegedly killed. Inconsistencies in Huckaby's story led to her arrest, Sheneman said.

There are no other suspects and no other arrests are expected, he said.

Huckaby is a granddaughter of Pastor Clifford Lawless, and taught Sunday school at the Clover Road Baptist Church. She lived with Lawless in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park that also was Sandra's home.

Huckaby's uncle, John Hughes Jr. of Whittier, said his niece was from a good home, but had hit a rough patch in her life and moved in with her grandparents in Tracy to get past her troubles.

"They opened their home up to her to try to get her life back on track. I think a lot of families have problems like that," Hughes said.

Huckaby was scheduled to appear in court on April 17 to check in with a county mental health program as part of a three-year probation sentence for a petty theft charge to which she pleaded no contest.

She was arrested about five hours after she drove herself to the local police station at the request of officers. She is being held without bail for an arraignment Tuesday.

"She was calm, cool and collected, then she became very emotional," Sheneman said.

The slain girl's family was as puzzled as police.

"Why?" wondered her uncle, Joe Chavez, shaking his head. He said Huckaby should face the death penalty if convicted.

It was not immediately clear if Huckaby had hired an attorney.

Police said autopsy results are not yet available, and they declined to say whether investigators believe the slaying was accidental or deliberate.

She had worked as a checker at a Food for Less grocery store in a strip mall just east of the mobile park for nearly four years, until she was fired sometime in 2004, said Matt Duncan, an assistant manager at the store now known as FoodMaxx.

"I wouldn't have anything bad to say about her, until now," said Duncan, who has worked at the store off-and-on for about 10 years. "I would've never suspected her to do something like this."


Melissa Huckaby Used Noose to Kill 8-Year-old Sandra Cantu

By Russell Goldman -

June 14, 2010

Former Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby used a noose to strangle 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, officials revealed today during the confessed killer's sentencing.

Huckaby, 29, pleaded guilty last month to first degree murder and kidnapping "with enhancements" to avoid the death penalty.

Today in court, a sobbing Huckaby apologized to Sandra's family, saying: "I should not have taken her from you."

"I owe you an explanation. But I still cannot understand why I did what I did," she said.

She was sentenced to life without parole.

Many of the details of the grisly crime have previously been kept from the public, sealed under a judge's gag order. The judge lifted that order and the prosecutor revealed for the first time how Sandra was killed.

Quoting the pathologist's report, prosecutor Tom Testa said Sandra had been strangled with a torn piece of cloth that had been knotted into "a noose." He said the cause of death was "homicidal asphyxiation."

Previously released court documents had revealed that Huckaby was accused of poisoning Sandra, and sexually assaulting her with a foreign object, before killing her and dumping her body in an irrigation pond.

Some of her injuries were consistent with a rolling pin with a bent handle and bloody smudge found inside a church where Huckaby had taught. The smudge matched Sandra's blood, according to the pathologist's report.

The sexual assault charge was dropped as part of the plea deal Huckaby made with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty in May.

Huckaby today denied having sexually assaulted the girl and asked Sandra's mother Maria Chavez for forgiveness.

"She did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her," Huckaby said. "I'm asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness. I can't imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me."

But according to the pathologist's reported cited by Testa, Sandra suffered a cut to her lip, an abrasion to her elbow and injuries to her genitals.

Testa said toxicology tests also found the drug alprazolam, used to treat anxiety disorders, in Cantu's body. Bottles of alprazolam were found in Huckaby's home and purse, Testa said.

Sandra Cantu Last Seen Skipping Home

Sandra's family live in the same Tracy, Calif., trailer park where Huckaby lived with her grandparents and 5-year-old daughter.

Huckaby's grandfather Clifford Lawless is pastor at the nearby church, where the confessed murderer previously taught Sunday school, and which authorities searched in the days leading up to Huckaby's arrest.

Sandra went missing in March 27, 2009. Her body, stuffed in a suitcase, was found two weeks later and Huckaby was arrested that April, when police linked the suitcase to Huckaby. Huckaby told conflicting stories to police and the media about the black Eddie Bauer suitcase, which she said she left in her driveway.

Testa revealed for the first time some of the evidence, including surveillance video and eyewitness testimony that connected Sandra to Huckaby.

Testa said surveillance video from the trailer park showed Cantu skipping toward her home on March 27 when something caught her eye. Testa said Cantu "looks over in the direction of Melissa Huckaby's residence. Then she drops off the face of the earth."

The videotape then shows Huckaby, eight minutes later, driving out of the mobile home park in the direction of her grandfather's church, Clover Road Baptist Church. Testa said about the time Huckaby was leaving, she phoned the trailer park manager to report her black suitcase stolen in front of her trailer.

The prosecutor said another surveillance tape showed Huckaby driving away from the church and then returning to the church 30 minutes later. In that 30-minute window, a retired marine and his wife saw Huckaby and her SUV at the irrigation pond where Sandra's body would later be found stuffed inside a suitcase.

Huckaby later told investigators she stopped at the pond to urinate.

The day after Cantu disappeared, Huckaby alerted authorities to a handwritten note she claimed she found in the trailer park. The note read: "Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase. Thrown in water on (sic) Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road. Witness." Prosecutors said the handwriting, though disguised, matched Huckaby's.

The gag order was initially established to prevent too many details from becoming public, which could have influenced a jury. Since then the Cantu family has argued that a California statue called Marsy's Law allows for the details to remain sealed.

Judge Lifts Gag Order in Sandra Cantu Case

Several media outlets have petitioned to have the details released and many assume more information will be forthcoming following the sentencing.

Today the judge lifted the order and police are expected to reveal more details later in the day.


Huckaby Pleads Guilty to Murder of 8-year old Sandra Cantu


May 10, 2010

STOCKTON -- In a surprise move Melissa Huckaby pleaded guilty Monday to the murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.

Huckaby pleaded guilty to murder with a special circumstance of kidnapping. All other charges against her in the case were dropped.

San Joaquin County Superior Court officials say Melissa Huckaby of Tracy entered the surprise plea in a hearing Monday morning.

The 29-year-old former Sunday School teacher was accused of killing Sandra, who was last seen alive on March 27, 2009.

After a 10-day search, the girl's body was found in a black suitcase in a pond not far from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, where the second-grader and Huckaby were neighbors.

Tracy police arrested Huckaby on April 10, 2009.

A San Joaquin County grand jury indicted the mother on murder with three enhancements -- kidnapping, lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 and rape by instrument -- in connection with Sandra's death.

A second count charged Huckaby with a sex crime with a child 10 years or younger.

Huckaby was a Sunday school teacher at Sandra's grandfather's small church.

Sandra was also a playmate of Huckaby's young daughter.

Authorities believe Sandra was killed in the church, which is next to the trailer park where both Huckaby and the girl's family live.

Assistant Court Executive Officer Sharon Morris says Huckaby faces a sentence of 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Huckaby is scheduled for sentencing June 14.



Melissa Huckaby, who killed 8-year-old Sandra Cantu in 2009, pleads guilty to avoid death penalty

By Nancy Dillon -

May 10, 2010

LOS ANGELES - The monster mom accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering her 8-year-old neighbor entered a surprise guilty plea Monday to avoid the death penalty.

Melissa Huckaby, 29, admitted she killed Sandra Cantu in April 2009 before the girl's tiny corpse was found stuffed in a suitcase in an irrigation ditch near her Tracy, Calif., home.

A Sunday school teacher who lived with her own daughter in the same mobile home park as Sandra, Huckaby also was accused of drugging a 7-year-old girl with a muscle relaxant prior to Sandra's murder.

In exchange for her guilty plea to murder with a special circumstance of kidnapping, prosecutors dropped the rape and drugging charges and agreed not to seek the death penalty.

She's slated to receive a sentence of 25 years to life without the possibility of parole when she goes before the judge June 14.

Sandra vanished March 27, 2009, from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where she lived with her mom, older siblings and grandparents.

An eerie surveillance video shows her skipping happily in the sunshine shortly before she disappeared. She reportedly visited Huckaby's home five doors down to ask to play with Huckaby's then 5-year-old daughter, Madison.

A desperate 10-day search ended when farm workers discovered the suitcase after draining a ditch a few miles away.

Huckaby told a local Tracy Press reporter the suitcase was hers but had been stolen from her driveway the day the girl disappeared.

Shortly before her April 11 arrest, Huckaby allegedly tried to kill herself, according to court papers filed in her daughter's custody case in Orange County, Calif.

"She tried to commit suicide by swallowing three razor blades," the papers filed by Madison's father, John Huckaby, said.

"You could do an entire psychological seminar, write a thesis or spend your entire life trying to figure out a motive here," a source close to the case told the Daily News last year.

"It's pointless" to search for an excuse for such heinous behavior, the source said.

Huckaby's grandfather is pastor of the nearby Clover Road Baptist Church.


Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby indicted on kidnap, rape, murder charges in Sandra Cantu death

August 18, 2009

STOCKTON, Calif. - A San Joaquin County grand jury has indicted a Sunday school teacher on charges she kidnapped, raped and killed an 8-year-old girl and drugged two other people.

Melissa Huckaby broke down in tears Monday as Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus read the indictment against her. The reading came after prosecutors convened a grand jury last month to determine whether Huckaby would stand trial.

Lofthus said the grand jury transcript would remain sealed. No trial date has been set.

Huckaby, 28, is accused of killing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, a playmate of Huckaby's young daughter. Sandra went missing in March in Tracy, her hometown in Northern California. A massive search for her ended 10 days later when her body was found stuffed in a black suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond a few miles from the mobile home park where she lived.

Defense attorney Sam Behar asked Lofthus to delay setting a trial date, saying he has not read the indictment or lengthy transcript because he's in the middle of another trial.

But Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa said he delivered a copy of the indictment to Behar's office earlier this month. "He's had a lot of time to read this indictment," Testa told Lofthus.

The judge then proceeded to read the indictment charges to a weeping Huckaby, who appeared in court with two fresh scratches above her right eyebrow. Neither Behar nor Testa would comment on the nature of Huckaby's injuries after Monday's hearing. A gag order barring attorneys, investigators and potential witnesses from commenting on the case remains in effect.

Huckaby in June pleaded not guilty to killing Sandra as well as to charges that she previously had drugged a 7-year-old girl and a 37-year-old man, whom police believe she had been dating. The girl and Huckaby lived in the same mobile park.

Huckaby is charged with two counts of furnishing someone a harmful substance and one count of child endangerment in the drugging cases.

In the case involving Sandra Cantu, Huckaby is charged with murder with the special circumstances of rape, kidnapping and lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14, which could make her eligible for the death penalty if convicted. Sandra was last seen on a surveillance camera skipping near her home just five doors down from the defendant.

On Monday, Huckaby entered the courtroom smiling, but her demeanor became tearful and somber as the indictment was read and debate on her next court appearance ensued.

Testa said the district attorney's office is treating the case as if it will be a death penalty case, but no decision is expected for at least two months.

Prosecutors convened a grand jury instead of holding a preliminary hearing in the case to ensure a speedy trial and avoid a possible change of venue. Testa also told Lofthus he wants a speedy trial because the case involves minors and should be made a priority.

Lofthus countered that it would be premature to set a trial within 30 days because Behar had not seen the indictment or the voluminous grand jury testimony.

"We need to do the case one time and we need to have the case done right," the judge said. "The defense needs time to prepare."

Lofthus then scheduled a Sept. 10 hearing to discuss possible trial dates. Huckaby remains in the San Joaquin County Jail without bail.


Woman accused of raping, killing Sandra Cantu may have drugged other girl and a man

By Nancy Dillon -

May 22, 2009

The California mom accused of raping and murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu is facing chilling new charges she drugged a 7-year-old girl in January and a man in March.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, has not entered any pleas since Cantu's tiny corpse was found stuffed in a suitcase in an irrigation ditch April 6.

The Sunday school teacher from Tracy, Calif., made a third court appearance Friday but her attorney said he needed more time to review the three new felonies tacked on to the original murder and rape charge.

Cops found Huckaby with the 7-year-old, whose name was not released, at a park Jan. 17 after the girl's mom reported her missing.

The mom, Lora Polk, said her daughter was slurring her words when she returned home and that doctors later found a muscle relaxant in her system, the Tracy Press reported.

Police did not arrest Huckaby in January citing a lack of evidence.

In the new complaint released Friday, prosecutors claim Huckaby mixed "a harmful substance with food or drink" and fed it to the child.

Prosecutors also allege Huckaby tried to poison an adult named Daniel Plowman on March 2 but didn't give any details.

Cantu vanished March 27 from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where she lived with her grandparents.

An eerie surveillance video shows her skipping happily in the sunshine shortly before she disappeared - the same day she visited Huckaby's nearby home to play with her 5-year-old daughter Madison.

A desperate 10-day search ended when farm workers draining a ditch a few miles away discovered the suitcase.

Huckaby allegedly swallowed razor blades after Cantu's disappearance, according to court papers filed in Orange County by Madison's father, who is now fighting his ex-mother-in-law for custody of the girl.

"She tried to commit suicide by swallowing three razor blades," according to the the papers filed by John Huckaby, which were first reported by

"You could do an entire psychological seminar, write a thesis or spend your entire life trying to figure out a motive here," a source close to the case told the Daily News.

Huckaby, the granddaughter of a Baptist pastor, was arrested April 10 after she told a local Tracy Press reporter the suitcase was hers but was stolen the day Cantu vanished.


Sandra Cantu's Sunday school teacher, Melissa Huckaby, arrested in 8-year-old's murder

By Caitlin Millat -

April 11, 2009

A Sunday School teacher was arrested in connection with the murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, whose body was stuffed into a suitcase and dumped in an irrigation pond.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, the granddaughter of a church pastor, drove herself to a Tracy, Calif., police station on Good Friday at the request of cops.

"She revealed enough information that we had probable cause to arrest her for both kidnapping and murder," Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said Saturday.

"She was very relaxed for a bit, then she became very emotional and then she became relaxed again and then became resigned to what was happening," Sheneman said.

The motive and cause of death were not released.

Cantu's relatives, who pleaded with police and the public to help bring the little girl's killer to justice, said Huckaby's arrest took them by surprise.

"I want to know why she did it, if she did it," said the girl's aunt, Angel Chavez.

Huckaby lived in the same Tracy trailer-park complex as Cantu and her 5-year-old daughter was friends with the brown-eyed little girl, who went missing March 27.

The suitcase with Cantu's body, found April 6 on a dairy farm, belonged to Huckaby - who had previously insisted the case was stolen from her.

Cantu visited Huckaby's house the day she went missing to play with her daughter, the teacher told the Tracy Press earlier this month.

Huckaby is being held without bail at the San Joaquin County Jail and will be arraigned Tuesday, cops said.

She was already slated to appear in court April 17 as part of a petty theft case from last year.



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