Tracy Killing Suspect Could Face Rape Charge

By Demian Bulwa and Kevin Fagan
San Francisco Chronicle
April 13, 2009

(04-13) 22:31 PDT Tracy -- Prosecutors on Monday were considering whether to add potential death-penalty counts of rape and child molestation to the murder charge they intend to file against Melissa Huckaby, the Sunday school teacher suspected of killing an 8-year-old Tracy girl who went to her house to play with her daughter.

Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau said Monday that San Joaquin County prosecutors will accuse Huckaby of murdering Sandra Cantu and may add special-circumstances allegations that the killing was committed during a kidnapping, involved a lewd or lascivious act on a child, and involved rape with a foreign object.

The special circumstances would make Huckaby, 28, eligible for execution. Prosecutors would have to decide later whether to seek the death penalty at trial.

Huckaby is scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon in Superior Court in Stockton.

Authorities have not gone into detail about how they believe Sandra died. Publicly, they have said only that she was killed soon after she was last seen March 27.

However, sources close to the investigation said Monday that the girl was deliberately killed at the Clover Road Baptist Church, where Huckaby teaches Sunday school and her grandfather is pastor. The church is two blocks from the mobile home park where Sandra lived and where Huckaby resides with relatives, and police and FBI agents searched it at least twice in the days before Huckaby was arrested just before midnight Friday.

The suggestion that Sandra had been sexually assaulted was the latest shocking turn in a case that already defied stereotypes of crimes involving missing children.

"I understand why the public would be stunned," Himelblau said. "Our office will treat this like we treat all of our cases with victims. Each victim is special, and each defendant will be accorded every right they deserve."

There is nothing in Huckaby's criminal background that would suggest she was likely to commit rape or murder. She is on probation for a 2006 shoplifting misdemeanor conviction in Los Angeles County and pleaded no contest in January to a petty theft charge in San Joaquin County.

In the San Joaquin County case, Huckaby was ordered to participate in a county mental health program for one year.

Motive may not be known

Himelblau suggested that prosecutors would not immediately provide a theory for why Huckaby might have killed her daughter's playmate.

"We want to know the motive," Himelblau said, "even though the motive doesn't always make sense to us."

Prosecutors went to the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy to discuss the charges personally with Sandra's family. They said the girl's relatives were enraged to hear the crime was apparently even more gruesome than they had believed.

"This puts salt right into the wound," said Angie Chavez, Sandra's aunt. "I am just sick about this."

Chavez said word of the new charges sent Sandra's mother, Maria Chavez, into new depths of grief and anger. She had to be sedated after being told April 6 that her daughter had been found dead.

Suspect's family shocked

Huckaby's uncle, Brett Lawless, said he, too, was deeply saddened at the news.

His niece had a reputation at church as being tender and attentive toward small children, and neighbors say Huckaby seemed to be a devoted mother to her 5-year-old daughter. Huckaby's daughter is the child Sandra came to play with on the day she disappeared.

"We're even more devastated than ever at hearing about these charges," Lawless said at the mobile home park residence where Huckaby lived with her grandfather - five doors away from Sandra's home.

"We're having a very hard time dealing with all of this," Lawless said. "It just doesn't match up with the Melissa we know and love."

Investigators say Sandra went to Huckaby's house March 27 and was kidnapped and killed before her family even realized she was missing. The last public sighting of Sandra was filmed on a security camera, showing the cheery, brown-haired child skipping off to play with her friend.

Sandra's body was found 2 miles away April 6 in a suitcase that was floating in an irrigation pond.

Before being arrested, Huckaby told a reporter for the Tracy Press that someone had stolen the suitcase out of her driveway. Inconsistencies between the interview and her earlier statements to police prompted investigators to ask her to come in for more questioning. She drove herself to the police station Friday and, after five hours of talks, she was arrested.

In addition to her previous, relatively minor criminal convictions, Huckaby has had financial difficulties, mostly related to medical bills.

Court records show that she filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and at the time owed $10,000 to Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, $4,394 for ambulance services, and thousands of dollars in other medical and retail store bills.

Memorial service

A public memorial for Sandra Cantu is planned for 1 p.m. Thursday in the West High School gym, 1775 W. Lowell Road, Tracy.

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