Tracy Mother Hears Charges

By Scott Smith
The Record
April 15, 2009

[the criminal complaint]

STOCKTON - An emotionally fragile Melissa Chantel Huckaby lost her struggle to maintain composure during a brief arraignment Tuesday while listening to a judge read aloud the charges that she kidnapped, murdered and raped 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.

Shackled, wearing red jailhouse clothes and standing for the proceeding, Huckaby, 28, is accused of crimes that make her eligible for a death sentence.

Reading the complaint, San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard Vlavianos said prosecutors alleged that Huckaby murdered Sandra "while the said defendant was engaged in the commission ... of the crime of rape by instrument."

The Tracy woman wrinkled her face and began to cry when Vlavianos read the name of "Sandra Cantu" from the criminal complaint. Again, she sobbed when he used the words "rape by an instrument." Tears dropped down her face.

The entire hearing lasted a little more than four minutes but carried the weight of the past three weeks - through Sandra's disappearance March 27, the discovery of her body in a black suitcase and Huckaby's arrest.

Meanwhile, investigators Tuesday served two more search warrants on Huckaby's home and the Clover Road Baptist Church just down the street from the trailer park where Sandra was last seen alive.

Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said he could not elaborate on the details of the searches and would not say if they were conducted because police are still trying to piece together a motive.

Prosecutors charged Huckaby, the granddaughter of a Tracy preacher, with murder and three special circumstances of kidnapping, lewd or lascivious acts on a child, and rape by a foreign object.

Vlavianos asked Huckaby if she wanted the Public Defender's Office, which she had used before, to represent her. Huckaby made her only utterance of the hearing when she mouthed an affirmative answer to his question.

San Joaquin County Deputy Public Defender Ellen Schwarzenberg, who rubbed Huckaby's back to comfort her, did not enter a plea for her client, asking instead for more time. Superior Court Judge Terrence Van Oss will hear Huckaby's case, which is set for April 24.

Schwarzenberg also asked Vlavianos to order a "medication evaluation" of Huckaby at the jail, saying that Huckaby had been on medication. Vlavianos agreed to the check up. Vlavianos also said that Van Oss would consider granting a gag order.

Officials on the case are not saying much. The three-page complaint made public before the hearing did not say what "instrument" Huckaby allegedly used on Sandra. The arraignment gave no insight into what Tracy police and prosecutors believe may have been her motive.

The courtroom was filled to capacity. More than three dozen reporters from local and national media outlets watched closely.

Inside were Sandra's family; aunt Angie Chavez and uncle Joe Chavez sat with Susan Levy, the mother of slain Washington intern Chandra Levy. They were teary-eyed as the charges were read. Sandra's mother and grandparents, with whom she lived at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, did not attend the hearing.

On the other side of the courtroom were Huckaby's relatives, including her father, Brian Lawless, grandmother Connie Lawless and aunt Joni Hughes. Brian Lawless looked down, hands together in his lap. He and Hughes also teared up during the hearing.

Among the officials were Tracy Police Chief Janet M. Thiessen, seated with three of her investigators. San Joaquin County Public Defender Pete Fox also was in court.

San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett watched with his chief prosecutors. Outside the courthouse, a swell of reporters swarmed around Willett, who made a brief statement.

Willett said his office will follow the normal procedure in deciding what penalty they will seek against Huckaby.

"As charged, she faces a potential death sentence or alternatively life without the possibility of parole," Willett said. "We will not make a decision on whether to seek death until we're further down the road in these proceedings."

Connie Lawless, in a phone interview after the hearing, described her granddaughter as a sweet person. Huckaby told family members during jailhouse visits that she is innocent. The charges put the family in a state of shock, Lawless said.

"This is totally out of character for our granddaughter," she said. "She is a woman who never raised a hand to a child, never raised a voice."

She said she does not believe her granddaughter could have committed the crime, unless "some freakish thing happened."

She said her granddaughter had been taking some psychotropic medication, and that she had no criminal history aside from a shoplifting.

Lawless said she and her husband visited for the first time with Huckaby at the San Joaquin County Jail for 40 minutes Monday evening. There, Lawless said, "We cried together, we prayed."

Lawless asked that everyone maintain an open mind. Her granddaughter has yet to speak with an attorney, and the only side of the story to come out so far has come from the Tracy Police Department, which is one-sided, she said.

Sandra's estranged father, Daniel Cantu, arrived late for Tuesday's court hearing. He watched a news conference outside and hugged a half-dozen friends who all wore "Justice for Sandra" T-shirts.

Cantu spoke quietly and thanked the volunteers who searched for his daughter and the police who investigated her death. "It's not the outcome we expected," he said. "I thank everybody for helping."

The criminal charges - more often seen involving men - baffle experts, who say such incidents involving women are rare.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, women are responsible for 6.4 percent of sex-related homicides in the nation. Just 2.4 percent of female murder victims are killed by women.

"Women don't tend to kill kids very much, and when they do, it tends to be their own children," said David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children Research Center. "It's very hard to say what's going on."

Even more abnormal are the sexual abuse charges. Typically, if a woman molests a child, the victim tends to be older, perhaps a teenager, Finkelhor said. The woman also more often acts in concert with a male perpetrator, he said.

Huckaby remains held at the San Joaquin County Jail without possibility of release on bail.

Contact reporter Scott Smith at (209) 546-8296 or


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