New Allegation, New Judge
Report Links Melissa Huckaby to Drugged 7-Year-Old Girl; Van Oss Removes Himself from Case

By Scott Smith
The Record
April 21, 2009

STOCKTON - A judge assigned to oversee the trial of Melissa Huckaby, the Tracy woman charged with the kidnapping, rape and murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, recused himself from the case Monday without once hearing it.

News of a judicial switch came as the Tracy Press reported that Huckaby was linked to a 7-year-old girl found drugged with muscle relaxers in January.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus will take up the case Friday, when Huckaby's public defender is expected to ask for an order to remove Sandra's remains from the Tracy Mausoleum for a second autopsy.

According to that report, a Jan. 17 entry in Tracy police logs showed that someone driving a purple Kia Sportage took a girl from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, where both Huckaby and Sandra lived. The girl was drugged, the newspaper said.

Huckaby drove a purple Kia Sportage, which police towed after Sandra's body was found. Police had dismissed the case, because the girl's mother had alcohol on her breath and carried some type of drug, the newspaper reported on its Web site.

Superior Court Judge Terrence Van Oss was assigned to Huckaby's case last week, but he recused himself, according to a tersely worded letter the court published, a move that stems from an old conflict of interest with Huckaby's prosecutor.

Huckaby, 28, is eligible for the death penalty if she is convicted of killing Sandra on March 27, the day the girl vanished. Farm workers discovered Sandra's body April 6 stuffed in a black suitcase in an irrigation pond north of Tracy.

Huckaby is charged with murder and three special circumstances of kidnapping, rape with a foreign object, and lewd and lascivious acts on a child.

In the court's letter, there is no explanation of Van Oss' decision, but Huckaby's prosecutor, San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa, said Van Oss has declined two of his other cases, because the judge is a witness in yet another death penalty case Testa is prosecuting.

"With regret, he recused himself," Testa said. "It was in an abundance of caution."

Superior Court Judge William J. Murray Jr. signed the letter addressed to both Testa and San Joaquin County Deputy Public Defender Sam Behar, who represents Huckaby.

Testa said the two previous cases Van Oss declined to take also ended up before Lofthus. Testa's conflict with Van Oss arises from the death penalty case of 53-year-old Blufford Hayes Jr.

Van Oss - formerly a prosecutor - won a death sentence against Hayes for the 1980 murder of Stockton motel manager Vinod "Pete" Patel. Van Oss successfully argued that Hayes stole cigarettes and $23 from the man found bound with a wire coat hanger.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal overturned the conviction in 2005 on grounds that Van Oss tainted the conviction when he made a secret deal with a key witness to win the death sentence against Hayes without telling the judge or jury.

Behar numbers among the attorneys who have represented Hayes - who now represents himself - since he was transferred back to the San Joaquin County Jail, where he awaits a new death penalty trial.

Contact: POCHTA

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


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