Sunday, April 12, 2009
On the day after 8-year old Sandra Cantu’s body was found in a suitcase floating in an irrigation pond, one of the prevailing topics in the Bay Area was “I hope they find the guy who did this and string him up by his [insert synonym referring to male genitalia].”
This quote from the San Francisco Chronicle
sums up the prevailing feelings toward the then-unknown perp on April 7:
"I'm so angry right now. I'm mad. I'm pissed," Eddie Ruiz, a 44-year-old farm laborer in Tracy, said as tears welled in his eyes. "I want all these pedophiles and all these people that do this to be put into protective custody. It happened in Tracy, where I'm from. It shouldn't happen."
Five days later, the idea that a woman could have done this horrible crime—and the mother of Sandra’s best friend at that—is nearly unfathomable. Never mind the fact that 28-year old Melissa Huckaby is the daughter of a minister and a Sunday school teacher—unfortunately Americans are used to people with those credentials committing crimes in various forms. The idea that Huckaby is someone Sandra knew and trusted and possibly loved is what is so sickening about this case.
Huckaby has had prior minor run-ins with the law. According to court records, she had been jailed in LA County on a property theft conviction in 2006, and had plead no contest this past January to a felony charge of second-degree commercial burglary and a misdemeanor charge of property theft with a prior. She was scheduled for a court appearance in San Joaquin County on April 17. There is also a felony complaint from November 2008 stating Huckaby attempted to steal from a store.
When queried by the media about the court records, Huckaby denied that she was the person in question, even though the address and cell phone number match hers.
However, murder is quite a leap from thefts and serial lying.
Much of Northern California had been riveted to news reports regarding Sandra Cantu’s disappearance on March 27. Images of the brown hair, brown-eyed beautiful child were everywhere on the broadcast news, in local newspapers, and on posters and flyers. A surveillance video taken from Sandra’s residence was released on April 5 showing the little girl skipping down the street near her home without a care. In the video one can clearly see the pink Hello Kitty t-shirt, black leggings and Hannah Montana flip-flop sandals she was wearing that day. The child is seen heading for her home but then suddenly moving off camera to her right toward another home. A second surveillance camera did not show Sandra exiting the park.
Presumably the little girl was on her way to visit one of her many friends in the family-friendly mobile home park. Sandra had just spent some time with one friend, coloring and visiting, and then left to visit another friend. She never arrived there, and did not return home for dinner.
Nothing seems to bring the best out in a community like the disappearance of a child, and Tracy is no exception. It’s a relatively small town that has grown up fast, under 80,000 people, and residents work in agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley or commute through the Altamont Pass to jobs in the Bay Area. Yet hundreds of those people found a way to organize searches in nearby fields and open areas for Sandra, and 300 residents attend a vigil near Sandra’s home on March 31.
Sandra’s absent father has been cooperating with investigators from the beginning and seems to have been ruled out as a suspect early, as he was in not in the area at the time of her disappearance. Before Sandra was found, search warrants were executed on two men, with searches carried out within the mobile home part and others elsewhere in Tracy and in nearby Oakdale, including the men’s vehicles.
On April 7, agricultural workers found a suitcase floating in an irrigation pond near a dairy. That pond had been emptied two weeks prior and the suitcase had not been there. Initial media reports stated a “black container” had been found and was thought to have some connection with Sandra’s disappearance.
In the suitcase was the 40-pound girl, dressed in the same clothing she’d last been seen wearing. Nothing else was in the suitcase.
Police now say that Sandra was most likely already dead before her mother knew she was missing.
Authorities had already questioned Melissa Huckaby twice in one week, and Huckaby’s grandfather’s church had been searched twice after Sandra had been found the first search the evening of the 7th.
Upon hearing the news of Sandra having been found dead, Huckaby was transported to the hospital by ambulance because of “internal bleeding.”
On Friday, via a report in the Tracy Press, Huckaby stated she owned a black rolling suitcase just like the one Sandra had been found in, but said it had been stolen from her driveway the day Sandra disappeared. She’d packed it with scrapbooking supplies to take to the church for Sunday school activities. Yet there was no police report of a stolen suitcase, and the scrapbooking supplies were found in Huckaby’s home. Huckaby claimed she kept forgetting to make a police report.
Before Huckaby mentioned the suitcase to the newspaper, police had not been certain that she was its owner.
Huckaby also admitted that Sandra had stopped by her home the afternoon she disappeared to play with her daughter Madison. Huckaby said her daughter wasn’t allowed a play date because she needed to pick up her toys, and Sandra went on her way.
A handyman who has been employed at the park for 15 years said he saw Sandra go into Huckaby’s home about two weeks ago. Carlos Martinez said Huckaby’s two children never played outside, and that Huckaby herself was very quiet—the last person you’d expect to kill a child.
Huckaby’s acquaintances and co-workers described her as “a little moody and odd,” a private person who kept to herself. She had worked in medical billing and as a grocery and discount store clerk.
On Saturday, April 11, Tracy police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman brought local media up to speed regarding the investigation into Sandra’s murder via a Webcast. Some facts that are known thus far:
• Huckaby did not attend the first vigil for Sandra (while she was missing) but did attend the second one after the suitcase had been found.
• Police believe they know where Sandra was killed but decline to reveal that location. The district attorney will reveal if, in his view, the murder was premeditated.
• Police say that Huckaby was emotional during her final interview late on the evening of April 10, but would not say if her statement amounted to a confession. She did reveal enough information for a probable cause arrest, and after her arrest, continued to talk to investigators for two hours without an attorney present.
• There are no other suspects in Sandra’s murder.
• Police refused to confirm (but did not deny) that Huckaby’s two children were in protective custody.
• The farmworkers who found the suitcase have refused to accept the $26,000 in reward money.
The cause of Sandra’s death will not be revealed until Huckaby’s trial, but there were no visible signs of trauma on Sandra’s body. Melissa Huckaby will be arraigned on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in Manteca, though police say that date may change.
Strength to those who loved little Sandra Cantu, and may justice in her name be swift and severe. There is never a good reason to kill a child.
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