Sandra Cantu ~ murdered by Melissa Huckaby
GUEST ENTRY FROM JUSTIN LAFFERTY!
T&T is honored to have seasoned journalist, Justin Lafferty, contributing this guest entry. Sprocket
On Friday, nearly 2,000 pages of grand jury transcripts in the case against former Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby were released to the public, giving people a glimpse for the first time of what really happened to 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.
San Joaquin County chief medical examiner Bennet Omalu told the grand jury that Huckaby was a “calm, calculating mind at work.” Sandra’s body — which had been drugged, choked, beaten, molested and killed — was found in a black Eddie Bauer suitcase on April 6, 2009, north of town in a dairy lagoon that the farm owner said holds the waste of farm animals.
The girl was killed on the same day that she went missing, March 27, 2009.
Sandra lived in the same mobile home park as Huckaby in Tracy, Calif., a town of about 80,000 and a popular choice for many people who commute to the San Francisco Bay Area for work.
The transcripts show that Huckaby, 29, didn’t exactly keep quiet about the crime, which kept her in the eye of authorities.
Huckaby, who said that someone had stolen her suitcase when Sandra was reported missing, was arrested on suspicion of homicide on April 11 last year after the statements she gave officers and detectives didn’t match up.
Huckaby even talked to my colleague, Tracy Press reporter Jennifer Wadsworth, over the phone about her suitcase.
“She told me repeatedly that it was a very large suitcase that could fit the body of a child inside of it and that's why she was so upset,” FBI special agent Adrienne Sparrow told the grand jury last year.
She pleaded guilty to the murder of the girl after the death penalty and sex charges were taken off the table on May 10, and was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Omalu said the official cause of Sandra’s death was “homicidal asphyxiation.”
Huckaby frantically ran to police the day after the murder, saying she found a note one day that read (sic), “Cantu locked in stolin suit case thrown in water onn Bacchetti Rd. & Whitehall Rd. Witness.” This surprised investigators, as Huckaby claimed she found the note on the ground on what they knew was a pretty windy day.
In the press conference after Huckaby’s sentencing, prosecutor Thomas Testa said Huckaby was “hyperventilating” as she gave the note to officers, but that her breathing quickly became normal when they questioned her.
Investigators found a notebook during a search of Huckaby’s home that had indentations matching the poorly spelled note.
Two days before Sandra’s body was found, Huckaby was admitted to the hospital after swallowing a razor blade. Though she claimed she was sleepwalking, Testa said this act showed “the consciousness of guilt.”
“Why do people hurt other people?” Huckaby asked a hospital social worker. “Because they are sick in their head, disgusting.”
The cell phones of Huckaby and her grandmother, Connie Lawless, were seized during the investigation, as well. A few text messages from Huckaby to her grandmother raised suspicion.
“They are having an 8:15 news briefing on the suitcase. That was fast. I hope they didn't find anything,” Huckaby texted to Lawless on the day the suitcase was found. “I hope she wasn't sexually assaulted.”
About a half hour before Tracy police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman eventually announced in an emotional 9:15 p.m. press conference that the suitcase contained Sandra’s body, Huckaby sent a text message to Lawless — “It is her.”
While many people had suspected before the press conference that they had found Sandra’s body, there was no confirmation until then.
When FBI agents interviewed Huckaby on March 28, she told them that she was headed to the nearby Clover Road Church to get some crafts for her next Sunday school class and that the only thing in the suitcase was a pair of flip-flops. She originally told authorities that on the day Sandra went missing, she went to the church and then went back to her residence.
Investigators found another story, grand jury transcripts show. Testimonies say that Sandra, who was last seen on a surveillance tape happily skipping toward Huckaby’s home, was taken to the church down the road from the trailer park, beaten with an object, smothered and violated with a rolling pin before dying.
Omalu’s testimony is fairly gut-wrenching. The doctor, who performed Sandra’s autopsy and was the first to see her out of the suitcase, said that the girl was smothered with some sort of cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol. Omalu found strings tightly entwined in Sandra’s hair and found evidence of blunt trauma to her head, as well as bruises on her back.
Though Huckaby told Sandra’s family on the day she was sentenced that Sandra did not suffer (she also denied the rape), Omalu said that these wounds all happened before she died.
He told grand jurors that the injuries on Sandra’s genitals were consistent with that of the bloody smudge on the rolling pin found at the church, and said that the molestation happened at or around the time of death.
Omalu also said that he found traces of Xanax, a prescription drug similar to Valium, in Sandra’s body. Huckaby had also previously drugged a boyfriend and a 7-year-old girl who was friends with Huckaby’s daughter.
The girl was dressed back up again and placed in a fetal position in the suitcase. Huckaby placed the suitcase in her car and drove to a dairy farm north of Tracy, putting it in the dairy lagoon.
“It was not something that was done in a hurry,” Omalu told grand jurors. “It’s possibly something that may have been premeditated.”
Transcripts show a former Marine saw Huckaby out there and asked what she was doing. Huckaby told the man, who noticed a “My brother is a Marine” sticker on Huckaby’s car, that she was urinating. The Marine, thinking this was pretty peculiar, alerted police and was able to give a description of Huckaby.
Shortly after the suitcase was discovered, investigators locked onto Huckaby as a prime suspect.
While the “how” has now been uncovered, no one may ever know the “why.”
“I still cannot understand why I did what I did,” Huckaby said in her sentencing hearing. “This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life.”
Justin Lafferty is a freelance journalist and former reporter for the Tracy Press. He has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rivals.com and the Bay Area News Group. For more information, see www.justinlafferty.com.