A former Sunday school teacher pleaded guilty today to the murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase more than a year ago, court officials said today.
In June, Melissa Huckaby, 28, pleaded not guilty to the second grader's murder after the little girl's body was found 10 days after she disappeared from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy, Calif.
Today, nearly a year later, Huckaby, in a plea bargain, changed her plea to guilty on counts of first degree murder and kidnapping "with enhancements" in exchange for a sentence of 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. As part of the plea bargain, all other charges will be dropped.
The deal was made "probably" to avoid the death penalty, Jaoquin County assistant court executive officer Sharon Morris told ABC News.
Though little evidence in the case has been made public, Morris said it seemed like a "no-win" situation for Huckaby.
Huckaby could have faced the death penalty, as the murder charge included the special circumstances of kidnapping, lewd and lascivious acts with a child, and rape with a foreign object.
Huckaby's attorney, a public defender in Jaoquin County, did not return requests for comment on this report. Sentencing is scheduled for June 14.
Huckaby, who lived with her grandparents and 5-year-old daughter, was a neighbor of Sandra's family in the mobile home park. Her grandfather is the pastor of a nearby church, which authorities searched in the days leading up to Huckaby's arrest.
Few details of the grim case have come to light over the past year, as everyone connected to the Huckaby case, including police, potential witnesses, lawyers and family members for both sides, were placed under a gag order. Autopsy results and most court motions also remain sealed, giving little information about what kind of evidence the state has against Huckaby or exactly how Sandra Cantu died.
Despite the gag order, other allegations have emerged about Huckaby after her arrest.
The Tracy Press, which helped break the investigation, reported in August that Huckaby was a person of interest in two 2007 arsons in La Palma, Calif., about 350 miles away from Tracy. She was never charged in those cases.
The court also canceled a hearing in April, originally requested by Huckaby's lawyers, to exhume Sandra's body for a second autopsy. The request was dropped last summer and the prosecution's motion against the order sealed.
Public defender Peter Fox told the San Francisco Chronicle that the deputy public defender handling the case was told by the county's chief medical examiner that "the relevant samples" on which the defense would conduct independent tests to determine whether the girl had been raped "were preserved," and were not interred with the girl's body in a mausoleum.
"It will not be necessary to disturb the child's remains," Fox told the Chronicle. "From a human point of view, certainly, it's nice not to have to do that."