The Sunday school teacher accused of raping and murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu appeared in court today for the first time in a month, but again delayed her trial by not entering a plea. Melissa Huckaby appeared in California's Joaquin County Superior Court hours after a slew of new charges were announced, which accuse the 28-year-old mother of allegedly drugging two people, a 7-year-old child and a man.
Huckaby's attorney, public defender Sam Behar, said he received 1,000 pages of evidence Thursday and was not ready to enter a plea. It is the third time she has appeared in court without entering a plea.
With both her family and Sandra's family members in the courtroom, Huckaby showed little emotion. She spoke only once, saying, "Yes," to the judge's question about whether she agreed to further delay her plea.
The new charges against Huckaby include felony child endangerment and "furnishing a harmful substance" in the case of a 7-year-old girl identified only as "Jane M. Doe."
She was also charged with "furnishing a harmful substance," either by food or drink, to a man named Daniel Plowman March 2, nearly three weeks before Sandra disappeared.
According to court documents released today, the charges allege that Huckaby "willfully and unlawfully mingled a harmful substance with food or drink" in both cases.
An 18-year-old woman, who declined to be identified, told ABC News last month that her 7-year-old sister went missing with Huckaby in January and came home drugged.
"Her speech was slurred ... like she had a really bad lisp," the woman said of her sister. "And she would cry a lot like something was wrong with her. She couldn't stand up without help. She couldn't walk. Every time she tried to walk, she would fall.
"So they took her to the hospital, and the hospital told us that she had muscle relaxants in her system," the teenager said.
The woman alleged last month that the death of Sandra Cantu might not have happened if detectives had taken her sister's case more seriously at the time.
Police have denied mishandling the case.
The documents detailing the new charges were filed in San Joaquin Superior Court Thursday. There were no changes to the charges pertaining to Sandra's death.
It has been nearly a month since Huckaby appeared in court. But that hasn't quelled interest in the second-grader's widely publicized death.
Officials had to turn people away at Huckaby's previous two hearings, San Joaquin County Superior Court spokeswoman Stephanie Bohrer said. They held separate lotteries before each arraignment, one for media and one for the general population that is simply interested in front-row seats to one of the area's most gruesome crimes.
Although cameras have been barred from the courtroom, Huckaby, the granddaughter of a local pastor, appeared more composed during her April 24 hearing than she did shortly after her arrest, when she cried and seemed distraught.
Everyone connected to the case, including police, potential witnesses and lawyers and family members for both sides, have been silenced 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.
Sandra's body was found April 6 in Tracy, Calif., in an irrigation pond, stuffed into a black suitcase, 10 days after she disappeared from the nearby Ochard Estates Mobile Home Park where her family and Huckaby were neighbors.
The murder charge against Huckaby includes the special circumstances of kidnapping, lewd and lascivious acts with a child and rape with a foreign object, making her eligible for the death penalty, if convicted.
Dairy Farm Worker Claims Reward for Finding Sandra's Body
Earlier this month, a worker on the dairy farm where Sandra's body was dumped was given $21,643 in reward money by the Modesto, Calif.-based Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, which was designated as the collection agency for reward money and donations in the case.
Foundation Executive Director Scott Webb said Jose Franco was identified with the help of Tracy investigators as the man who discovered the suitcase and worked with his boss to call police.
The reward money that went to him included $5,000 from the Sund/Carrington foundation and the rest from community donations.
Webb pointed out that Franco was just an "average guy" who could have walked away from his find.
"But he took the time to report it and call police," he said. "People don't even know they have the information to solve the case."
Webb said Franco was planning to use the money to pay for his three daughters' education.
In an interview earlier this month, Franco told ABC affiliate KXTV that he didn't open the suitcase before calling police and was devastated to find out what was inside.
"It's a fear I have with my own kids," Franco told KXTV in Spanish. "I don't even want them going anywhere alone because I think what happened to that little girl could possibly happen to them."
The reaction to the Sandra Cantu death, Webb said, has been impressive. Donations totalling $8,000 and counting have been given to Sandra's mother, Maria Chavez, and letters continue to pour in for the family from across the country, Webb said.
A couple thousand dollars, he said, have also been donated to the foundation in Sandra's name to use as a reward for other missing persons cases.
Twists in Cantu Case Keep Coming
Despite the gag order, other allegations have emerged about Huckaby since her arrest.
The Tracy Press, which helped break the investigation of Huckaby as a suspect, has reported that Huckaby is a "person of interest" in two 2007 arsons in La Palma, Calif., about 350 miles away from Tracy.
The court also canceled a hearing last month, originally requested by Huckaby's lawyers, to exhume Sandra's body for a second autopsy. The request was dropped earlier this week 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."