Sunday School Teacher Booked in Sandra Cantu's Murder

Eight-year-old Sandra Cantu was found in teacher's suitcase.

BySarah Netter and Laura Marquez
April 11, 2009, 12:40 PM

April 11, 2009 — -- The arrest of Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby, 28, of Tracy, Calif., on suspicion of kidnapping and killing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, whose body was found stuffed into the teacher's suitcase in an irrigation pond, has brought little relief to a shocked community.

Huckaby's arrest, which came shortly before midnight Friday, dealt a double blow to close-knit Tracy, already shattered by young Sandra's death. The arrest brought little relief to the family, only disbelief that it was someone who lived just a few doors down from the Cantu home.

Police gave no motive for the killing, but believe Sandra was killed soon after the video showing the second-grader skipping in her neighborhood March 27 was recorded.

"I hope she rots for this," said Amber Austin, a Tracy resident. "You have no right to take an innocent child's life."

With young Sandra's suspected killer now behind bars, the child's family has begun the grim task of planning her memorial next Thursday.

Huckaby has a 5-year-old daughter who was one of Sandra Cantu's playmates. She said in a published interview that Sandra had visited her home March 27, the day she vanished.

"She can still see her little girl grow up," said Joe Chavez, Cantu's uncle. "We don't get to see that."

"It's unusual for a woman, statistically, according to the FBI, to be involved in anything like this," Tracy Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said.

After a massive search, Sandra's body was found April 6 inside a suitcase floating in an irrigation pond. Police said the suitcase belonged to Huckaby, who for unexplained reasons had told a local newspaper the suitcase was missing.

Investigators said Huckaby drove herself to the Tracy police station Friday night and underwent nearly six hours of questioning. When they snapped the handcuffs on her and placed her under arrest just before midnight, she cried, they said.

"She revealed enough information that we had probable cause to arrest her for both kidnapping and murder," Sheneman said.

Sheneman added that Huckaby initially took the charges hard.

"She became very emotional," he said. "Then she became relaxed again, then became resigned to what was happening."

Huckaby is a Sunday school teacher in Tracy, a northern California town of about 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco. She lives in the same trailer park where Sandra disappeared and is the granddaughter of a local pastor whose Clover Road Baptist Church was the scene of a very intense police search last week.

Huckaby was also scheduled to appear in court April 17 to check in with a county mental health program as part of a three-year probation sentence for petty theft.

Sandra Cantu's Body Found in Suitcase

Sandra Cantu's body was found Monday, stuffed into a suitcase in an irrigation pond a few miles from her house, 10 days after she was reported missing from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park.

Sandra had told her mother she was going to visit a friend. The last known image of the child was a surveillance video showing her skipping happily down the street.

Until the arrest, the police remained relatively mum on the progress of the murder investigation, which included interviews with dozens of people and a search of the church.

The police have assembled more than15 search warrants for both people and places.

Deputy Les Garcia, spokesman for the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, which includes the coroner, told earlier this week that the autopsy on Sandra's body was completed Tuesday, but that it could take four to eight weeks to determine how she died.

"We're waiting on our tissue samples as well as toxicology results from the lab," he said.

Sheneman wouldn't comment Wednesday on how police were tipped off to a possible connection with the Clover Road Baptist Church, located about 500 feet from Sandra Cantu's home, or what they found, only saying the search was based on information learned as part of the investigation.

ABC's KGO-TV in San Francisco reported that a team of FBI agents removed items from inside the church and from the pastor's home, which is located in the same mobile home park where Sandra lived. FBI agents were also seen searching a crawl space under the church.

Finding Sandra Cantu's Body

The discovery of the suitcase containing Sandra's body by farmworkers brought a tragic end to a massive search that had enveloped the town. Police were aided by hundreds of volunteers, dogs, horses and the FBI.

In the end, it was a twice-yearly practice of draining a collection pond used for irrigation that led police to Sandra's body.

When the pond, about 125 to 150 yards long and about 30 yards wide, began to empty, the suitcase appeared.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had translated missing posters into Spanish to alert the largely Spanish-speaking population, many of them migrant workers, who live in the area.

"They saw the suitcase come up to the surface and thought it was odd," Sheneman said.

When the luggage was opened at the morgue, investigators found Sandra's body inside, still dressed in the pink Hello Kitty T-shirt and black leggings she was wearing the day she disappeared.

Barbara Sokoloski, the family's neighbor in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, told Tuesday that everyone there is "devastated."

Sandra, along with other neighborhood children, would often visit her home to get homework help or play games with her son's girlfriend. Sokoloski said she bought Sandra the Hello Kitty shirt for her birthday a few weeks earlier.

"She just liked to visit with people," Sokoloski said. "She was an innocent, sweet girl."

Sandra Cantu's family was "holding up as best they can," the girl's aunt said earlier this week.

"We want to find out what happened to our little girl," the aunt, Angie Chavez, told "Good Morning America" Thursday. "She did have a full life ahead of her. She was full of life."

Last month, Angie Chavez described the little girl as "bright, bubbly and friendly," who loved Hannah Montana and visiting her friends in the neighborhood.

Revisiting a Disturbing Incident

Police have questioned everyone that lived in the 100-home trailer park, including a man police and Sandra's family had said was looked at closely after kissing the little girl on the mouth at the park's pool nearly two years ago.

Area television station KCRA identified that man as Frank Wohler, who told them he had nothing to do with her disappearance and that he kissed her at the pool "to be nice." Wohler also said the police had taken "a couple of CDs" from him.

Local news media have also reported that Sandra's father, Daniel Cantu, who has been living in Mexico and had little contact with his daughter, was also interviewed but not detained.

Sheneman said earlier this week he could not comment on whether or not Cantu was a person of interest in the case.

Angie Chavez said last month that her niece had played at a friend's house in the park after school Friday before coming home to check in around 4 p.m.

She told her family she was heading over to another friend's house. That was the last time she was seen.

"She usually checks in with her mom," Angie Chavez said. "It was dinnertime and she wasn't here."

Video from a surveillance camera outside the family's house showed Sandra walking away from her home and also away from the only exit to the mobile home park. Angie Chavez said the family learned later that the friend Sandra had set out to visit wasn't home at the time.

Angie Chavez described Sandra as a little girl who is very talkative, would make friends wherever she'd go and was always eager to help.

"She's always been told not to go outside the mobile home park," she said. "And she never has."

Angie Chavez said Sandra's mother, her sister-in-law, was "very distraught."

"It's really difficult for her," she said.

Investigating Every Lead to Find Sandra's Killer

Sheneman said police got a 911 call from the family at 7:53 p.m. Friday. Police initially searched her home and then expanded their efforts to the entire park when they couldn't find her, he said.

Last weekend, dogs, equestrian teams, ATVs and a helicopter from the California Highway Patrol were brought in to search for Sandra in the town of 81,000 residents, 70 miles south of Sacramento.

"Every dog team we could find was brought in," Sheneman said.

Divers were also brought in to search a river, miles from her home, but found nothing, he said.

Angie Chavez said the children at the park would often play at one another's homes and also in the park's open spaces, including a basketball court and a pool.

ABC News' Katy Leaver in San Francisco, ABC News Radio and Michael S. James contributed to this report.

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