Teacher Booked in Sandra Cantu's Murder on Suicide Watch

Sandra Cantu's accused murderer on suicide watch.

ByABC News
April 11, 2009, 12:40 PM

April 12, 2009 — -- Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby, 28, of Tracy, Calif., arrrested on charges of kidnapping and murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, whose body was found stuffed into the teacher's suitcase in an irrigation pond, has been on suicide watch at the San Joaquin County Jail, where she has been held without bail since shortly before midinight Friday after almost six hours of questioning.

Huckaby's arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday.

Huckaby's arrest has dealt a double blow to close-knit Tracy, already shattered by the disappearance and death of one of its children. The arrest brought little relief to the family, only disbelief that it was a neighbor, the mother of the slain girl's best friend, who lived just a few doors down from the Cantu home.

Police had been collecting evidence from a nearby church where Huckaby taught on Sundays, and where her grandfather is the pastor, but they would not confirm any reports that Sandra had been killed in the church, nor would they provide a possible motive for the murder.

But police do believe that Sandra was killed soon after a surveillance video showing the second-grader skipping happily in her neighborhood March 27 was recorded.

Autopsy results have not been released, and the Tracy police would not say whether investigators believe the slaying was accidental or deliberate, according to The Associated Press.

The grief and fears of this small, tight Northern California town of about 78,000 people, which sits about 60 miles north of San Francisco, are now laced with anger at the neighbor the Tracy residents thought they knew, who now stands accused of taking young Sandra's life.

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

Young Sandra's family couldn't believe that after a massive police search a neighbor, a mother whose 5-year-old daughter was a playmate of Sandra's , has now been arrested in her death.

"Does it make you eye your neighbors differently?" asked Joe Chavez, Sandra's uncle. "Of course it does. You eye everyone that walks by with a great deal of suspicion because you never know. We're shellshocked here." Sandra's aunt has also spoken out about her beloved niece.

That the arrested suspect turned out to be a woman also shocked and surprised residents and police.

"It's unusual for a woman, statistically, according to the FBI, to be involved in anything like this," Tracy Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said. FBI statistics reveal that women are involved in only 7 percent of murders -- of any type. And solo killings of children by women are even more unusual.

John Huges Jr., Huckaby's uncle who lives in Whittier, Calif., told The Associated Press that his niece was "from a good home, but had hit a rough patch in her life and had moved in with her grandparents in Tracy."

He described Huckaby, who grew up in California's Orange County, as the oldest of nine grandchildren, and said she often played "mother hen" to the younger children at family get-togethers.

Married and divorced with a young daughter, Huckaby's uncle said she had difficulty finding and keeping a job. "She's had her struggles," Hughes told the AP, but there's no way [her grandparents] or anybody would be fearful that anything this horrifying could possible come from that."

Sandra Cantu disappeared March 27, and after a massive search, her body was found April 6 stuffed inside a suitcase floating in an irrigation pond a few miles from her home in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park. Police said the suitcase belonged to Huckaby who, for unexplained reasons, had told a local newspaper the suitcase was missing.