Prosecutors Consider Rape Claim in Slaying of Sandra Cantu

Melissa Huckaby has been arrested on suspicion of murdering the 8-yr-old girl.

April 11, 2009, 12:40 PM

April 13, 2009 — -- California prosecutors say they are considering rape and molestation allegations against the woman suspected of killing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu and stuffing her body into a suitcase.

San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himmelblau told The Associated Press today that a homicide charge against Melissa Huckaby, 28, could also include the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and murder in the course of a kidnapping.

Huckaby, a Sunday school teacher, was arrested last week on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Sandra, whose body was found inside a suitcase in an irrigation pond. Huckaby is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.

When Huckaby turned herself into police last week for questioning, she was "calm and cool and collected," according to police in Tracy, Calif.

So far, police say, there's no known motive for the killing.

"We're very, very shocked," said Joani Hughes, Huckaby's aunt. "It's very out of character for Melissa."

Huckaby's family described the granddaughter of the local pastor as a devoted mother to her 5-year-old daughter who had a wonderful singing voice.

But her father, Brian Lawless, said that his daughter had often struggled with raising a child on her own and had sometimes suffered from bouts of depression. She'd also been in trouble with the law. When she was arrested Friday night on kidnapping and murder charges, after six hours of questioning, she was on probation for theft.

"I have no doubt in mind she knows right from wrong," her grandfather, Clove Road Baptist Church pastor Lane Lawless, said. "At least I thought she did. Maybe I'm mistaken."

The community in the mobile home park where Huckaby and Sandra lived has now had a few days to digest the news that one of its own is allegedly responsible for the crime that has rattled the entire town of Tracy. But that hasn't made it any easier for Sandra's family.

"We couldn't believe that, you know, a mother of a little girl that she used to play with was the one that killed her, allegedly," Sandra's uncle, Joe Chavez, told "Good Morning America" today.

Chavez said his sister, Maria Chavez, Sandra's mother, was "holding up as well as she can."

"Yesterday was a very somber Easter for us," he said.

Huckaby remains on suicide watch and is due to be arraigned in court Tuesday. Police said that when Sandra was captured on a surveillance camera, happily skipping down the street, she was on her way to play at Huckaby's home.

Police apparently began to narrow in on Huckaby early last week when investigators from Tracy and the FBI began searching the Clover Road Baptist Church. Huckaby had made comments to the local media about her suitcase having been stolen and, later, that she had found a note after Sandra disappeared, apparently from the killer

On Sunday, the church invited reporters inside for Easter services, provided no cameras were used. A prayer was said for Sandra and her family. And near the end, another prayer was said, this one for Huckaby.

Tracy Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman told "Good Morning America" that on Friday night, as the police questioning continued, Huckaby's once-collected demeanor began to crack.

"As the evening wore on, she became concerned and then was very emotional at one point and wanted to take a break, he said. "There was enough information that had given us probable cause to arrest her."

While Sheneman said, statistically speaking, it is "extremely unusual" for a woman to be involved in a murder such as Sandra's, police still don't have all the details.

"We do not have a motive and we have not been able to develop one," he said.

Huckaby's Arrest a Surprise

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

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."

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.

Sandra Cantu Visited Huckaby's Home Day She Vanished

Huckaby had said in a published interview that Sandra had visited her home the day she vanished.

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

With young Sandra's suspected killer now behind bars, the child's family has begun the grim task of planning Sandra's public memorial to take place Thursday.

Deputy Les Garcia, spokesman for the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, which includes the coroner, told 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.

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

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