June 14, 2010— -- Former Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby used a noose to strangle 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, officials revealed today during the confessed killer's sentencing.
Huckaby, 29, pleaded guilty last month to first degree murder and kidnapping "with enhancements" to avoid the death penalty.
Today in court, a sobbing Huckaby apologized to Sandra's family, saying: "I should not have taken her from you."
"I owe you an explanation. But I still cannot understand why I did what I did," she said.
She was sentenced to life without parole.
Many of the details of the grisly crime have previously been kept from the public, sealed under a judge's gag order. The judge lifted that order and the prosecutor revealed for the first time how Sandra was killed.
Quoting the pathologist's report, prosecutor Tom Testa said Sandra had been strangled with a torn piece of cloth that had been knotted into "a noose." He said the cause of death was "homicidal asphyxiation."
Previously released court documents had revealed that Huckaby was accused of poisoning Sandra, and sexually assaulting her with a foreign object, before killing her and dumping her body in an irrigation pond.
Some of her injuries were consistent with a rolling pin with a bent handle and bloody smudge found inside a church where Huckaby had taught. The smudge matched Sandra's blood, according to the pathologist's report.
The sexual assault charge was dropped as part of the plea deal Huckaby made with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty in May.
Huckaby today denied having sexually assaulted the girl and asked Sandra's mother Maria Chavez for forgiveness.
"She did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her," Huckaby said. "I'm asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness. I can't imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me."
But according to the pathologist's reported cited by Testa, Sandra suffered a cut to her lip, an abrasion to her elbow and injuries to her genitals.
Testa said toxicology tests also found the drug alprazolam, used to treat anxiety disorders, in Cantu's body. Bottles of alprazolam were found in Huckaby's home and purse, Testa said.
Sandra Cantu Last Seen Skipping Home
Sandra's family live in the same Tracy, Calif., trailer park where Huckaby lived with her grandparents and 5-year-old daughter.
Huckaby's grandfather Clifford Lawless is pastor at the nearby church, where the confessed murderer previously taught Sunday school, and which authorities searched in the days leading up to Huckaby's arrest.
Sandra went missing in March 27, 2009. Her body, stuffed in a suitcase, was found two weeks later and Huckaby was arrested that April, when police linked the suitcase to Huckaby. Huckaby told conflicting stories to police and the media about the black Eddie Bauer suitcase, which she said she left in her driveway.
Testa revealed for the first time some of the evidence, including surveillance video and eyewitness testimony that connected Sandra to Huckaby.
Testa said surveillance video from the trailer park showed Cantu skipping toward her home on March 27 when something caught her eye. Testa said Cantu "looks over in the direction of Melissa Huckaby's residence. Then she drops off the face of the earth."
The videotape then shows Huckaby, eight minutes later, driving out of the mobile home park in the direction of her grandfather's church, Clover Road Baptist Church. Testa said about the time Huckaby was leaving, she phoned the trailer park manager to report her black suitcase stolen in front of her trailer.
The prosecutor said another surveillance tape showed Huckaby driving away from the church and then returning to the church 30 minutes later. In that 30-minute window, a retired marine and his wife saw Huckaby and her SUV at the irrigation pond where Sandra's body would later be found stuffed inside a suitcase.
Huckaby later told investigators she stopped at the pond to urinate.
The day after Cantu disappeared, Huckaby alerted authorities to a handwritten note she claimed she found in the trailer park. The note read: "Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase. Thrown in water on (sic) Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road. Witness." Prosecutors said the handwriting, though disguised, matched Huckaby's.
The gag order was initially established to prevent too many details from becoming public, which could have influenced a jury. Since then the Cantu family has argued that a California statue called Marsy's Law allows for the details to remain sealed.
Judge Lifts Gag Order in Sandra Cantu Case
Several media outlets have petitioned to have the details released and many assume more information will be forthcoming following the sentencing.
Today the judge lifted the order and police are expected to reveal more details later in the day.
The Associated Press and ABC News affiliate KXTV contributed to this report.