Sunday school teacher gets life without parole for murder of Sandra Cantu

By Calvin Palmer

A Northern California Sunday School teacher was handed a life sentence by a San Joaquin County judge today after she pleaded guilty to murdering eight-year-old Sandra Cantu.

Melissa Huckaby, 29, apologized to the girl’s family and told them she “didn’t suffer”.

The eight-year-old’s body was found in a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond not far from her trailer home in Tracy.

As part of a plea deal last month, Huckaby escaped the death sentence and other charges, including sexual abuse, were dropped.

Huckaby told a packed courtroom, in Stockton, she still struggles for an explanation as to why she killed Sandra, a playmate of her own daughter.

“I still cannot understand why I did what I did,” she said. “It’s not enough to say I’m sorry, but it’s all I can do.”

She said she will have to live with her decision to kill a “sweet and innocent” little girl for the rest of her life while behind bars.

She said Sandra did not suffer and added, “I did not sexually molest her.”

San Joaquin County prosecutors revealed today how the girl was killed – asphyxiation.

Sandra’s body was found April 6, 2009, stuffed in a suitcase in a dairy farm’s irrigation pond two miles from her home at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy, where both the girl and Huckaby lived.

The gruesome details of Sandra’s killing were released today after Judge Linda Lofthus lifted a gag order she had imposed on attorneys and investigators.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Testa said a blood-stained piece of torn cloth had been tied around Sandra’s head and knotted into a noose. Traces of alprazolam, a sedative, were found in her system, the same medication found in Huckaby’s purse and home, the statement said.

Sandra suffered injuries to her genitalia that were consistent with the diameter of the handles of a rolling pin that was found at the nearby Clover Road Baptist Church, where Huckaby taught Sunday school and where her grandfather is the pastor. The rolling pin had a “bloody smudge” on it, and its handle was bent. The blood contained Sandra’s DNA.

A draw-cord from one of the church’s blinds had been used to tie shut the suitcase, an FBI expert determined.

Sandra was killed only moments after a surveillance video captured images of her skipping near her home March 27, 2009, prosecutors believe.

On the video, as the girl is skipping, “something catches her eye, and she looks over in the direction of Melissa Huckaby’s residence,” Testa said. Huckaby is the mother of one of Sandra’s playmates.

The same video shows Huckaby’s sport utility vehicle leaving the mobile home park eight minutes later and going to the church down the road. At about this time, Huckaby phoned the trailer park manager to report that her black Eddie Bauer suitcase had been stolen from in front of her home.

About 85 minutes later, the surveillance video shows Huckaby driving away from the church, authorities said. She was gone for about a half hour.

“It is during that 30-minute period that both a retired U.S. Marine and his wife see Melissa Huckaby and her SUV at an irrigation pond at Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road in Tracy,” the statement said. “Melissa tells them she was there to urinate.”

The next day, Huckaby showed police a handwritten note that she said she had found in the trailer park. The note, riddled with misspellings, read, ‘Cantu locked in stolin suitcase thrown in water on Bacchetti Rd. & Whitehall Rd witness.”

“The handwriting, though disguised, has similarities to Melissa Huckaby’s known handwriting,” the statement said.

Sandra’s body was found in an Eddie Bauer suitcase in the same pond where the retired Marine and his wife had seen Huckaby, authorities said.

Huckaby was arrested four days after the girl’s body was found.

In court today, Sandra’s aunt, Angie Chavez, played a DVD showing pictures of Sandra as she was growing up. Many in the gallery wept.

“Seeing these images of Sandra is bitter. It reminds us of her. However, these are the last images we have of her,” Chavez said. “No punishment is severe enough to bring Sandra back.”

Sandra’s grandmother, Connie Cantu, and father, Daniel Cantu said they also felt sorry for Huckaby’s young daughter. Choking back tears, Daniel Cantu told Huckaby, “You took the life of an innocent little girl.”

[Based on reports by The San Francisco Chronicle and Associated Press.]

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