2009-04-16 / Local & State

Calif. Sunday School Teacher Charged With Murder

California woman also accused of raping 8-year-old Sandra Cantu

TRACY, Calif. (AP) - A Northern California woman was charged Tuesday with murdering an 8-year-old girl whose body was found in a suitcase pulled from a pond.

San Joaquin County prosecutors also included in their allegations against Melissa Huckaby the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and murder in the course of a kidnapping.

The 28-year-old Sunday school teacher was due to be arraigned later Tuesday. Huckaby lived in the mobile home park in the town of Tracy where victim Sandra Cantu also lived.

The girl disappeared March 27 and her body was found in a suitcase when farmworkers drained a pond April 6.

Huckaby told a Tracy Press reporter the suitcase was hers but it had been stolen the day Sandra went missing.

A conviction on any of the charges would make Huckaby eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Sandra disappeared on March 27, prompting a widereaching search in Tracy, a city of 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco. On April 6, Sandra's body was found in a suitcase by farmworkers draining an irrigation pond located only a few miles from Sandra's home in a mobile home park in Tracy.

Huckaby lived with her grandparents just five doors from Sandra. The little girl was a playmate of Huckaby's 5-year-old daughter, Madison.

Police have not said how, where or why Sandra was killed, but Sgt. Tony Sheneman said investigators believe Huckaby acted alone.

"We have not been provided with one (a motive)," Sheneman said Monday. "We don't know why a mother would kill another mother's child."

Neither prosecutors nor Sheneman would provide details on any evidence leading prosecutors to consider the sexual assault allegations.

"I was hoping that wasn't the case," Sandra's aunt, Angie Chavez, said through tears. "I'm in shock. The whole thing is unimaginable."

In the days after Sandra's body was found, investigators searched Clover Road Baptist Church, where Huckaby volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and her grandfather, Clifford Lawless, is the pastor.

Investigators also interviewed the pastor and seized items from his home. Her family has said they do not know what police were looking for.

Huckaby's family visited her late Monday at the San Joaquin County Jail, where she was being held without bail. Himmelblau was not aware if Huckaby had an attorney.

"We're in shock," said Brian Lawless, Huckaby's father. "The young lady I see on film, that's not my daughter."

Lawless said the family cried and prayed together during the visit.

On Sunday, outside the church after Easter services, Huckaby's relatives described her as a loving mother with a strong religious upbringing.

"The allegations are so far outside what I know about my niece," said Huckaby's uncle, Brett Lawless, 48, of Lakewood. "Of course there are doubts in my mind. But we understand the police doing their jobs might have some probable cause."

In 2006, Huckaby was convicted of petty theft in Los Angeles County. In January, she pleaded no contest to a petty theft charge in San Joaquin County, and was sentenced to 3 years probation on the condition that she participate in a mental health program.

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