Town Rocked Sunday School Teacher's Arrest

By: MARCUS WOHLSEN and GARANCE BURKE AP
By: MARCUS WOHLSEN and GARANCE BURKE AP

TRACY, Calif. (AP) - Residents of this Northern California town attended church Easter services on Sunday and began trying to comprehend how the suspect in the murder of a young girl could be someone they knew: the granddaughter of a minister and mother of the slain girl's best friend.

Melissa Huckaby, a Sunday school teacher, remained in custody Sunday at the San Joaquin County Jail. She was being held without bail on suspicion of kidnapping and killing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.

The girl's body was found in Huckaby's suitcase in an irrigation pond nearly a week ago, police said.

About 400 parishioners, including members of the Cantu family, packed into the cafeteria of a local high school to hear Journey Christian Church Pastor Scott McFarland's Easter sermon.

Journey was one of more than a dozen local churches that mobilized its members on Sunday to pray and fast for the Cantu family. McFarland sent a special message to the Cantu family that, like Christ, Sandra's spirit had risen to heaven.

"Jesus is out of the tomb and Sandra is too," McFarland told The Associated Press after the sermon. "She's not in a grave, she's not in a suitcase. She's in heaven and celebrating the best
Easter ever."

Police and citizens in this city of 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco were still coming to grips with Huckaby's arrest.

"I was in shock that, number one, it was a woman and, number two, a member of our community," Tracy police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman said.

FBI statistics show women are involved in just 7 percent of murders of any sort. Solo killings of children by women are even more unusual.

Sandra disappeared on March 27 and hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials turned out to search for the girl with dark brown eyes and light brown hair. Police said they received 1,500 tips in the hunt for Sandra and her killer.

"It's very unusual for women to be involved in an abduction and murder of a child," said Candice DeLong, a retired FBI profiler based in San Francisco. "Sometimes we see this when the woman is working with a male partner. It does not appear to be the case this time. But this was not a sexually motivated crime."

Huckaby, 28, had attended the second of the several vigils for the slain girl, Sheneman said.

On April 6, farmworkers draining an irrigation pond found the suitcase.

Sheneman said investigators have no motive for the slaying, which drew national attention. Police declined to say where or how the girl was allegedly killed, though investigators said they believed she died very soon after she was last seen.

Inconsistencies in Huckaby's story led to her arrest, Sheneman said. She was arrested about five hours after she drove herself to the local police station at the request of officers.

She was being held without bail for an arraignment Tuesday.

Several of Huckaby's relatives appeared briefly before reporters on Sunday. One man, who would only describe himself as a member of the family, read a statement saying the allegations against Huckaby were completely out of character.

The man was joined by several other relatives, including Huckaby's grandfather, Clifford Lawless, who is pastor of the nearby Clover Road Baptist Church, which was searched by authorities after Cantu's body was discovered.

Huckaby taught Sunday school at the church and lived with Lawless in Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, where Sandra also lived.

Huckaby's uncle, John Hughes Jr. of Whittier, told The Associated Press 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 to get past her troubles.

"They opened their home up to her to try to get her life back on track. I think a lot of families have problems like that," Hughes said.

Huckaby grew up in Orange County and was a "pretty normal kid," he said. As the eldest of nine grandchildren, she played "mother hen" to the younger children when the family got together for the holidays.

After graduating from high school, Huckaby's path appears to have become rockier. She married, had a daughter and was divorced in a few short years. She had difficulty finding and keeping a job, partly owing to the challenges of single motherhood, Hughes said.

"She's had her struggles," he said. "But there's no way (her grandparents) or anybody would be fearful that anything this horrifying could possibly come from that."

Huckaby was scheduled to appear in court on April 17 to check in
with a county mental health program as part of a three-year probation sentence for a petty theft charge to which she pleaded no contest.

Some on Sunday laid blame on Huckaby's pastor grandfather for
allowing the troubled young woman to care for children.

"Knowing that his granddaughter had a past history why did the pastor put her in the position to teach Sunday school?" said Mary Brawley, 50, of Tracy, who attended the Easter service at Journey with her daughter, and participated in the search for Sandra's body.

"I'm blaming him. Doesn't he know that she's not fit to take care of kids?"

The slain girl's family was as puzzled as police.

"How would you feel if somebody took your daughter like that?"
asked her uncle, Joe Chavez, referring to Huckaby's own 5-year-old
daughter. "Why would you do that?

He said Huckaby should face the death penalty if convicted.

It was not immediately clear if Huckaby had hired an attorney to speak for her.

Police said autopsy results are not yet available, and they declined to say whether investigators believe the slaying was accidental or deliberate.

Huckaby had worked as a checker at a Food for Less grocery store
in a strip mall just east of the mobile park for nearly four years, until she was fired sometime in 2004, said Matt Duncan, an assistant manager at the store now known as FoodMaxx.

"I wouldn't have anything bad to say about her, until now," said Duncan, who has worked at the store off-and-on for about 10 years. "I would've never suspected her to do something like this."
---
Associated Press writer Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed
to this story.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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