STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) - A Northern California woman kidnapped, raped and murdered an 8-year-old girl whose body was found in a suitcase dumped in a pond just a few miles from her home, prosecutors alleged Tuesday.
Melissa Huckaby, 28, was charged with murdering her daughter's playmate, Sandra Cantu, in a gruesome crime that has shocked and terrified residents in Tracy, a city of about 78,000 people, 60 miles east of San Francisco.
Huckaby, who volunteered as a Sunday school teacher at her grandfather's Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy, appeared in a San Joaquin County courtroom for her arraignment in a red jumpsuit and shackles. She trembled and cried as a judge read the charge: one count of murder with the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 and murder in the course of a kidnapping.
The special circumstances mean Huckaby, if convicted, could face life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. District Attorney James Willett said Tuesday he has not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
During the brief hearing, public defender Ellen Schwarzenberg, who represented Huckaby in a previous petty theft case, asked Judge Richard A. Vlavianos for a gag order in the murder case. Vlavianos said that question would be answered by his colleague, Judge Terrence Van Oss, who would be presiding over future hearings.
Vlavianos ordered Huckaby to return to court on April 24, when she's expected to enter a plea.
Family members of the defendant and victim filed quietly into and out of the courtroom Tuesday, declining to speak with reporters. Many of them cried softly during the hearing and became especially emotional when the rape allegation was read.
Sandra disappeared March 27, and was last seen on a surveillance camera skipping outside the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where she lived just five doors down from Huckaby.
A 10-day search by law enforcement and the community ended on April 6, when farmworkers draining an irrigation pond a few miles away from the mobile home complex found the suitcase that was later determined to contain Sandra's body.
Police have said Sandra was found wearing the same clothes she had on when she was last seen: a pink "Hello Kitty" T-shirt and black leggings. They have not said how, why or where she was killed, and the coroner's office has said autopsy results are pending.
The complaint said the murder happened "on or about" March 27, but gave no other details.
Huckaby was arrested Friday, hours after she told a Tracy Press reporter that the suitcase was hers but it had been stolen the day Sandra went missing.
In the days after Sandra's body was found, police searched Clover Road Baptist Church, interviewed Huckaby's grandfather, Pastor Clifford Lawless, and took items from the family's home. Huckaby lived with her grandparents.
Huckaby grew up in Southern California and spent the several years since high school bouncing back and forth between Tracy and Orange County, her family said.
They've described her as a loving mother who had a strong religious background and wouldn't hurt anyone.
Relatives visited Huckaby at San Joaquin County Jail on Monday night, where she had been under observation. That was the first time they'd seen her since her arrest.
Huckaby's father, Brian Lawless, said the family cried and prayed together during the visit.
"She's not getting much sleep but in spite of all that that she looks good," he said after. "We're in shock ... The young lady I see on film, that's not my daughter."
The slaying had already aroused fear among parents in Tracy and especially in the mobile home complex, where residents described a tight-knit community. News of the rape allegation heightened concern for children.
Josie Orozco, a resident of the mobile home park who attends the same church as Sandra's family, emerged from the courtroom crying after the arraignment. She said that while Huckaby may have appeared remorseful during the hearing, she didn't believe the emotion was genuine.
"She knew what she was doing. She could have asked for help. She could have gone to a doctor if she was sick this way," Orozco said.
Outside the courthouse, four members of the Central Valley chapter of Bikers against Child Abuse came to show support for the victim's family.
"I have a 9-year-old granddaughter and she's scared to death. Her mother doesn't let her outside," said Peggy Faucett of Stockton.
Her husband, James Faucett, called it "the worst crime imaginable, that one of your own neighbors could do something like this."
A public memorial service is scheduled for Sandra in Tracy on Thursday.
Associated Press writer Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco also contributed to this report.
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.