Sunday school teacher arrested in Cantu case

April 11, 2009 7:06:58 PM PDT
A Sunday school teacher was arrested late Friday night on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy.SIGN-UP: Get breaking news sent to you from ABC7 News

Melissa Huckaby was arrested at 11:55 p.m., five hours after she voluntarily drove to the police department for questioning. She was taken to jail at 2:00 a.m. and is currently being held without bail at San Joaquin County Jail.

Huckaby is the granddaughter of Clifford Lane Lawless, pastor of the Clover Road Baptist Church, located just down the street from Sandra's house. That church has been searched twice by police. Her SUV had recently been searched by investigators.

Huckaby is a neighbor of the Cantu family and taught Sunday school at the church. She has a young daughter who frequently played with Sandra and told police that Sandra had stopped by on the day she disappeared.

According to a report in the San Joaquin Herald, Huckaby pleaded no contest earlier this year to one count of theft with a prior conviction. She was expected to be sentenced on those charges this week.

Huckaby made news on Friday when she told a reporter at the Tracy Press newspaper that her black suitcase had been stolen the day Sandra disappeared. Monday, Sandra's body was found in a black Eddie Bauer suitcase in an irrigation pond close to the mobile home park where she lived. Police have confirmed that the suitcase belonged to Huckaby.

Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman described Huckaby's demeanor during the interrogation as "relaxed for a bit. Then she became very emotional, then she became relaxed again, then became resigned to what was happening."

Police won't say what the motive behind the murder was or how the 8-year-old girl was killed. However, they did say that Huckaby is the only suspect.

Police believe Sandra was killed before she was reported missing to police.

Sandra's uncle told ABC7 News the family is relieved and glad that someone has been arrested. He is also shocked and wants to know why Sandra was murdered.

The slain girl's aunt, Angie Chavez, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press early Saturday that she was happy to learn of the arrest.

"I want to know why she did it, if she did it," Chavez said. Chavez added that she had no indication that Huckaby could be a suspect and her family had been avoiding the news because it was too painful to follow.

Chavez said she plans to speak publicly about the arrest later Saturday.

Inconsistencies in Huckaby's story

Without going into specifics, Sheneman told The Associated Press that The Tracy Press' published interviews with Huckaby revealed inconsistencies that prompted further inquiries from investigators.

Huckaby had previously told The Tracy Press that Sandra visited her home on the day of her disappearance to play with her 5-year-old daughter. But Huckaby said she'd turned Sandra away because her daughter needed to pick up her toys and Sandra went to another friend's home. Huckaby also said she had left her suitcase in the driveway that day, and that it was missing.

The Tracy Press also reported that Huckaby was released Thursday from Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, where she spent several days in intensive care for what she described as "internal bleeding."

Witness saw strange activity near irrigation ditch

Police earlier said they were looking into a tip from a man who said he saw a strange truck in the area where Sandra's body was found, a few days before it was discovered.

"We don't really get many people down that road, so it was something I remember and something I thought was suspicious," said Tracy resident Stephen Memory.

19-year-old Memory lives just down the road from the irrigation ditch where Sandra's located on Monday. A Stockton police cadet told ABC7 three days before the discovery that he saw a strange man in a pickup truck that was faced the wrong way, by the side of the road.

"It was a Chevy Silverado with a couple inch lift on it with wider set tires, and it was tan colored, a newer model Chevy Silverado with a 40 to 50-year-old man in the car by himself. He was wearing a baseball cap. He didn't want to look at me too much," said Memory.

Memory says the FBI did take his information. Tracy police did not confirm if the sighting near the irrigation pond figures into their investigation.

In the meantime, Sandra's body was released from the San Joaquin County Coroner's office. She will be interred at the Tracy Mausoleum. A marker with the little girl's name on it is being prepared. The public place for mourning has also moved from the mobile home park where Sandra lived to Fry's Memorial Chapel.

Fry Memorial Chapel will be open through the weekend.

Public Grieving Place:
Fry Memorial Chapel
550 South Central Avenue
Tracy, CA
Hours: 10-4 on Saturday, Sunday and Monday

Public Service for Sandra Cantu:
Thursday, April 16, 2009
1 p.m. - People are asked to arrive early since there will be limited parking
Merrill F. West High School
1775 West Lowell Avenue
Tracy, CA

The reward for information leading to an arrest in Sandra's case has risen to over $30,000.

Anyone with information is urged to call the Tracy Police at: 1-209-831-6TIP

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

       Today's latest headlines | ABC7 News on your phone
Follow us on Twitter | Fan us on Facebook | Get our free widget


Load Comments