STOCKTON, Calif. – Tearful and trembling, a Sunday school teacher apologized in court Monday for kidnapping and murdering her young daughter’s playmate but didn’t address the main question surrounding the shocking crime that will keep her in prison for the rest of her life.
Why did she do it?
“I still cannot understand why I did what I did. This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life,” Melissa Huckaby said before a judge sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The only comfort that Huckaby offered the family of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu was that she “did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest your daughter.”
Few details of the killing were released until Monday, when a judge lifted a gag order.
Authorities disclosed an investigative summary that depicted a brutal killing that left the child with wounds to her head and body, including injuries to the outside of her genitals that were consistent with a bloodstained rolling pin found inside a church where Huckaby had taught. The stain matched Sandra’s blood, prosecutors said.
“It’s hard for me to believe that Sandra Cantu did not suffer,” Deputy District Attorney Tom Testa said.
A pathologist’s report listed the official cause of death as “homicidal asphyxiation.” Prosecutors believe Huckaby drugged the girl then smothered her with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol.
Sandra’s body — found in a black suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond — contained alprazolam, a prescription sedative commonly used to treat anxiety. Prescription bottles of the drug were found in Huckaby’s purse and home, prosecutors said.
Huckaby, 29, pleaded guilty last month to first-degree murder with a special circumstance of kidnapping. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors took the death penalty off the table and dropped all other charges, including allegations that she sexually abused the girl.
Testa believes two other drugging cases against Huckaby were “practice attempts” leading to Sandra’s killing. Charges also were dropped in those cases, which involved a 7-year-old girl and a 37-year-old man whom police believe Huckaby had been dating.
District Attorney James Willett said he was satisfied with the plea deal as a way to avoid a costly trial that could drag on for years. He believes the outcome would have been the same, with a jury sentencing Huckaby to a life term.
“California’s death penalty is a joke,” he said.
Defense attorney Sam Behar declined comment outside court.
During the sentencing, Huckaby addressed the victim’s mother, Maria Chavez.
“I’m asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness,” Huckaby said. “I can’t imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me.”
Sandra’s family asked the court to play a video depicting her short life. The footage brought many in the courtroom to tears, including Huckaby.
“She changed the lives of a lot of people. A lot of people,” said Daniel Cantu, Sandra’s father, who broke down as he addressed Huckaby.
“All I can say right now is, repent and think about what you’ve done,” he said.
Sandra’s aunt Angie Chavez told Judge Linda Lofthus that Huckaby robbed her family of the ability to see Sandra grow up, go to college, fall in love, get married and have children.
“No amount of explanation can make any sense of what she did or why she did it.” Angie Chavez said. “The only solace we have as a family is to know that she will never do this again.”
Sandra was last seen on a surveillance video walking through the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park on March 29, 2009. Prosecutors said the girl can be seen looking in the direction of Huckaby’s home before she goes off-camera.
Eight minutes later, the tape shows Huckaby driving her SUV from the mobile home park in the direction of her grandfather’s church, where the bloodstained rolling pin was found.
A massive search ended April 6, 2009, when the girl’s body was found stuffed in the suitcase in the pond a few miles from the mobile home park. Sandra’s body was found with a piece of bloody cloth tied around her head, and the suitcase was bound with a cord that authorities determined had come from a set of window blinds at the church, according to prosecutors’ documents.
A couple later told authorities that they saw Huckaby and her SUV at the pond on the day of Sandra’s disappearance and were told Huckaby was there to urinate.
Huckaby was arrested less than a week later after telling a reporter the suitcase belonged to her but had been stolen from her driveway the day Sandra disappeared.
Huckaby had shown authorities a note that she claimed she found at the mobile home park that read, “Cantu locked in stolin suitcase thrown in water onn Bacchetti Rd. & Whitehall Rd witness.”
The handwriting on the note was similar to Huckaby’s, prosecutors said.
In a separate hearing Monday, Loftus agreed to unseal search warrant affidavits and grand jury transcripts in the case. The documents were not immediately made available, however, because the victim’s family was considering whether to appeal that ruling.
The Associated Press, Bay Area News Group and The Record newspaper of Stockton sought to have the material unsealed.