Murder of Sandra Cantu
|Born||Sandra Renee Cantu
8 March 2001
Tracy, California, US
|Died||27 March 2009
Tracy, California, US
|Cause of death||Homicidal asphyxiation|
|Body discovered||San Joaquin County, California, US|
|Resting place||Tracy, California, US|
|Known for||Murder victim|
Sandra Renee Cantu (March 8, 2001 – March 27, 2009) was an eight-year-old American girl who attracted national attention after she went missing on March 27, 2009. Her body was discovered two weeks later inside a suitcase in a nearby irrigation pond. On April 10, 2009, police arrested Cantu's neighbor, 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby, and charged her with the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Cantu. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Kidnapping and death
Eight-year-old Sandra Cantu lived in Tracy, California, at Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park with her mother, grandparents and three older siblings. On March 27, 2009, she played at a friend's house after school until approximately 4:00 p.m., when she returned home. She left the caravan saying that she was going to play at another friend's house. When she did not return for dinner, the family called the police at 7:53 p.m.
Police located footage from a surveillance camera near the family home. The footage, which showed Sandra crossing the street in front of her home before moving out of frame, played on national news stations. A search of the mobile home complex was conducted without results and the FBI was called in to assist on the case. Over the course of the weekend, dogs, equestrian teams, ATVs and a helicopter from the California Highway Patrol were brought in to search for Sandra. A $22,000 reward was offered for information in the case, according to police.
Cantu's body was found 10 days later when an irrigation pond underwent a routine draining and a suitcase containing the body emerged. Cantu's autopsy revealed that she had been beaten and sexually assaulted with a foreign object before being smothered. Her toxicology results showed the presence of Alprazolam, also known as Xanax.
Upon remains having been found, police became suspicious of a number of odd coincidences regarding a neighbor of the family. Melissa Huckaby, a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher, lived in the same mobile home park as Cantu. Huckaby was born in Orange County, California. She is the granddaughter of Clifford Lawless, former pastor of Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy, California. Huckaby studied criminology at a community college before she and her daughter moved in with her grandparents at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park. She told police that Cantu often played with her own daughter.
On the day Cantu disappeared, Huckaby sent a text to Cantu's mother that said: "Tell the police that I had something stolen today around 4 p.m. I don't know if that makes a difference or not."
The next day, a vigil was held for Sandra. Melissa approached police and FBI agents to report that she had found a note on the ground. They reported she was "very agitated, crying, hyperventilating." The note stated: "Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase. Thrown in water onn (sic) Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road. Witness."
Prior to the discovery of the body, Huckaby wasn't a prime suspect because of her sex, according to lead investigator, Tracy police Detective Timothy Bauer. "She wasn't really a top priority," Bauer said. They were "focusing on all these guys in the trailer park." The profile that FBI experts assigned to the case was a white male, aged 25 to 40, with a criminal history of sexual assault or child pornography. Huckaby was interviewed on multiple occasions, but her behavior was assumed to be attention-seeking, rather than evidence of involvement. After the body was found in the suitcase she had reported stolen, they began taking a closer look at Huckaby's behavior. They took notice of "the unusual fact that a woman who reported losing a suitcase should be the one woman out of everyone in this complex who should happen to find a note that reports that the stolen suitcase was used to hide the child's body," FBI Special Agent Michael Conrad told the grand jury.
The police got a further lead when a retired U.S. Marine and his wife notified police that they spotted Melissa Huckaby and her SUV at the irrigation pond on their property at Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on the day Sandra disappeared. They reportedly recognized her on television. He described her as "distracted and hurried," and she told him "I just had to pee real quick," when he saw her.
Police reviewed surveillance footage further, which revealed that Cantu is seen walking towards Huckaby's residence at 3:54 p.m. Huckaby's SUV is seen driving away from her residence eight minutes later. At approximately the same time, she calls the trailer park manager to report that a suitcase, made by the manufacturer Eddie Bauer was stolen from her trailer. 85 minutes later, surveillance video from the church parking lot where Huckaby taught Sunday school shows her driving away from the church. 30 minutes later, she is seen returning to the church. It is during this 30-minute time frame that she was spotted at the irrigation pond.
FBI agents searched the church and collected a rolling pin from the kitchen. It is assumed to be the object used in the sexual assault. The rolling pin reportedly had a "bloody smudge" on it as well as a bent handle, authorities said. The rolling pin came back positive for Sandra's DNA.
Huckaby was arrested and charged with the murder. She pleaded guilty to first degree murder and kidnapping to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life without parole.
Huckaby, at her sentencing said, "I still cannot understand why I did what I did. This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life." Huckaby had a history of mental health problems, including borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The prosecutor in the case speculated that she committed this crime for attention. "There were 20 or so times that Melissa cut herself, set fires or verbally or psychologically attacked someone else, such as a roommate," said Deputy District Attorney Thomas Tesla. "And there was something like that going on here [after the murder], where she wanted to be the center of attention."
Ten weeks prior to Cantu's murder on January 17, another child living in the same mobile home park was reported missing. The police began a search that concluded when she was dropped off at her home several hours later by Melissa Huckaby. The family drove to the emergency room when the child appeared to be sedated and slurring her words. Upon examination, the child was found to have muscle relaxants in her system. Later, the child would report that Huckaby gave her a cup of water that "tasted like medicine", but had very little memory of the events that day. Huckaby was questioned, but police ultimately decided not to press charges, citing lack of evidence. Following her arrest for Cantu's murder, she was charged with the January 17 incident.
Police also revealed that Huckaby was a person of interest in the investigation regarding two fires set in 2007 at a home where she lived at the time. She was also suspected in another drugging involving a man who was arrested by police for driving under the influence. Police suspect she slipped him the substance found in his system. Police eventually dropped charges for these crimes as part of her plea deal for Cantu's murder.
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