A calculated killing: The case against Melissa Huckaby — (San Jose Mercury News)

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San Jose Mercury News

By John Simerman and Sophia Kazmi, Contra Costa Costa Times

Posted:   06/19/2010 05:47

The stuffed suitcase lay on a metal autopsy table in French Camp, recovered that day from a lagoon of cow manure and waste as media helicopters jockeyed for air space above.

Bennet Omalu stood facing it. The forensic pathologist clipped a neatly knotted cord from the soaked bag and unzipped it. Sliding his arms inside, he gently scooped out a small corpse curled up like a baby in a womb.

“Speak to me, Sandra. Speak to me,” Omalu whispered. “Tell me who killed you.”

Perhaps some divine voice could help unriddle what he now held: the remains of Sandra Cantu, whose disappearance from her Tracy mobile home park 10 days earlier spurred a frantic search that ended with the most feared outcome for the little girl with a blithe spirit and cheeky grin.

Prosecutors would credit Omalu’s work over the next six hours as pivotal in a case that last week put Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby in prison for life.

At that moment, about 6:45 p.m. April 6, 2009, the wearying search for a missing girl stopped cold, and detectives focused only on murder and the likely owner of the black Eddie Bauer suitcase.

As police held a news conference downtown that night, FBI agents locked down Clover Road Baptist Church. They searched the mobile home where Huckaby lived with her grandparents, Pastor Lane Lawless and his wife, Connie, and Huckaby’s 5-year-old daughter. They searched her Kia Sportage with the tinted back window.

Huckaby tracked the news from her bed at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital. She had checked herself in two days earlier, claiming she accidentally swallowed an X-acto knife blade while sleepwalking. Police watched her room.

She had called the mobile home park office shortly after Sandra’s disappearance to report her suitcase missing. She seemed to tell everybody about the theft — police, her grandparents, nurses, and even Sandra’s mother, in a text message. That night, she sent other texts to her grandmother:

“They are having an 8:15 news briefing on the suitcase. That was fast. I hope they didn’t find anything.”

Later, another text to Connie Lawless: “I hope she wasn’t sexually assaulted.”

Tracy police Detective Timothy Bauer, who led the investigation, watched Omalu open the bag on the autopsy table. Then he drove to the Orchard Estates mobile home park to notify Sandra’s family. About 1 a.m., he and another detective visited Huckaby.

The suitcase, she said, “kinda looked like mine,” according to Bauer. “Man, it kinda looks like I had something to do with it.” But she stuck to her story.

“I asked her, ‘Why would someone take her?’ ” the detective told the grand jury.

“And she responded, ‘Why do people hurt other people? Because they are sick in their head, disgusting.’ ”

A new beginning

Huckaby was an event planner in Southern California and had studied criminology at a community college. She loved a good TV crime drama, especially “Law and Order.”

In June 2008 her grandparents asked her to come help them pack for a move south. Plans changed. Huckaby had lived in the area years before and she decided to stay in Tracy, moving into their mobile home with her young daughter.

Connie Lawless described Huckaby, now 29, as a loner who suffered depression and had a history of cutting herself on her ankles. Diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic, she kept a bottle of prescribed benzodiazepine, the highly potent anti-anxiety drug known by the brand name Xanax. She kept other drugs, too: Adderall for pep; Paroxetine to combat depression; Furosemide, a diuretic used for heart problems and hypertension.

In January 2009, a nearby parent accused Huckaby of taking her child without permission and drugging her. The girl came home loopy. Tests found benzodiazepine in her blood. A Tracy officer questioned Huckaby, but the girl’s mother had drug issues, and Huckaby acted indignant. There was no proof.

In a notebook, Huckaby kept a phone number for a wedding dress service. She had told her sometimes boyfriend, Daniel Plowman, that she was pregnant, and Plowman said he wanted to marry her. On March 2 they met in the church. He told the grand jury she gave him a drink, saying it tasted strange. Try it, she told him. That evening, police found Plowman passed out in a McDonald’s drive-through lane. He awoke in jail, but never reported her.

Divorced and unemployed, Huckaby spent her days mostly in the mobile home park and taught Sunday school at the church a half-block away. At home, she took care of her daughter. Sandra would drop by to play, sometimes 10 to 15 times a day, Huckaby told police.

“I don’t know if you know this, but Sandra was my daughter’s best friend,” Huckaby told them.

Sandra was a neighborhood sprite and the mobile home park was her playground. She felt at ease within its gates, but under home rules she would only leave with an adult she trusted. Sandra trusted Huckaby.

At 2:45 p.m. March 27, Sandra showed up to play, but Huckaby turned her away. Sandra went to play on swings at another girl’s house.

At 3:54 p.m., a video shows Sandra skipping down the street, then turning. Then — nothing.

Strange behavior

At the Tracy Police Department, a half-dozen names were scrawled on a dry-erase board. Huckaby’s name appeared at the bottom of the list, the only female. It was April 5, the day before a farmworker noticed the suitcase in the irrigation pond and drew it to the bank with a pitchfork.

“She was a person to re-interview, to look at her previous statements, verify her alibi, verify the timeline,” Bauer said in an interview last week. “She wasn’t really a top priority.”

She also didn’t match the profile. FBI experts pegged a white male, 25 to 40, with a criminal history of sexual assault or child pornography. Someone who abducts for sexual purposes, then kills.

We were “focusing on all these guys in the trailer park,” Bauer said.

Huckaby helped steer them to a few men in the neighborhood.

The night Sandra went missing, Huckaby told police she went to the church about 4:50 or 5 p.m., came back about 6:30 and stayed home all night. The next day, during a vigil for Sandra, she rushed up to police and FBI agents “very agitated, crying, hyperventilating.” She said she kicked over a note on the ground: “Cantu locked in stolin suitcase thrown in water onn Bacchetti Rd. & Whitehall Rd witness,” it read, with numerous misspellings.

Suddenly, she became calm, completely relaxed. That was odd, thought FBI Special Agent Michael Conrad, a child abduction expert.

“We also commented on “… 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,” he told the grand jury.

Even Lane Lawless, Huckaby’s grandfather, was leery. “I don’t know about being suspicious. It looked “… very strange,” he testified.

The next day, a Sunday, police conducted their first major search — 250 officers from 13 agencies. They concentrated on the irrigation ponds in the area and sent divers into the nearby Delta waters. “You can’t dive those ponds. Those ponds are cow manure and (urine). There’s no visibility,” Bauer said.

They would interview Huckaby on April 1, then again April 3. But men remained the focus.

“In a case like this, you can’t lock it in, because she might be trying to get attention. She’s an attention seeker.”

Circling a suspect

Omalu finished his autopsy report at home, at 5 a.m. April 7. Sandra had been beaten, sexually assaulted, smothered to death, redressed and carefully crammed into the case, in a “perfect fetal position.” The brutal sexual assault gave no evidence of semen or another body. No sign of a man.

“Look for a cylindrical object at the scene,” he told investigators.

In a kitchen drawer at the church, investigators found a metal rolling pin with a bent handle and a red-brown smudge. Church members used the rolling pin to make unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper. It would test positive for Sandra’s DNA.

An ex-Marine who lives on Whitehall Road spoke to police at the pond April 6. He told them he recognized Huckaby from TV as the woman he saw by the pond between 5:30 and 6 p.m. the day Sandra went missing.

” ‘I just had to pee real quick,’ ” she told him.

He described her as “distracted and hurried.”

A search of a computer at Huckaby’s trailer found a Web story in September 2008 reporting Israeli divers finding a suitcase with the remains of a missing 4-year-old girl.

Later tests matched a cord on the suitcase with one missing from the school room.

Investigators analyzed video from the mobile home park, from a nearby hotel and an am/pm market. Huckaby’s alibi didn’t wash.

A receipt from her purse showed that Huckaby went to McDonald’s just after 8 p.m. the night of Sandra’s abduction, Bauer said.

“The night when she killed Sandra, she went out for fast food.”

Elaborate story

Huckaby left the hospital at 7 a.m. April 9, a Thursday. An hour later she called police, who had asked her to meet with them. Investigators questioned her for an hour at the station. The next day, they asked her to return.

For three hours, Bauer said, detectives described their evidence. They showed her handwriting samples linking her to the note. Huckaby broke down and admitted causing Sandra’s death.

She wove an elaborate story of an accidental death and panic. “She said she was loading up the suitcase, taking it to the church. Sandra goes over there and Melissa says, ‘Let’s play a game of hide and seek. You get in the suitcase, I’ll zip it up.’ ” Bauer said.

“Melissa says she forgets her keys and cell phone and went in, came back out, got in the car, went to the church and completely forgot about Sandra. She decorates the church, goes out — ‘Oh, crap’ — opens it up in the church and sees Sandra lifeless. “… She’s freaking out, ‘Oh my God, I killed her,’ panicking.”

One thought, Huckaby told them, was to pack Sandra back in the suitcase and leave her on her family’s porch. Instead, she told detectives, she rolled out the suitcase with Sandra’s body inside and drove, then found the irrigation pond.

The story had no credibility. “Her body didn’t fit in there. She was stuffed in there,” Bauer said. “There’s no physical way.”

Motive still elusive

Clearly, Bauer said, Huckaby carefully planned the crime.

“I think the girl who got drugged in January was practice. I think Daniel Plowman was practice. If you send a child away that comes over 10, 15 times a day, what do you think is going to happen? She’s going to come back,” he said. “Melissa knew how Sandra operated.

But why Sandra?

“I don’t know,” Bauer said. “Melissa’s world was her daughter. Sandra was like the little flower child of the trailer park. Everybody liked her. Melissa’s daughter is not like that. I don’t know if there’s some jealousy going on.”

In a plea deal, Huckaby took life in prison without parole. No death penalty, and no sex charges that could mean the end of contact with her daughter. At her sentencing, she apologized to Sandra’s family and said she did not understand why she murdered.

Prosecutor Thomas Testa doesn’t buy it. A piece of him wishes there had been a trial to tease out her motivation.

“She’s a smart person,” he said. “She writes well. She speaks well. She’s in full possession of her faculties.”

 

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Tracy mother hears charges

By Scott Smith

Posted Apr. 15, 2009

Huckaby is accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering Sandra Cantu

STOCKTON – An emotionally fragile Melissa Chantel Huckaby lost her struggle to maintain composure during a brief arraignment Tuesday while listening to a judge read aloud the charges that she kidnapped, murdered and raped 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.

Shackled, wearing red jailhouse clothes and standing for the proceeding, Huckaby, 28, is accused of crimes that make her eligible for a death sentence.

Reading the complaint, San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard Vlavianos said prosecutors alleged that Huckaby murdered Sandra “while the said defendant was engaged in the commission … of the crime of rape by instrument.”

The Tracy woman wrinkled her face and began to cry when Vlavianos read the name of “Sandra Cantu” from the criminal complaint. Again, she sobbed when he used the words “rape by an instrument.” Tears dropped down her face.

The entire hearing lasted a little more than four minutes but carried the weight of the past three weeks – through Sandra’s disappearance March 27, the discovery of her body in a black suitcase and Huckaby’s arrest.

Meanwhile, investigators Tuesday served two more search warrants on Huckaby’s home and the Clover Road Baptist Church just down the street from the trailer park where Sandra was last seen alive.

Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said he could not elaborate on the details of the searches and would not say if they were conducted because police are still trying to piece together a motive.

Prosecutors charged Huckaby, the granddaughter of a Tracy preacher, with murder and three special circumstances of kidnapping, lewd or lascivious acts on a child, and rape by a foreign object.

Vlavianos asked Huckaby if she wanted the Public Defender’s Office, which she had used before, to represent her. Huckaby made her only utterance of the hearing when she mouthed an affirmative answer to his question.

San Joaquin County Deputy Public Defender Ellen Schwarzenberg, who rubbed Huckaby’s back to comfort her, did not enter a plea for her client, asking instead for more time. Superior Court Judge Terrence Van Oss will hear Huckaby’s case, which is set for April 24.

Schwarzenberg also asked Vlavianos to order a “medication evaluation” of Huckaby at the jail, saying that Huckaby had been on medication. Vlavianos agreed to the check up. Vlavianos also said that Van Oss would consider granting a gag order.

Officials on the case are not saying much. The three-page complaint made public before the hearing did not say what “instrument” Huckaby allegedly used on Sandra. The arraignment gave no insight into what Tracy police and prosecutors believe may have been her motive.

The courtroom was filled to capacity. More than three dozen reporters from local and national media outlets watched closely.

Inside were Sandra’s family; aunt Angie Chavez and uncle Joe Chavez sat with Susan Levy, the mother of slain Washington intern Chandra Levy. They were teary-eyed as the charges were read. Sandra’s mother and grandparents, with whom she lived at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, did not attend the hearing.

On the other side of the courtroom were Huckaby’s relatives, including her father, Brian Lawless, grandmother Connie Lawless and aunt Joni Hughes. Brian Lawless looked down, hands together in his lap. He and Hughes also teared up during the hearing.

Among the officials were Tracy Police Chief Janet M. Thiessen, seated with three of her investigators. San Joaquin County Public Defender Pete Fox also was in court.

San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett watched with his chief prosecutors. Outside the courthouse, a swell of reporters swarmed around Willett, who made a brief statement.

Willett said his office will follow the normal procedure in deciding what penalty they will seek against Huckaby.

“As charged, she faces a potential death sentence or alternatively life without the possibility of parole,” Willett said. “We will not make a decision on whether to seek death until we’re further down the road in these proceedings.”

Connie Lawless, in a phone interview after the hearing, described her granddaughter as a sweet person. Huckaby told family members during jailhouse visits that she is innocent. The charges put the family in a state of shock, Lawless said.

“This is totally out of character for our granddaughter,” she said. “She is a woman who never raised a hand to a child, never raised a voice.”

She said she does not believe her granddaughter could have committed the crime, unless “some freakish thing happened.”

She said her granddaughter had been taking some psychotropic medication, and that she had no criminal history aside from a shoplifting.

Lawless said she and her husband visited for the first time with Huckaby at the San Joaquin County Jail for 40 minutes Monday evening. There, Lawless said, “We cried together, we prayed.”

Lawless asked that everyone maintain an open mind. Her granddaughter has yet to speak with an attorney, and the only side of the story to come out so far has come from the Tracy Police Department, which is one-sided, she said.

Sandra’s estranged father, Daniel Cantu, arrived late for Tuesday’s court hearing. He watched a news conference outside and hugged a half-dozen friends who all wore “Justice for Sandra” T-shirts.

Cantu spoke quietly and thanked the volunteers who searched for his daughter and the police who investigated her death. “It’s not the outcome we expected,” he said. “I thank everybody for helping.”

The criminal charges – more often seen involving men – baffle experts, who say such incidents involving women are rare.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, women are responsible for 6.4 percent of sex-related homicides in the nation. Just 2.4 percent of female murder victims are killed by women.

“Women don’t tend to kill kids very much, and when they do, it tends to be their own children,” said David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children Research Center. “It’s very hard to say what’s going on.”

Even more abnormal are the sexual abuse charges. Typically, if a woman molests a child, the victim tends to be older, perhaps a teenager, Finkelhor said. The woman also more often acts in concert with a male perpetrator, he said.

Huckaby remains held at the San Joaquin County Jail without possibility of release on bail.

Staff writer Daniel Thigpen contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Scott Smith at (209) 546-8296 or ssmith@recordnet.com