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Rape may be alleged in girl's slaying

April 13, 2009 7:26:19 PM PDT
Melissa Huckaby, a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher, was arrested Friday on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Sandra Cantu. Melissa Huckaby, a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher, was arrested Friday on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Sandra Cantu.

Formal charges have not yet been filed, but San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himmelblau said a murder charge against Huckaby could include the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and murder in the course of a kidnapping.

A conviction on any of the special circumstances would make Huckaby eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without parole, Himmelblau said. The district attorney's office has not determined whether it will seek the death penalty, he said.

Sandra disappeared on March 27. A massive search ensued and pictures of her were posted all over Tracy, a city of 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco. On April 6, Sandra's body was found in a suitcase by farmworkers draining an irrigation pond a few miles from her home.

Huckaby lived with her grandparents five doors down from Sandra. The little girl was a playmate of Huckaby's 5-year-old daughter, Madison.

Police have not said how, where or why Sandra was killed, and Himmelblau wouldn't provide details on any evidence leading prosecutors to consider the sexual assault allegations.

"I was hoping that wasn't the case," Sandra's aunt, Angie Chavez, said through tears. "I'm in shock. The whole thing is unimaginable."

Huckaby is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Stockton. A decision on which, if any, special circumstances to include in the charges has not been made, Himmelblau said.

Huckaby remained in custody without bail at the San Joaquin County Jail, where jail staff have been monitoring her mental health. She has not been allowed visitors.

Himmelblau was not aware if Huckaby had an attorney.

A call to her family Monday was not immediately returned.

On Sunday, outside Clover Road Baptist Church - where Huckaby volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and her grandfather, Clifford Lawless, is the pastor - relatives described Huckaby as a loving mother with a strong religious upbringing.

Emily Fontes of Seattle said she and Huckaby were best friends at Brea Olinda High School in Orange County in the late 1990s.

Huckaby baby-sat and worked as a nanny, and also was on the school dance team, Fontes said.

Huckaby occasionally spoke of becoming a police officer. She talked about problems at home - typical teenage problems involving boys and parents - and sometimes wanted to stay with her, Fontes said.

"I can't comment on who she is now," Fontes said. "All I can say is that this girl I knew then could never in a million years do something like this."

After high school, Huckaby bounced back and forth between Southern California and Tracy.

In 2002, she worked as a cashier at a grocery store near her grandparents' house. In May 2003, she filed for bankruptcy, listing a little more than $5,000 in assets and more than $26,000 in debts. She was 22 and expecting her first child.

According to court documents, Melissa Lawless owed more than $17,000 in medical expenses. She earned a total of $10,525 in 2002 while working at the grocery store.

She left the store in 2004, got married and had Madison. She soon divorced.

Brian Lawless said Sunday his daughter never raised her voice at her own daughter and "never yelled, never struck her."

In 2006, Huckaby was convicted of petty theft in Los Angeles County. Information about her sentence wasn't immediately available.

Separately, in January, she pleaded no contest to a petty theft charge in San Joaquin County. She was sentenced to 3 years of probation on the condition that she participate in a county mental health program.

She had been scheduled to go to court April 17 to report on her participation in that program.

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Associated Press writers Terry Collins in Tracy, Calif., and Evelyn Nieves in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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