Melissa Huckaby

March 27th 2009 began the same as every other day in Tracy, California, for eight year old Sandra Cantu, who lived with her Mother, three siblings and Grandparents. She had probably been excited as she left her home in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park that morning, because after school she was going to her friend’s house to play. At around 4 p.m. the happy and bubbly child skipped home to tell her family she was going to knock for another friend, which wasn’t unusual for little Sandra. What was unusual for her, was that she didn’t return home for dinner.

Sandra Cantu

When her mother, Maria Chavez, went out to look for her there was no sign of Cantu where she said she’d be and even more worrying, she learned that the friend she had gone to visit hadn’t been home. The happy youngster had always been reliable when it came to checking in with her family and letting them know if she was going to play elsewhere. Where was her daughter?

Frantic, Chavez called the police and reported her missing at 7:53 p.m. A massive search was soon underway with police searching the entire mobile home park, which contained around 100 homes and its surroundings. They didn’t find her. March 27th had become a day all parents fear.

Surveillance footage from the family’s home showed Cantu, who was wearing a Hello Kitty T shirt and black leggings, skipping towards the family home before suddenly turning and walking in a direction away from the home and away from the only exit to the mobile home park. It was almost as if someone had called her over. Her distraught family were worried at the possibility she had gone off with a stranger, describing her as..

“a little girl who is very talkative, would make friends wherever she’d go and was always eager to help.”

Angie Chavez, Cantu’s Aunt. ABC News
Sandra Cantu

Police were also concerned about an incident between Cantu and a 60 year old male resident, Frank Wohler, at the local pool. Just 2 years previously, the local karate instructor had approached Cantu, then 6, smoothed her hair away from her face and kissed her on the lips. He claimed he was ‘just being nice!’ The man in question still lived on the park. Police interviewed Wohler (who passed a polygraph test) and another man, Chris Sinclair, several times in connection with Cantu’s disappearance. Wohler’s station wagon and the properties of both men were forensically searched, but they were cleared of any involvement.

Several other men were on the detective’s suspect list, including residents known to police as child abusers, paedophiles and sex offenders.

Despite everything, the Estate manager at the time, Marilyn Zuniga, claimed the mobile home park was very safe, and Cantu’s Aunt, Angie Chavez agreed that was generally a safe, family friendly place to live.

“This is a very nice park, with about 100 homes. It’s always been a very safe park,”

Marilyn Zuniga, ABC News

Over the next week the search for Cantu ramped up, with the FBI and the National Centre for Exploited and Missing children also getting involved. Hundreds of tips and sightings from all over California flooded the inquiry lines and police were determined to investigate every single one of them. They searched landfill sites, rivers and the trash of everyone in Tracey.

“We are going through absolutely everybody’s trash in this city of Tracy this week,”

Tracy Police Lieutenant Jeremy Watney
Tracy Police Lieutenant Jeremy Watney during a briefing regarding Sandra Cantu

Helicopters, equestrian teams and police dogs, as well as members of the public, joined the search. Cars entering or leaving the trailer park were also searched. A reward of $22,000 was offered in exchange for any information leading to an arrest. At one point in the search of the park, a Hello Kitty t-shirt matching the description of the one Cantu was wearing was discovered, however her mother said that although very similar, it did not belong to Cantu.

Police guard the entrance to Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park

As is common with investigations such as this, detectives interviewed all family members, including Cantu’s father, Daniel Cantu. Divorced from Cantu’s mother, he lived on the California / Mexico border. He was subjected to an intense interrogation, which led to him being cleared as a possible suspect. Daniel Cantu begged his daughter to find a way to get home

“Honey, if you can get to a phone, dial 911, babe. Scream. Kick. Do what you need to do.”

 Daniel Cantu / KTVU
Daniel Cantu,
Sandra Cantu’s father

FBI profilers released a profile of the type of person likely to be involved in Cantu’s disappearance; White male, 25-40 with a criminal history of child pornography and sexual assault. We now know they were very far off the mark…

“We thought there was no way a woman would do these things.”

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Tesla.

It was during a vigil for Cantu that detectives began to take note of the strange behaviour of Melissa Huckaby, 28. The Sunday school teacher was a fellow resident in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park and a family friend of the Chavez / Cantu family, her daughter often played with Sandra Cantu. As detectives monitored the vigil, Huckaby approached them, distraught and hyperventilating. She handed them a note which read

“Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase thrown in water onn (sic) Bacchetti Rd. and Whitehall Rd witness.”

NBC Bay Area
The vigil held for Cantu
Melissa Huckaby

Huckaby had also sent a text message to Maria Chavez, within hours of Cantu going missing, which 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 ‘something stolen’ was a suitcase, but at the time the text message was not considered important to the investigation. Despite the handwritten note she gave to the police also mentioning a suitcase, Huckaby, who suffered with several mental health issues, was not considered a prime suspect. After several interviews, detectives deemed her as nothing more than attention seeking.

“There was something like that going on here (after the murder), where she wanted to be the center of attention.”

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Tesla.

Ten days later, on April 6th 2009, during a bi-annual drainage of a manure and waste irrigation pond on a dairy farm on Whitehall Road, Tracy, farmworkers spotted a suitcase emerging from the murky water. Being aware of the huge search for the missing child, the workers considered this find to be suspicious and alerted authorities.

The irrigation pond on Whitehall Road, where Sandra Cantu’s body was discovered in a suitcase

The black, Eddie Bauer rolling suitcase was secured shut with what forensics later discovered to be the pull cord from a blind. Devastatingly, upon opening the case, the body of a young child, dressed in a Hello Kitty T-shirt and black leggings was discovered, curled up tightly in the foetal position. Dental records later confirmed what Investigators already knew. It was Sandra Cantu.

Sandra Cantu

The tragic news spread throughout the community, and in what appeared to be another stunt at being centre of attention, Huckaby reported she was suffering from internal bleeding after accidently swallowing an X-acto knife blade and was taken into hospital. By now, detectives were very suspicious of the events linking Huckaby to the investigation and promoted her to prime suspect in the murder of Sandra Cantu.

News spread that Sandra Cantu’s body had been found

 “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

Officers were stationed at the hospital with her whilst detectives and the FBI conducted searches of her Kia SUV, the Clover Road Baptist Church and her mobile home, which she shared with her grandparents and her 5 year old daughter.

Yellow tape surrounding the church during the search

When informed the suitcase matched the one stolen’ from her, Huckaby remarked that it looked like she had something to do with it but continued to insist the suitcase had been stolen. When asked by detectives why someone would take Cantu, she replied

“Why do people hurt other people? Because they are sick in their head, disgusting. “

Detective Timothy Bauer / Web archive

Forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, conducted the autopsy on Sandra Cantu and determined the 8 year old had been beaten and sexually abused with a cylindrical object before being smothered to death. A piece of cloth had been knotted around her neck to make a noose. The official cause of death was recorded as homicidal asphyxiation. No semen was found on Cantu’s body or clothing, in fact there was no evidence to suggest the monster that had attacked her was even a male. Toxicology reports revealed levels of Alprazolam, (a psychotropic drug commonly used to treat mental disorders) in Cantu’s blood, indicating she had also been drugged and sedated.

Forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu

During the search of the church, investigators found a rolling pin with evident damage to the handle and what appeared to be a blood stain on it. Forensic tests later confirmed it was blood – Sandra Cantu’s blood. The cord which secured the suitcase containing Cantu’s body was forensically matched to a damaged pullcord from a blind in the Sunday school room of the church.

A witness who lived on Whitehall Road, where Cantu’s remains were found, reported to police he recognised Huckaby from on the T.V as the ‘distracted and hurried’ woman he and his wife had spoken to by the pond between 5.30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on March 27th 2009 – the day Cantu went missing. She claimed she’d stopped as she had needed to pee.

The search of Huckaby’s home and computer revealed she had previously researched a case from 2008 where a suitcase was discovered in Israel which contained the remains of a 4 year old girl. Investigators also found a bottle of Alprazolam in Huckaby’s purse.

Detectives also located a notebook inside Huckaby’s home which displayed indents of writing on the pages. Handwriting analysis proved these indents matched the writing on the note Huckaby had claimed to have ‘found’ and handed in to police during the vigil.

“It didn’t take an FBI expert to figure this out, she has a distinctive way of writing certain letters. You can compare it to her known handwriting and tell as a layperson that they’re written by the same person.”

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Tesla

Melissa Huckaby was arrested and charged with the murder of Sandra Cantu on April 10, 2009.

Faced with the overwhelming evidence against her, Huckaby eventually agreed to a plea deal in order to avoid the death penalty – guilty on counts of first degree murder and kidnapping, “with enhancements”, in exchange for a sentence of 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. All other charges, including the sexual assault charge, were dropped.

Melissa Huckaby

However, despite accepting the plea bargain, Huckaby refused to admit she deliberately attacked and murdered Sandra Cantu. She claimed they had been playing a game of hide and seek which went wrong. In her version of events, Cantu had been playing hide and seek with her 5 year old daughter, Maddison. Huckaby suggested Cantu hide in the suitcase and zipped her up inside it. She alleged she then forgot the child was in the suitcase and by the time she remembered, it was too late, Cantu had suffocated. In a panic, she considered leaving the suitcase, with Cantu still inside it, on the Chavez’s porch but opted instead to dump it in the pond.

Melissa Huckaby

The forensic evidence and surveillance videos tell an entirely different, more sinister turn of events. Huckaby drugged Cantu before taking her to the church where she proceeded to beat and sexually abuse the young girl with a rolling pin so forcefully it damaged the handle. She then made a make shift noose out of a torn piece of cloth and strangled Cantu to death, before squeezing her tightly into the suitcase in a foetal position. Huckaby then coldly dumped the case into the pond.

The irrigation pond on Whitehall Road, where Sandra Cantu’s body was discovered in a suitcase

“It’s hard for me to believe that Sandra Cantu did not suffer,”

Deputy District Attorney Tom Testa

At her sentencing, Huckaby addressed Cantu’s mother, Maria Chavez;

“She did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her, I’m asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness. I can’t imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me.”

“I still cannot understand why I did what I did. Every day I try to discover an explanation. I still do not have an answer,” 

Melissa Huckaby

Maria Chavez later announced she couldn’t and wouldn’t ever forgive someone who’d taken her daughter away from her.

Maria Chavez

However, Cantu’s murder was not Huckaby’s first offence against a minor. She was also accused previously of taking a neighbours 7 year old girl without knowledge or permission of the family. When the little girl returned home two hours later she was acting in an strange an unusual way, stumbling around and slurring her words. Blood tests taken at the hospital revealed she had levels of Alprazolam in her system. The same drug Huckaby had given Cantu. Police investigated the incident but due to a lack of evidence no arrest was made.

An ex boyfriend of Huckaby’s, Daniel Plowman, also accused Huckaby of poisoning him after he was arrested for being under Influence Controlled Substance.

Cantu’s murder led to police re-investigating these cases, however the charges for both were dropped as part of the plea deal.

After her arrest, Huckaby was on the receiving end of many credible death threats, for what she had done to Sandra Cantu. Her then 5 year old daughter, Madison, went to live with her (Madison’s) father and he was granted full custody of her. At the time of writing, Huckaby remains in prison.

Sandra Cantu’s family held a private ceremony for her before she was taken by a horse drawn hearse to the Mausoleum in Tracy, where she was interred. A public memorial was held a few days later – thousands of mourners attended. R.I.P little Angel.

Sandra Cantu’s final resting place

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References: ABC News: Fox News: People: NBC Bay Area: CBS News: Web archive: People: Wikipedia: / Tracy Press: / / NBC News: East Bay Times: Biography: Find a grave: