March 27, 2009
Tracy, California
Sandra Cantu (8) goes missing; her body will be found 10 days later

Cantu told her family she was going to play with friends in the afternoon of March 27. She was reported missing when she did not return for dinner around 8 p.m. Police and the community launched an extensive search for the 8-year-old, and monetary rewards were offered for information concerning her whereabouts, but the efforts were met with little success.

Sandra Cantu, from her missing persons flier

Ten days later, Cantu’s body was found. She had been stuffed in a suitcase and thrown into an irrigation pond a few miles from her home. She had a cut to her lip and abrasions to her elbow, and showed signs of having been sexually assaulted with a foreign object. A toxicology report showed the presence of alprazolam, a medication to treat anxiety, as well.

A map showing the location where Cantu’s remains were found and her home
via The Sacramento Bee. April 7, 2009

The suitcase in which Cantu’s body was found was soon linked to Melissa Huckaby (28), who lived in the same mobile home park as Cantu and her family. Huckaby had reported the suitcase stolen on the day of Cantu’s disappearance, and the following day had delivered a note to police which read, verbatim, “Cantu locked in stolin suitcase. Thrown in water onn Bachetti Road and Whitehall Road. Witness.” Huckaby had claimed to have found the note on the ground.

Investigators searched the church where Huckaby taught Sunday school. There, they found a rolling pin with a broken handle and a bloody smudge, as well as a blind which was missing its pull cord. The blood was matched to Cantu and the cord was similar to the string used to tie the suitcase containing her body. Additionally, bottles of alprazolam were found in Huckaby’s home and purse, and two witnesses reported seeing Huckaby and her SUV in the vicinity of the irrigation pond around 6 p.m. on the date of Cantu’s disappearance. Huckaby explained to detectives she had stopped at the pond to urinate. She was arrested on April 11, but not before she attempted suicide by swallowing three razor blades.

Melissa Huckaby at court
via Daily News

The news of Huckaby’s arrest came as a surprise to the community. “To hear that it’s someone from the church, in a position of trust, is shocking,” a resident of Cantu’s trailer park said during an interview with the press. “I’m like everybody else, expecting this to be some creepy guy.”

To hear that it’s someone from the church, in a position of trust, is shocking. I’m like everybody else, expecting this to be some creepy guy.

Huckaby accepted a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to first degree murder and kidnapping “with enhancement” to avoid a possible death sentence. She was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the agreement, the charges of sexual assault and drugging were dropped.

Huckaby explained to the court how she had strangled Cantu with a torn piece of cloth which she had knotted into what she called a noose. “I should not have taken her from you,” Huckaby told Cantu’s family during her sentencing. “I owe you an explanation. But I cannot understand why I did what I did. … She did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her.”

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa doubted Huckaby’s claim, however, stating, “It’s hard for me to believe that Sandra Cantu did not suffer,” following the hearing.

Goldman, Russell. “Melissa Huckaby Used Noose to Kill 8-Year-old Sandra Cantu.” ABC News. June 14, 2010. Accessed: March 27, 2021.
Dillon, Nancy. “Melissa Huckaby, who killed 8-year-old Sandra Cantu in 2009, pleads guilty to avoid death penalty.” Daily News. May 10, 2010. Accessed: March 27, 2021.
Furillo, Andy; Phua, Chelsea; and Lindelof, Bill. “Woman arrested in Tracy girl’s slaying.” The Sacramento Bee. April 12, 2009
“Man reports seeing someone where missing girl was found.” The Californian [Salinas, California]. April 11, 2009
Minugh, Kim and Oklobdzija, Stan. “Devastating end to search.” The Sacramento Bee. April 7, 2009
Thigpen, Daniel. “Search in Tracy fails to find girl.” Sacramento Bee. March 31, 2009
Netter, Sarah. “The Frantic Search for Sandra Cantu.” ABC News. March 30, 2009. Accessed: March 27, 2021.
“Authorities continue search for Tracy girl missing since Friday.” Visalia Times-Delta. March 30, 2009

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