Mon, Apr 13, 2009 - Page 7 News List

California teacher arrested after girl found in suitcase


Police have arrested a Sunday school teacher in the case of an eight-year-old girl whose body was found in a suitcase dumped in a pond, but authorities said on Saturday that they still do not know the motive for the killing.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, a local minister’s granddaughter, was arrested late on Friday about five hours after she drove herself to the local police station at the request of officers, said police Sergeant Tony Sheneman. She was being held without bail in connection with the death of Sandra Cantu, the San Joaquin County sheriff’s office said.

Sandra disappeared on March 27 and hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials turned out to search for her in this northern California town. On April 6, farm workers draining an irrigation pond found the suitcase.

Huckaby walked into the police station on Friday and started a conversation with officers, Sheneman said at a news conference.

“She was calm, cool and collected, then she became very emotional ... She went back and forth from being calm to emotional,” he said.

Eventually, she became “resigned,” Sheneman said.

“I couldn’t begin to even theorize what her motive was,” he said.

“Sandra was very close friends with Melissa’s daughter. They used to play together,” Sheneman said.

Sheneman said police know where the girl was killed but can’t disclose the location. Autopsy results are not yet available, he said. He wouldn’t say whether police believe the slaying was accidental or deliberate, saying that will be an issue for Huckaby’s arraignment and trial.

He said police had started to narrow their focus on a suspect about the same time Sandra’s body was found.

Sheneman had earlier said that interviews with Huckaby in the Tracy Press had revealed inconsistencies that prompted further inquiries from investigators. And he had confirmed early on Saturday that the suitcase belonged to Huckaby.

Huckaby is scheduled to be arraigned on Tuesday. She is on suicide watch in an observation cell away from other inmates for her own safety, though there have been no incidents, said sheriff’s Deputy Les Garcia. Huckaby is refusing visits, he said.

Sandra’s aunt, Angie Chavez, said the girl’s mother, Maria Chavez, was devastated.

“It’s not over. This is just the beginning of a horrible nightmare,” Angie Chavez said of the arrest as she stood at the entrance to the mobile home park where Sandra lived with her mother.

Angie Chavez’s husband, Joe Chavez, said Huckaby should face the death penalty.

“You eye everybody with a great deal of suspicion. We’re shell-shocked here,” Joe Chavez said. “Who can you trust at this point? Who do you know?”

Sheneman said investigators hadn’t expected that the suspect would turn out to be a woman.

“It’s unusual for it to be a woman, statistically and according to the FBI,” he said at the news conference.

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