Melissa Huckaby, 6/14/10
SLIDESHOW: Huckaby gets life sentence
STOCKTON, CA - Melissa Huckaby was sentenced to life in prison without parole Monday. Huckaby, who pleaded guilty to the kidnap and murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, expressed remorse in the courtroom and told Cantu's mother, "I should not have taken her from you."
The former Tracy Sunday School teacher went on to say, "I owe you an explanation. But I still cannot understand why I did what I did."
Huckaby originally faced additional charges of rape and lewd and lascivious acts. But the charges were dropped as part of a plea deal. Huckaby told the court Cantu was not molested, and she claimed the child did not suffer.
Cantu's remarks were contradicted by San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Tom Testa. He described to the court the discovery of Cantu's body, which had been stuffed into a suitcase, dumped in an irrigation ditch and found a week and a half after her disappearance.
Testa said a piece of torn cloth had been tied around Cantu's head. He said the cause of death was determined to be "homicidal asphyxiation."
Testa said toxicology tests also found the drug alprazolam, which is used to treat anxiety disorders, in Cantu's body. Bottles of alprazolam were found in Huckaby's home and purse, Testa said.
In a surprise move, Huckaby, 29, pleaded guilty in May as part of a deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.
Huckaby and Cantu lived at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy where Cantu and Huckaby's daughter were friends. Cantu was reported missing from her home on March 27, 2009.
Inside the Investigation
The prosecutor issued a statement Monday that revealed details of the investigation for the first time.
Testa said a surveillance tape from the mobile home park showed Cantu skipping toward her home on March 27 when something caught her eye. Testa said Cantu "looks over in the direction of Melissa Huckaby's residence. Then she drops off the face of the earth."
The videotape then shows Huckaby, eight minutes later, driving out of the mobile home park in the direction of her grandfather's church, Clover Road Baptist Church.
Testa said about the time Huckaby was leaving, she phoned the trailer park manager to report her black suitcase stolen in front of her trailer.
The prosecutor said another surveillance tape showed Huckaby driving away from the church and then returning to the church 30 minutes later. Testa said during that 30-minute window, a retired marine and his wife saw Huckaby and her SUV at an irrigation pond at Bacchetti and Whitehall roads in Tracy.
When she was questioned by police, Huckaby said she stopped at the pond in order to urinate.
The day after Cantu's disappearance, Huckaby alerted authorities to a handwritten note she claimed she found in the trailer park. The note read: "Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase. Thrown in water on (sic) Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road. Witness"
Testa said the handwriting, while disguised, was similar to Huckaby's writing.
After a farmworker discovered the suitcase in the irrigation ditch and Cantu's body inside, Tracy police and FBI agents searched the Clover Road Baptist Church.
Testa said investigators found a rolling pin with a bent handle, which was later tested and contained Cantu's DNA. Cantu's family and members of the church said the child had never been inside the sanctuary.
Another piece of evidence was the cord used on the window blinds at the church. Testa said an FBI expert concluded the cord used to shut the suitcase was consistent with the cord found in the church.
Gag order lifted
In another development on Monday, San Joaquin County Judge Linda Loftus lifted a gag order in the case, to the distress of Cantu's family.
Cantu's family says they've been traumatized by the murder, and they do not want additional details, including autopsy reports and search warrants, made public.
The Tracy Police Department plans a news conference Monday afternoon.
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News10's Tim Daly and Lorraine Blanco contributed to this story.