Surprising suspect arrested in Sandra Cantu’s murder: she’s a mom, Cantu family neighbor, Sunday school teacher and pastor’s granddaughter

A 28-year-old woman was booked into San Joaquin County jail early Saturday on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, news reports say.

The suspect is Melissa Huckaby, who had made news Friday after telling several media outlets that it was her large black suitcase in which Sandra’s body was found Monday, in a pond about two miles north of the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where both Huckaby and Sandra’s family live.

Huckaby said her suitcase had been stolen from her driveway on March 27, the day Sandra went missing.

Not only is Huckaby a neighbor of Cantu’s family in the mobile home park, her 5-year-old daughter is a regular playmate of Sandra’s. Indeed, Huckaby told the Tracy Press that Sandra had stopped by her home that afternoon to play with her daughter. But she told Sandra that her daughter wasn’t allowed to play because she had to pick up her toys, and Sandra went on her way, to another friend’s house, according to Huckaby.

Huckaby was arrested at 11:55 p.m. Friday, about five hours after she drove herself to the station at the request of police, according to Tracy Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman.

CBS 5 has a video of Huckaby leaving the mobile home park on Friday, on her way to meet with investigators. She signaled that she had to leave. She later sent a text message, telling CBS 5 that she was on the way to meet with police detectives.

According to ABC7 news, police won’t say yet how Sandra was killed or why. Police did say that they believe Sandra was killed that Friday afternoon or early evening, before she was reported missing. (I was afraid this was probably the case; investigators in missing children’s cases have told me that that the terrible things that happen to kidnapped kids usually happen in the first several hours after they disappear; that’s why early reporting and police response is so crucial in these cases.)

Huckaby is the granddaughter of Clifford Lane Lawless, the pastor at the Clover Baptist Church. Huckaby also lives with her grandparents. Both Lawless and his church were in the media spotlight this week because the church ws searched several times by FBI investigators, including on Friday afternoon. Huckaby reportedly taught Sunday school at the church.

Here are more details about Huckaby and her possible movements that Friday from the Tracy Press (Leave it to the local community newspaper to offer the best coverage):

–Huckaby and her daughter have lived with Pastor Lawless and his wife Connie for the past year.

–Court records show a 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby pleaded no contest January 9 to a felony charge of second degree commercial burglary and a misdemeanor charge of property theft with prior theft/burglary/robbery. The criminal complaint says she was locked up in Los Angeles County for conviction of property theft in November 2006 and that she tried to steal something from Target in November last year.”

–But when Huckaby talked to the Tracy Press Friday, she said she wasn’t the same Melissa Huckaby involved in that case, even though the address and cell phone number listed for Huckaby in court records match her own

–After Sandra left Huckaby’s home, Sandra’s oldest sister, Miranda, went to Huckaby’s house, too. Huckaby asked Miranda if she could watch her daughter for her while she went down the street to the church. Connie Lawless was home, too.

Huckaby says she then set the packed suitcase on the driveway by her dark purple Kia SUV (the same one FBI agents and Tracy police detectives towed and searched Tuesday night.) But she forgot her cell phone and keys inside the house, so she went back in for about 15 minutes to find them. She couldn’t, so she picked up the spare key and left.

She forgot about the suitcase and left it on the driveway.When she got to the church, Huckaby’s grandmother called and said she found her keys and cell phone. Huckaby said that’s when she realized she had left the $200 suitcase outside. When her family went out to get it, they said it was gone.

–Huckaby was released Thursday from Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, where she spent several days in the intensive care unit for what she described as “internal bleeding.” Police were stationed at the hospital during her stay.

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