In Tracy, California, the more they know, the less they understand. That's the maddening arithmetic in the Central Valley, where a 28-year-old Sunday-school teacher, her lower lip quivering, her wrists and ankles cuffed, shuffled into a courtroom Tuesday to face a nearly inconceivable charge: that she kidnapped an 8-year-old neighbor girl named Sandra Cantu, who played with her own 5-year-old daughter, raped her with an "instrument," killed her inside the nearby church where she worked and where her grandfather was pastor, packed her in a rolling suitcase, drove her two miles in her purple Kia SUV, and tossed the suitcase into a murky pond at a dairy farm.
Melissa Huckaby, clad in red jail garb, cried three times during her arraignment in Stockton on charges that could send her to the death chamber—first when a deputy sheriff called the proceeding to order. There were 11 deputies in the courtroom, and one of them faced the gallery, scanning side to side for signs of would-be vigilantes. Huckaby wept again, quietly, when the judge read the charge of murder and uttered Sandra's name, and then she closed her eyes for a few seconds upon hearing the "special circumstance" of rape. Huckaby's attorney delayed entering a plea and asked for a gag order on the court proceedings. The entire process took only about four minutes.
"Women don't kill other women's kids. Women kill their own kids."
A lot of people in Tracy want to tear Huckaby's face off, and will tell you as much. But first, they'd really like the opportunity to understand what happened.
"Everybody thought it was going to be a man. Women don't kill other women's kids. Women kill their own kids." That's what Kadie Wales, who lives near Huckaby in a mobile-home park in this city of about 80,000, a little more than an hour from San Francisco, told me on a recent afternoon as she strolled by the modest cinder-block church. Tracy is still a farming community with a ripe dairy scent, but it swelled in the 1990s with Bay Area commute-jockeys looking for relatively cheap housing—Silicon Valley tech workers, teachers, cops.
After Sandra went missing on March 27—she would be gone 10 days before the suitcase was spotted by dairy workers—Wales looked warily at the men around her. When one living right across the street had his doublewide searched by police, her mind raced; had he been secretly filming her kids? Then she went over and struck up a conversation with him. He explained that he had drawn police scrutiny because he once kissed Sandra (innocently, he said) on the lips at the neighborhood pool. That would have to pass for reassurance.
Sandra was the mascot, or perhaps the mayor, of the Orchard Estates mobile-home park, bopping around, house to house, singing and turning cartwheels. Everybody knew her. She was friendly and trusting, according to neighbors who now wonder if those qualities were exploited. In a surveillance video that shows some of her final moments, she skips across the street in a pink Hello Kitty T-shirt—the same one she was wearing when authorities opened the submerged suitcase—then ominously turns toward the home where Huckaby lived with her grandparents and daughter. That's the footage that keeps ripping out hearts; it may not be suitable for viewing by parents.
Sandra's death may have forever altered the way moms and dads here watch their kids. A local mother of seven, Andraya Anguiano, told me she used to let her 11-year-old take her three youngest kids to a park a block from their home. Now she can't help thinking about the freeway ramp near the park. Couldn't some sicko turn his steering wheel and wipe out her life?
Everybody wants to find a motive in this. Many people refuse to believe, as police assert, that Huckaby acted alone. "I hope and pray that she decides to tell the truth," one woman wrote to me in an email. "She deserves better than this." Tracy Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman told me Huckaby didn't offer up a motive while implicating herself during an emotional interview last Friday. Court records aren't much help: While they show she was diverted into a mental-health program in January after pleading no contest to shoplifting at Target—her second petty-theft conviction—that is not exactly the rap sheet of a predator. She does appear to have dated some troubled men, but describes in a 2002 application for a restraining order how she broke up with one after discovering that he was using "dope."
Huckaby’s father told me she had bouts of depression and difficulty dealing with her divorce. He said he was concerned that she may have tried to hurt herself in the days after Sandra went missing, because she was briefly hospitalized, as she has been often in recent years. Once she was released, she did everything but plea for police to come get her, and was soon arrested.
First, Huckaby gave a 40-minute phone interview to a young reporter at the Tracy Press, explaining that she was partial to the local paper. She admitted that the rolling suitcase was hers, said it had been stolen. When television reporters soon came calling, she claimed to have found a cryptic note from the killer. Driving her Kia toward the police station hours later, she smiled and waved.
Police have said little since. Sheneman, the department spokesman, is a master of No Comment. "That's a good question," he likes to say, "and I can't answer it." So desperate was the television news pack to explain the suspect, and track down people who knew her, that some aired a photo of a different Melissa Huckaby found on Facebook. The other Melissa has the incredibly bad fortune of also being a 28-year-old mom and Sunday-school teacher from San Joaquin County. Told of the error, some stations turned the potentially life-altering gaffe into a quirky sidebar feature, and aired interviews with the other woman. She seemed to be in a remarkably understanding mood.
At Sandra's house, where she lived with her mother, grandparents and three older siblings, there is little but grief and anger. Her grandfather, Jose Chavez, told me that his wife cried all the time. "She's making herself sick," he said. "There's going to be another victim in this." Sandra's funeral is Thursday afternoon at the local high-school gymnasium. It was the biggest venue available in town, but there might not be room for all of the shattered.
Demian Bulwa is a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he has been covering the death of Sandra Cantu. Find his work at demianbulwa.blogspot.com