A calculated killing: The case against Melissa Huckaby
The stuffed suitcase lay on a metal autopsy table in French Camp, recovered that day from a lagoon of cow manure and waste as media helicopters jockeyed for air space above.
Bennet Omalu stood facing it. The forensic pathologist clipped a neatly knotted cord from the soaked bag and unzipped it. Sliding his arms inside, he gently scooped out a small corpse curled up like a baby in a womb.
"Speak to me, Sandra. Speak to me," Omalu whispered. "Tell me who killed you."
Perhaps some divine voice could help unriddle what he now held: the remains of Sandra Cantu, whose disappearance from her Tracy mobile home park 10 days earlier spurred a frantic search that ended with the most feared outcome for the little girl with a blithe spirit and cheeky grin.
Prosecutors would credit Omalu's work over the next six hours as pivotal in a case that last week put Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby in prison for life.
At that moment, about 6:45 p.m. April 6, 2009, the wearying search for a missing girl stopped cold, and detectives focused only on murder and the likely owner of the black Eddie Bauer suitcase.
As police held a news conference downtown that night, FBI agents locked down Clover Road Baptist Church. They searched the mobile home where Huckaby lived with her grandparents, Pastor Lane Lawless and his wife, Connie, and Huckaby's 5-year-old daughter. They searched her Kia Sportage with the tinted back windows.
Huckaby tracked the news from her bed at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital. She had checked herself in two days earlier, claiming she accidentally swallowed an X-acto knife blade while sleepwalking. Police watched her room.
She had called the mobile home park office shortly after Sandra's disappearance to report her suitcase missing. She seemed to tell everybody about the theft — police, her grandparents, nurses, and even Sandra's mother, in a text message. That night, she sent other texts to her grandmother:
"They are having an 8:15 news briefing on the suitcase. That was fast. I hope they didn't find anything."
Later, another text to Connie Lawless: "I hope she wasn't sexually assaulted."
Tracy police Detective Timothy Bauer, who led the investigation, watched Omalu open the bag on the autopsy table. Then he drove to the Orchard Estates mobile home park to notify Sandra's family. About 1 a.m., he and another detective visited Huckaby.
The suitcase, she said, "kinda looked like mine," according to Bauer. "Man, it kinda looks like I had something to do with it." But she stuck to her story.
"I asked her, 'Why would someone take her?' " the detective told the grand jury.
"And she responded, 'Why do people hurt other people? Because they are sick in their head, disgusting.' "
A new beginning
In June 2008 her grandparents asked her to come help them pack for a move south. Plans changed. Huckaby had lived in the area years before and she decided to stay in Tracy, moving into their mobile home with her young daughter.
Connie Lawless described Huckaby, now 29, as a loner who suffered depression and had a history of cutting herself on her ankles. Diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic, she kept a bottle of prescribed benzodiazepine, the highly potent anti-anxiety drug known by the brand name Xanax. She kept other drugs, too: Adderall for pep; Paroxetine to combat depression; Furosemide, a diuretic used for heart problems and hypertension.
In January 2009, a nearby parent accused Huckaby of taking her child without permission and drugging her. The girl came home loopy. Tests found benzodiazepine in her blood. A Tracy officer questioned Huckaby, but the girl's mother had drug issues, and Huckaby acted indignant. There was no proof.
In a notebook, Huckaby kept a phone number for a wedding dress service. She had told her sometimes boyfriend, Daniel Plowman, that she was pregnant, and Plowman said he wanted to marry her. On March 2 they met in the church. He told the grand jury she gave him a drink, saying it tasted strange. Try it, she told him. That evening, police found Plowman passed out in a McDonald's drive-through lane. He awoke in jail, but never reported her.
Divorced and unemployed, Huckaby spent her days mostly in the mobile home park and taught Sunday school at the church a half-block away. At home, she took care of her daughter. Sandra would drop by to play, sometimes 10 to 15 times a day, Huckaby told police.
"I don't know if you know this, but Sandra was my daughter's best friend," Huckaby told them.
Sandra was a neighborhood sprite and the mobile home park was her playground. She felt at ease within its gates, but under home rules she would only leave with an adult she trusted. Sandra trusted Huckaby.
At 2:45 p.m. March 27, Sandra showed up to play, but Huckaby turned her away. Sandra went to play on swings at another girl's house.
At 3:54 p.m., a video shows Sandra skipping down the street, then turning. Then — nothing.
At the Tracy Police Department, a half-dozen names were scrawled on a dry-erase board. Huckaby's name appeared at the bottom of the list, the only female. It was April 5, the day before a farmworker noticed the suitcase in the irrigation pond and drew it to the bank with a pitchfork.
"She was a person to re-interview, to look at her previous statements, verify her alibi, verify the timeline," Bauer said in an interview last week. "She wasn't really a top priority."
She also didn't match the profile. FBI experts pegged a white male, 25 to 40, with a criminal history of sexual assault or child pornography. Someone who abducts for sexual purposes, then kills.
We were "focusing on all these guys in the trailer park," Bauer said.
Huckaby helped steer them to a few men in the neighborhood.
The night Sandra went missing, Huckaby told police she went to the church about 4:50 or 5 p.m., came back about 6:30 and stayed home all night. The next day, during a vigil for Sandra, she rushed up to police and FBI agents "very agitated, crying, hyperventilating." She said she kicked over a note on the ground: "Cantu locked in stolin suitcase thrown in water onn Bacchetti Rd. & Whitehall Rd witness," it read, with numerous misspellings.
Suddenly, she became calm, completely relaxed. That was odd, thought FBI Special Agent Michael Conrad, a child abduction expert.
"We also commented on "... the unusual fact that a woman who reported losing a suitcase should be the one woman out of everyone in this complex who should happen to find a note that reports that the stolen suitcase was used to hide the child's body," he told the grand jury.
Even Lane Lawless, Huckaby's grandfather, was leery. "I don't know about being suspicious. It looked "... very strange," he testified.
The next day, a Sunday, police conducted their first major search — 250 officers from 13 agencies. They concentrated on the irrigation ponds in the area and sent divers into the nearby Delta waters. "You can't dive those ponds. Those ponds are cow manure and (urine). There's no visibility," Bauer said.
They would interview Huckaby on April 1, then again April 3. But men remained the focus.
"In a case like this, you can't lock it in, because she might be trying to get attention. She's an attention seeker."
Circling a suspect
Omalu finished his autopsy report at home, at 5 a.m. April 7. Sandra had been beaten, sexually assaulted, smothered to death, redressed and carefully crammed into the case, in a "perfect fetal position." The brutal sexual assault gave no evidence of semen or another body. No sign of a man.
"Look for a cylindrical object at the scene," he told investigators.
In a kitchen drawer at the church, investigators found a metal rolling pin with a bent handle and a red-brown smudge. Church members used the rolling pin to make unleavened bread for the Lord's Supper. It would test positive for Sandra's DNA.
An ex-Marine who lives on Whitehall Road spoke to police at the pond April 6. He told them he recognized Huckaby from TV as the woman he saw by the pond between 5:30 and 6 p.m. the day Sandra went missing.
" 'I just had to pee real quick,' " she told him.
He described her as "distracted and hurried."
A search of a computer at Huckaby's trailer found a Web story in September 2008 reporting Israeli divers finding a suitcase with the remains of a missing 4-year-old girl.
Later tests matched a cord on the suitcase with one missing from the school room.
Investigators analyzed video from the mobile home park, from a nearby hotel and an am/pm market. Huckaby's alibi didn't wash.
A receipt from her purse showed that Huckaby went to McDonald's just after 8 p.m. the night of Sandra's abduction, Bauer said.
"The night when she killed Sandra, she went out for fast food."
Huckaby left the hospital at 7 a.m. April 9, a Thursday. An hour later she called police, who had asked her to meet with them. Investigators questioned her for an hour at the station. The next day, they asked her to return.
For three hours, Bauer said, detectives described their evidence. They showed her handwriting samples linking her to the note. Huckaby broke down and admitted causing Sandra's death.
She wove an elaborate story of an accidental death and panic. "She said she was loading up the suitcase, taking it to the church. Sandra goes over there and Melissa says, 'Let's play a game of hide and seek. You get in the suitcase, I'll zip it up.' " Bauer said."Melissa says she forgets her keys and cell phone and went in, came back out, got in the car, went to the church and completely forgot about Sandra. She decorates the church, goes out — 'Oh, crap' — opens it up in the church and sees Sandra lifeless. "... She's freaking out, 'Oh my God, I killed her,' panicking."
One thought, Huckaby told them, was to pack Sandra back in the suitcase and leave her on her family's porch. Instead, she told detectives, she rolled out the suitcase with Sandra's body inside and drove, then found the irrigation pond.
The story had no credibility. "Her body didn't fit in there. She was stuffed in there," Bauer said. "There's no physical way."
Motive still elusive
Clearly, Bauer said, Huckaby carefully planned the crime.
"I think the girl who got drugged in January was practice. I think Daniel Plowman was practice. If you send a child away that comes over 10, 15 times a day, what do you think is going to happen? She's going to come back," he said. "Melissa knew how Sandra operated.
But why Sandra?
"I don't know," Bauer said. "Melissa's world was her daughter. Sandra was like the little flower child of the trailer park. Everybody liked her. Melissa's daughter is not like that. I don't know if there's some jealousy going on."
In a plea deal, Huckaby took life in prison without parole. No death penalty, and no sex charges that could mean the end of contact with her daughter. At her sentencing, she apologized to Sandra's family and said she did not understand why she murdered.
Prosecutor Thomas Testa doesn't buy it. A piece of him wishes there had been a trial to tease out her motivation.