Trailer parks generally get a bad rap in terms of stereotypes. Most people think about drug use, drinking, welfare and child abuse when they picture life in a mobile home. The majority of people who live in modems and mobile homes tend to live at a low-income level, so poverty can also be a spectre in these areas. Not all people who live in trailer parks fit this description of course and many good people live there. Unfortunately the parks can be rife with crime and they often house people with unsavory characters.
This case involves the abduction, rape and murder of a little girl who lived in a trailer park. When children are abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered, it’s a crime most of us cannot begin to comprehend. Usually the offender is a male with a disturbing criminal history. In this case, the crime against the young victim is horrific and has a disturbing twist. The victim’s kidnapper, rapist and murderer, was a woman.
Tracy, California – March 27 2009 – Skipping home from school, 8-year-old Sandra Cantu stopped at a few trailers in Orchard Estates Mobile Homes, looking for playmates in her trailer park populated by about 100 people. She continued along past a few trailers towards home. Residents of the park knew and trusted one another. It was a very close-knit community – or so it seemed.
Hours after Sandra left school, her mother Maria worried when she didn’t return home for dinner. By 8:00 p.m. she went looking for her little girl to no avail. Just before 8:00 p.m. Maria called police reporting her child as missing. Statistics have proven that a child is most likely to be murdered within the first three hours after an abduction. Police arrived right away.
Sandra lived with her mother, grandparents and three older siblings, including a sister named Maria. Everyone had been home that afternoon but the only witness was a surveillance camera outside the home. It recorded Sandra’s movements outside the trailer at 4:00 p.m. She wore a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt and black leggings. At first Sandra’s father was interviewed by police but he had no involvement with the family and was quickly ruled out. People hoped that at the worst she had simply gotten lost. It was a faint hope.
By dawn the following day, volunteers searched the neighbourhood. A police unit searched the area but it was as though Sandra had disappeared. No one found the little girl. An urgent bulletin was issued to the FBI. They rushed to Tracy to take information. People wanted to know what the chances were that Sandra was still alive. By now the odds against her were 97%. The FBI focused on the 3% chance that she was still safe.
Sandra was a beguiling, charismatic little girl who was very popular in the neighbourhood. Everyone opened their doors to the little brunette with the engaging smile. This made it more difficult to find likely suspects. Every trailer had to be investigated. All vehicles were searched in the area. A neighbour named Melissa Huckaby informed Maria that a large suitcase was stolen from her property. Police and FBI became even more concerned.
FBI zeroed in on predominantly adult males but the profile was hypothetical with the exception that Sandra’s abductor knew her well. So far there was no crime scene. The abductor either lived in the trailer park or had visited it on previous occasions. The media interviewed people and placed Sandra’s pictures on television bulletins. Sandra became Tracy’s child.
Eventually a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt was found. However it wasn’t the right size to be Sandra’s. The camera footage was reviewed 50 times by the Chief of Tracy police. She noticed that Sandra was heading home in the camera then abruptly turned away, as if someone had called her. Investigators comprised a list of sex offenders in the park and discovered it was shockingly long. There were sexual deviants and people on parole living in the park. However that didn’t mean there were no other sexual deviants: these were merely the offenders who were listed with the police.
A man who had approached Sandra two years earlier at the pool became a suspect. He had brushed her hair and kissed her on the lips. He had no prior record but oddly, he told police he had sexual fantasies about girls who were 9 and 10 years old.
The park manager had confronted an unfamiliar ice cream truck vendor on the day Sandra went missing. The truck was new and the manager ordered the driver to leave. He was added to the suspect list. By nightfall there were no solid leads.
Hours later a hysterical woman, who turned out to be Huckaby, ran to police screaming she had “found something.” Near the mailboxes investigators found a note stating “Cantu is in a pond in stolen luggage thrown in water onn Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road.” Police were suspicious about the note. It appeared to have deliberate misspellings. Someone was camouflaging their handwriting. However police had to follow the lead. The pond was used for dairy sewage from a nearby farm and it was impossible for divers to search.
The woman who reported finding the note, Melissa Huckaby, was the same neighbour who had reported her luggage as stolen the day Sandra went missing. Huckaby told police she was especially alarmed when the note stated the child was inside her suitcase, because it was large enough to hold a child. Huckaby, 28, was a friend of the family raising a 5-year-old girl. The little girl was Sandra’s best friend. Huckaby was a schoolteacher in the community. Her grandfather, Lane Lawless (irony)was a pastor for the local church. One of the first things Huckaby texted to her grandmother, Connie Lawless, after Sandra went missing was the question of whether the girl was sexually molested. “I see they say it’s a crime scene. I hope she wasn’t sexually assaulted.”Police began to dig a little further.
Huckaby’s alibi was that she was in her grandfather’s church, Clover Road Baptist Church, decorating the Sunday school room. Agents searched the woman’s car and found a blue sticky note. The handwriting stated Bacchetti, Whitehall and water. In Huckaby’s messy bedroom, in the nightstand beside her bed, police found a notebook with the same paper as the blue note. Handwriting matched the found note.
Days passed. Huckaby became even more involved with the search for Sandra. It seemed she couldn’t do enough to help. She informed police about another suspicious neighbour. She told police she went to his house now and then to “hang out.” The neighbour was a sexual deviant who once drugged a 7-year-old child. He assisted the child’s mother in taking the child to the hospital. As soon as police arrived, he left the hospital abruptly.
Soon after the disclosure a peculiar occurrence happened. A stepfather and his stepson volunteer photos they had of Sandra on their cell phones. They admitted Sandra had been in their bedroom. The men have a stuffed animal they use to masturbate. Seriously. How gross is that?
Police administered polygraph tests. They began with the man who had kissed Sandra at the local pool. He passed. The suspicious neighbour also passed the test but he had no alibi. The stepson and stepfather with photos of Sandra produced disturbing results. They both failed. You would think they were the culprits, wouldn’t you? No wonder polygraph results cannot be used in court.
Soon after authorities discovered Sandra’s body inside Huckaby’s suitcase in the water near the dairy farm the note had indicated. The San Joaquin coroner found Sandra curled into the fetal position. She was fully clothed. She was drugged with a powerful sedative and sexually assaulted with an object. Then she was smothered before being dressed and put in the pond.
Maria Cantu wailed and screamed when police told her Sandra was dead. She would never be the same. Police were also devastated. Many of them had their own children. Prior to the discovery of the body, Huckaby wasn’t a prime suspect based on her gender. “She wasn’t really a top priority,” an investigator said. They were “focusing on all these guys in the trailer park.” Huckaby now became the prime suspect but they weren’t able to interview her. Hockley had attempted suicide by swallowing razor blades and was hospitalized. Police interviewed her family. They discovered Huckaby had a record for petty theft. Two arson fires had occurred in the house where Huckaby used to live.
Huckaby was mentally unstable; she had bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, suffered from anxiety and often attempted to overdose on drugs. She had psychologically attacked roommates on prior occasions and was known to cut herself. Once when Huckaby had given a glass of juice to a little girl in the trailer park, the child became drowsy and began falling down. Tests revealed she had been sedated athough Huckaby denied harming her and charges weren’t filed.
A marine came forward and told police he had seen Huckaby where Sandra was found. Investigators got a warrant to search Huckaby’s grandfather’s church. They sought the object Huckaby used to sexually assault the little girl. They found a bent, aluminum rolling pin with a red smudge on it. On April 10, 2009, within five days of her release from hospital, Huckaby’s daughter and grandparents abandoned the trailer park. Police bugged Huckaby’s phone. Incredibly, Huckaby contacted Sandra’s sister Maria and asked her if she would like to come over to play with her daughter.
Detectives raced to Huckaby’s house and discovered a little girl who wasn’t Maria. Police convinced Huckaby to attend the police station for an interview. Unconcerned, Huckaby did so. After five hours of interrogation, Huckaby broke down and insisted Sandra’s death was an accident and that “she just died.” It had been a misguided game of hide and sick with Huckaby’s daughter. Sandra chose to hide in the suitcase but Huckaby forgot and drove the car with the suitcase to the church where she began working. She stated she returned to her car and found Sandra alive inside the suitcase. Sandra looked pale so then “I killed her.” In reality Huckaby taken Sandra inside the church where she drugged, sexually assaulted, beat and smothered the child. She disposed of the body in the pond and drove home. The blood on the rolling pin was tested and found to be Sandra’s.
The family was told the truth. They were betrayed and devastated. Sandra’s murder had been carefully premeditated. Investigators discovered that Huckaby had saved an article on her computer about a grandfather who had murdered a child and placed the body in a suitcase. On the day of little Sandra’s murder Huckaby lured her into her car by asking her if she would like to decorate the church. She drugged the child into unconsciousness. By 5:00 p.m., Sandra was dead.
May 10 2010 – Huckaby took a plea deal to avoid the death sentence for the kidnap and murder of Sandra Chantu but the charge of rape was dropped. Huckaby would never admit why she killed Sandra Chantu. She denied raping her.
“She did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her,” Huckaby said in court to Maria. “I’m asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness. I can’t imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me.”
An emotional aspect tends to be involved in a case of rape by a female. It might have been telling that the article Huckaby saved on her computer involved a grandfather who killed his grandchild. Perhaps there was incest between Huckaby and her grandfather when Huckaby had been a child and she had been unable to defend herself.
.It’s possible Huckaby simply wanted attention as evidenced through the drug overdoses and suicide attempt. She certainly got it. Oprah Winfrey interviewed her from prison. Little Sandra walked off camera in the trailer park and Huckaby walked onto it after her conviction.