STOCKTON — Wednesday at 3:54 p.m. marked four years since 8-year-old Sandra Cantu last was seen alive in a haunting surveillance video.
The Tracy girl had been missing for more than a week when a farmworker found a suitcase in an irrigation pond in 2009. Her body was inside.
Stacy Dittrich, a deputy sheriff in Ohio, remembers watching the dreadful news on TV.
"Oh, God, I hope they get that sick monster," Dittrich recalled saying, thinking the perpetrator must be a male sexual predator and a resident of the mobile home park where Sandra lived, conclusions molded by her years of investigating sex crimes.
Just then, her 13-year-old daughter walked by. "She turned around and said, 'How do you know it's a he?' " Dittrich remembered her daughter muttering, "I think you're wrong."
Little did Dittrich know her daughter was spot on.
The revelation that Sandra's killer and rapist was a 28-year-old woman shocked the nation and drew national focus on Tracy.
Sandra's neighbor, Melissa Huckaby, a Sunday school teacher, pleaded guilty to committing the crimes against Sandra and is serving a life sentence at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla.
Dittrich, author of several crime books and an Ohio veteran law enforcement officer, chronicles the story behind Sandra's disappearance in her latest book, "Searching for Sandra," recently published by Crime Street Press.
She reveals some new information, including:
Two weeks from the date of Sandra's disappearance, investigators said they went to the trailer park in a panic, believing Huckaby was about to attempt to kill Sandra's older sister, 11-year-old Miranda. Huckaby had texted Sandra's mother, Maria Chavez, asking her to send over Miranda.
Huckaby said she thought about leaving the suitcase in front of Sandra's home so her mother would find it.
Two days before the murder, Huckaby searched the Internet for waterway locations in the area. She also searched California's list of sex offenders immediately after. The searches suggest that the killing was no accident.
Using court transcripts, news clips and interviews with involved parties, Dittrich exposes a twisted woman with a history of bizarre, attention-grabbing behavior.
As police scrutinized residents of the Orchard Estate Mobile Home Park for weeks, there was no shortage of suspects, from the neighbor believed to have once inappropriately kissed Sandra to two other neighbors later found with child pornography.
Kept popping up
But one person kept placing herself in the middle of the investigation.
"I looked at her as that obnoxious neighbor," Dittrich said.
About 24 hours into the disappearance, Huckaby flagged down investigators to show them a note she claimed to have found. It read: "Cantu. Locked in stolin suitcase thrown in water onn Bacchetti Rd. and Whitehall Rd."
In the days that followed, she told multiple people her Eddie Bauer suitcase had been stolen from in front of her home.
Tracy police Detective Tim Bauer told Dittrich that investigators placed a wiretap on Huckaby's phone and heard a conversation in which Huckaby brought up the same tale of the stolen suitcase with a Tracy Press reporter.
Downed razor blades
Huckaby just had been released from Tracy Sutter Hospital for swallowing razor blades. Investigators paid her a visit there.
Circumstantial evidence was abundant. Security cameras from area businesses captured Huckaby's car heading to the crime scenes. And a couple who encountered Huckaby at the pond where Sandra's body had been found later identified her.
Dittrich includes parts of Huckaby's confession.
Although Huckaby's reason for committing such a gruesome act on an innocent child is not known, Dittrich presents theories from those close to the case.
Maybe she had an attraction to little girls. Was she jealous of Sandra? She might have wanted to set up her ex-boyfriend, Daniel Plowman, whom she had drugged days before with the same psychiatric medication found in Sandra's system.
Prosecutor Thomas Testa has suggested that Huckaby has Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a mental illness in which people make up illnesses and hurt themselves or their children to get reactions from others.
Huckaby's daughter, whom Sandra played with, attended school only 50 percent of the time because of reported illness.
Dittrich portrays examples in which she says Huckaby set up unsuspecting friends to be arrested an ex-boyfriend whom she accused of stalking her and a roommate who felt she was set up in an arson case.
A more intense downward spiral is described in the weeks leading up to Sandra's kidnapping and murder, including the drugging of another 7-year-old girl two months before.
For Testa, Sandra's murder was the most tragic of all the cases he has prosecuted.
"If you saw the video of Sandra skipping and jumping in the air as if she doesn't have a care in the world she's so sweet and good-natured. She has her finger rolling her hair," Testa said. "Then you realize within minutes she was being killed.
"It's just heart-wrenching."
Dittrich's book details how an entire community was affected by a little girl. Countless volunteers came together in the search for Sandra. They came by the thousands to her memorial service as well.
"The amount of people that came out for her services was pretty awe-striking," Dittrich said. "I just don't know that you would see that (in other cases)."
It was such a painful case that Dittrich said she had reservations about writing a book. "It was a sensitive story," she said.
Dittrich was working on a compilation of the nation's worst child abductions when her publisher told her they wanted an entire book on Sandra's case.
Gag order at first
Dittrich didn't want the book to come across as exploitive or gruesome. And there was a court gag order that initially prevented the release of information.
The order eventually was lifted. Sandra's family, however, was against the idea of a book.
Autopsy reports remain sealed at the request of the family.
Dittrich ultimately saw the cautionary aspect of the story and felt it was important to examine the case that had parents rethinking whom they can trust. The case eclipsed law enforcement theories on profiling a child abductor as typically a white man in his 40s.
"This was really an eye-opener in terms of keeping our kids safe," Dittrich said.