Melissa Huckaby, the neighbor of slain 8-year-old Tracy girl Sandra Cantu appeared in San Joaquin County Superior Court in Stockton to face charges that she murdered the girl.
In a courtroom packed with media and relatives of Huckaby and her alleged victim, the accused could be heard whimpering before charges against were read. Huckaby wore a red jail jumpsuit and had her hands shackled to her waist. Public defender Ellen Schwarzenberg stood at her side.
In addition to murder, prosecutors claim special circumstances of kidnapping, lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under age 14 and rape with a foreign object. If convicted of the special circumstances, Huckaby would be eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without parole, prosecutors have said.
Huckaby did not enter a plea.
Sandra disappeared March 27. She was last seen on a surveillance camera skipping outside the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy where she lived just five doors down from Huckaby. She played regularly with Huckaby's 5-year-old daughter.
A 10-day search by law enforcement and the community ended April 6, when farmworkers draining an irrigation pond a few miles from the mobile home complex found the suitcase that was later determined to contain Sandra's body.
Police have said Sandra was found wearing the same clothes she had on when she was last seen: a pink "Hello Kitty" T-shirt and black leggings. They have not said how, why or where she was killed, and the coroner's office has said autopsy results are pending.
Huckaby was arrested Friday, hours after she told a Tracy Press reporter that the suitcase was hers but it had been stolen the day Sandra went missing.
According to San Joaquin County Superior Court records, Huckaby was convicted of petty theft in January. She pleaded no contest to the charge, and prosecutors dropped a second-degree commercial burglary charge, records show.
Huckaby was sentenced to probation and was ordered to have mental health counseling.
It was her second petty theft conviction: Huckaby was convicted of the same crime in Los Angeles County in 2006, records show. Her sentence was not clear, other than probation.
Huckaby is being held without bail at the San Joaquin County jail. She has been under observation and is not being allowed visitors.