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Sexual charges possible in Tracy

Sandra Cantu
Sandra Cantu

TRACY -- In a case already laden with gut-wrenching details, the murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu took another turn Monday when prosecutors said she may have been raped before she was killed and her body stuffed in a suitcase.

Melissa Huckaby, a 28-year-old neighbor of the Cantu family, is to be arraigned today on charges that she kidnapped and murdered the Tracy girl.

Huckaby, whose 5-year-old daughter often played with Sandra, might face special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, and murder in the course of a kidnapping, said San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau.

Himelblau told The Associated Press on Monday that his office was considering the special circumstances.

If convicted of any of the special circumstances, Huckaby would be eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without parole, Himelblau said.

Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman would not confirm Monday that his agency's investigation revealed sexual assault.

If such a charge is filed, Sandra's killing would become an extreme anomaly.

Just 2.4 percent of homicides are committed by females against females, U.S. Department of Justice data show, and only 6.4 percent of homicides by female killers involve sex.

Only 1.3 percent of homicides with female victims are carried out by neighbors.

"This is extraordinarily rare," said Professor Floyd Feeney, who teaches criminal law at the University of California at Davis School of Law.

In the end, it might be a case that defies understanding, he said. "There are a certain number of homicide cases that are just wild and crazy in ways that are not easy to explain."

Ruth Jones, a law professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said there are several aspects of the case that depart from the norm. For example, most children who suffer sexual assault at the hands of women are much younger than Sandra. Women who engage in kidnapping or sexual assault usually act as an accomplice to a man, she said.

On Monday, Sheneman reiterated that the investigation has produced just one suspect: Huckaby.

"If there had been other people involved before, during or after, they would have been taken into custody," Sheneman said. "We only arrested one person."

If Huckaby acted alone, Jones said, "that's pretty extraordinary."

Until police or prosecutors release more details about what happened to Sandra, it's hard to say how unusual the case is.

"At this point, I just have a raised eyebrow," Jones said.

Police continued to keep quiet on the details that led to Huckaby's arrest.

Huckaby lived with her grandparents, five doors from Sandra and her mother and grandparents in Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park. Huckaby taught preschool at nearby Clover Road Baptist Church, where her grandfather Clifford Lane Lawless is the pastor.

More details emerged Monday about Huckaby's past.

After attending high school in Orange County, Huckaby spent time in Southern California and Tracy.

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 ordered to undergo 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.

According to The Associated Press, Huckaby filed for bankruptcy in May 2003, when she was 22 and pregnant. She listed just more than $5,000 in assets and more than $26,000 in debts.

She owed more than $17,000 in medical expenses, including two debts to ambulance services and $10,000 to a Tracy hospital, The Associated Press reported. She earned $10,525 in 2002 while working at a grocery store.

In 2004, she left the market and about that time married and had the daughter with whom Sandra played. She soon divorced.

Huckaby is being held without bail at the San Joaquin County Jail. She is under observation and is not being allowed visitors.

A public service for Sandra is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at West High School, 1775 W. Lowell Ave., Tracy.

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