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05.23.09

New Charges: Melissa Huckaby Drugged People

The Sandra Cantu murder case takes another twist, reports Jennifer Wadsworth—who helped crack the case—as her alleged killer is charged with drugging a 7-year-old and a man she may have dated.

A shackled Melissa Huckaby appeared in court for a few minutes on Friday, facing new charges that she poisoned a man and a 7-year-old girl.

The 28-year-old woman already stands accused of kidnapping, raping, and murdering 8-year-old Tracy, California, girl Sandra Cantu, who went missing on March 27 before farmworkers 10 days later found her lifeless body stuffed in a suitcase. On Thursday, the story took a turn for the strange when prosecutors added allegations that Huckaby also drugged two people: a man who may have been her ex-boyfriend, and one of her 5-year-old daughter’s playmates. Together, the litany of felonies could lock up Huckaby for life or land her on death row if she’s convicted.

It’s hard to know what to make of the new allegations. A sweeping gag order prevents anyone officially involved in the case from talking about it to the public and the media. But it does beg the question of whether police botched an earlier investigation into whether Huckaby had drugged a young child as many as two-and-a-half months before Sandra Cantu’s murder. Police said they had too little evidence, but prosecutors apparently have enough to press formal charges.

Polk hugged her daughter, then took her to get some dinner at a local fast-food joint. But on the way there, the girl started slumping over.

What we now know is that prosecutors believe Huckaby on March 2 drugged a 36-year-old man named Daniel Plowman, who lives in Hayward, a town about 40 miles west of Tracy. It was late that night when she allegedly mixed “a harmful substance with food or drink with the intent that the same be taken by a human being,” according to the amended criminal complaint file this week. Hours later, at about 1:30 a.m. the next day, Plowman was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. He had pulled his car into the drive-through of a McDonald’s about five minutes away from Huckaby’s mobile home. He ordered some food and paid for it just before passing out on the wheel, according to an employee who called police about the incident. When he came to, still disoriented, he drove into a wall. Police showed up and towed his gold-colored Ford Tempo. They took him into custody, but later released him and never pressed charges. I couldn’t track Plowman down for comment, but I heard from neighbors that he dated Huckaby for a while.

Two months earlier, Huckaby allegedly took her 5-year-old daughter Madison’s playmate out “to the park.” They were gone for four hours, the girl’s mother, Lora Polk, 41, told me. So Polk called the police, who searched everywhere, but the search ended when Huckaby appeared back at Polk’s home and dropped the girl off.

Relieved, Polk hugged her daughter, then took her to get some dinner at a local fast-food joint. But on the way there, the girl started slumping over. She slurred her words.

“Something wasn’t right,” Polk said. “So I rushed her to the hospital.”

Polk nervously waited in the lobby at the nearby hospital for doctors to come back with the results. About five hours after Polk admitted her daughter, she says doctors told her they found benzodiazepine coursing through the little girl’s body. They called the police, who questioned Polk, who accused her of supplying the pills to her daughter but evidently ended the night without an arrest.

Huckaby had said that the cops questioned her in connection to that case. And Polk offered for detectives to search her own home. But police said they just couldn’t form a strong enough case to file charges against anyone. Polk said they called her up after Sandra Cantu’s disappearance to express their regrets that they couldn’t have resolved the mysterious drugging incident back then. Cops didn’t even test the 7-year-old girl for signs of sexual assault until after Huckaby’s arrest—months after the suspect allegedly took the child, who said Huckaby gave her water that “tasted funny,” “like medicine,” said her mother.

This week, it became clear that whatever evidence prosecutors found against Huckaby in regards to the drugging incident was enough to file an amended complaint

In court on Friday, Huckaby appeared calm. She smiled once and said “yes” when the judge asked if she understood why the arraignment was delayed until June 12. Huckaby’s public defender Sam Behar asked for more time to review fresh evidence, including some collected from a personal computer, some from a silver Cadillac, and about 1,000 pages of transcripts pertaining to the case.

Some of Sandra Cantu’s family looked on, clad in black T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of the smiling fifth-grader and white letters that spelled “Justice for Sandra.” A bailiff made them turn their shirts inside out, to avoid breaking a state law that bans signs and messages in the courtroom supporting one side or the other in a court case.

Huckaby, clad in her red jailhouse jumpsuit, shuffled out just a few minutes after she entered, stealing a glance from her family, who sat toward the front of the tiny courtroom. Huckaby’s demeanor in court Friday—her third appearance since her April 10 arrest—came once again as a stark contrast to her initial arraignment last month, when she broke down crying, wrinkling her face to unsuccessfully fight back tears when the judge read the words “murder” and “rape.”

The emotionally troubled single mother was then on suicide watch at the San Joaquin County Jail because she tried to kill herself days before her arrest. The day word got out that police got their hands on her black Eddie Bauer suitcase April 6, Huckaby swallowed three razor blades, her ex-husband later told an Orange County judge. She was rushed to the hospital, where she later told me that doctors treated her for internal bleeding. I pressed for more information the day after she was released—incidentally, just hours before her arrest—but she refused to elaborate. Today, she’s still locked up in solitary confinement.

And as new evidence and new charges further delay the case, questions about motive and method remain unanswered. The presiding judge has a history of sealing documents related to the case, in part, she said, to avoid angering the public. But at least one person is already angry. Polk, a weathered single mom who admittedly struggles with drug and alcohol problems, said police should have done more when they first heard about how her daughter got drugged. She said she wants to know what stopped them. Other people may be wondering the same thing.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a reporter for the Tracy Press in Tracy, California, where she writes about schools, politics, and crime.