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06.14.10

A Child Murderer’s Final Mystery

A California courtroom heard chilling details of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu’s murder at her killer’s sentencing, but Jennifer Wadsworth—who helped crack the case—says we may never know why Melissa Huckaby did it.

For the first time since the murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, the public finally got to hear all the nauseating details leading up to her killing. But one question remains unanswered: Why did 29-year-old single mother and Sunday-school teacher Melissa Huckaby suffocate the girl, who lived a few doors down from her in Tracy, California?

Even Huckaby said she doesn’t know what to make of her actions. Addressing Sandra’s mother at her sentencing Monday to life in prison without parole, Huckaby said, “I wish that I could give you an explanation for what happened.” But, she added, “I still cannot understand why I did what I did.”

On Monday, Tracy police said Huckaby has been diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia.

Jennifer Wadsworth: New Charges—Huckaby Drugged People Monday’s proceedings, though they brought so much else to light, failed to bring closure for someone like me, who has followed the case since Sandra’s disappearance March 27, 2009, and spoke to Huckaby in the hours leading up to her arrest. Although we had some idea about the timeline leading up to Cantu's death, we didn’t know exactly how Huckaby committed the crime. We didn’t know that Huckaby was spotted driving her black SUV straight to the murder scene—her grandparents’ church—minutes after surveillance footage recorded Sandra skipping past her family’s home toward the woman who would kidnap and kill her. We didn’t know that Sandra was strangled with a torn piece of cloth, drugged with prescription sedatives, battered with a rolling pin, and cut on her lip, scraped on her elbow, and bruised around her genitalia, despite Huckaby’s statement in court Monday that she didn’t sexually molest Sandra or make her suffer.

When Sandra’s disappearance caught the nation’s interest more than a year ago, one of the first questions other reporters asked me was why someone would kill their own child’s playmate. I said I thought we may never know, but most likely Sandra was the victim of a senseless crime by a person diagnosed with some measure of mental illness. On Monday, Tracy police said Huckaby has been diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia, and court records show that a year before killing Sandra she was sent to a court psychiatrist after stealing from a Target store in Tracy.

In Tracy, a dairy town of 80,000 some 60 miles east of San Francisco, many have said they are thankful for the quick end to a case that could have dragged on for years and cost as much as $7 million in appeals, according to Sacramento prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Bill Portonova, who spoke to the city’s local publication, The Tracy Press, about a month ago. That was around the time Huckaby entered a surprise guilty plea both to avoid the death penalty and avoid conviction for rape, child molestation, and drugging her ex-boyfriend and a 7-year-old neighbor girl. Though Huckaby said in court Monday that Sandra died without suffering and that she was not raped, information released by the San Joaquin County District Attorney disclosing some details of Sandra’s injuries and autopsy says otherwise. It’s one more reason I think Huckaby is a pathological liar.

She lied to me when I spoke to her the day before her arrest about her missing suitcase. She lied to police that someone stole it. She lied when she gave police a note that read, “Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase in water on Bacchetti Rd. and Whitehall Rd. witness,” and said she happened across it, even though police say she wrote it herself. And I think she lied in court Monday when she said Sandra was not raped and that she did not suffer.

“It’s hard for me to believe that Sandra Cantu did not suffer,” said prosecutor Thomas Testa on Monday afternoon, noting what he called strong evidence of sexual assault and of Sandra being force-fed drugs and alcohol, more of the minutiae of Sandra’s murder made public after a gag order was lifted Monday.

The transcripts from Huckaby’s grand jury trial will be unsealed, against the Cantu family’s wishes, at 11 a.m. Friday, which should sate the curiosity of journalists and others in the community still reeling from the bizarre killing. Maybe some of the questions Huckaby wanted to avoid answering at the trial will be revealed to the public and we’ll know what she tried to hide under all the lies.

“From the day Sandra has died, I have lived with the consequences of what I’ve done,” Huckaby said during her tearful statement in court on Monday morning.

Huckaby has the rest of her life to contemplate the reason for and the results of her actions. Until she comes up with some answers, many of us will continue to wonder, along with her, why she did it.

Jennifer Wadsworth, a former Tracy Press reporter, is a multimedia news editor for AOL's Patch.com in San Ramon, California, where she covers schools, crime, and politics.