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06.18.10

Melissa Huckaby's Murder Motive

The prosecutor who put the killer of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu behind bars for life this week tells The Daily Beast's Jennifer Wadsworth his personal theory on why the Sunday school teacher did it.

The old courthouse is empty, its tiny courtroom locked, the benches vacant. In the hallways, cameras no longer jostle for position.

On Monday, Melissa Huckaby, the 29-year-old Sunday school teacher, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after admitting she killed Sandra Cantu, her 8-year-old neighbor.

Yet, the case isn’t closed.

At least not for Thomas Testa.

The 48-year-old San Joaquin prosecutor is haunted by the evidence he saw; and frustrated that the confession robbed him of the opportunity to interrogate Huckaby on the stand—to get inside the mind of a killer.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, the medical examiner in the case, said the way Sandra’s body had been arranged in a suitcase was proof of "a calm, calculating mind at work.”

In a lengthy interview with the Daily Beast, Testa for the first time offered his theories for a motive in this seemingly senseless case.

So what could possibly have led Huckaby to strangle the little girl who lived next door?

“I would say that Melissa was tempted by these girls,” says Testa. “And that when she got a hold of Sandra, she went a little too far. [Maybe] Sandra started saying she was going to tell her mom, and Melissa got scared and tried to silence her,” Testa says, noting that asphyxiation is a slow and painful way to die.

Grand jury transcripts, unsealed Friday afternoon, also offer insights into Huckaby, and her mental state at the time of the killing.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, the medical examiner in the case, said the way Sandra’s body had been arranged in a suitcase was proof of "a calm, calculating mind at work," according to the transcript.

The almost 2,000 pages of released documents suggest that after Sandra’s slaying, Huckaby lied, feigned emotions and tried to cover her tracks, as she talked to investigators and texted her grandmother, whom she lived with.

One of the first things Huckaby brought up after Sandra went missing was the question of whether the girl was sexually molested. “I see they say it’s a crime scene,” she texted her grandmother, Connie Lawless. “I hope she wasn’t sexually assaulted.”

Jennifer Wadsworth: A Child Murderer’s Final MysteryAnd just hours after Sandra’s disappearance, Huckaby breathlessly approached investigators, claiming to have stumbled across a note with a scribbled address of the pond where Sandra’s body was found.

Testa—who is tall and intense—says her demeanor led detectives to peg her as a suspect.

“She was too excited when she found it,” says Testa. “I think her attitude was abnormal, and gave her away, early on.” Whether she fabricated the note out of some type of pathological urge to insert herself into the investigation, however, is still unclear, says Testa.

Sandra went missing late in the afternoon on March 27 last year. Surveillance footage shows her skipping past her house and then, eight minutes later, sitting inside Huckaby's car as Huckaby drives to her grandparents' church down the street.

Investigators say they believe that Huckaby drugged Sandra and molested the girl with a rolling pin before strangling her and stuffing her small body, still clothed in a pink Hello Kitty T-shirt and Hannah Montana flip-flops, into a black Eddie Bauer suitcase.

Though she left the church crime scene a mess—blood splatters, blood-stained rolling pin, cut-up cord from the blinds used to tie the suitcase-turned-coffin—Huckaby apparently tried to make up stories, and went out of her way to point the finger at some of her neighbors in an attempt to sidetrack the cops.

The suitcase was later found in a pond north of town, near where a retired Marine and his wife had seen Huckaby.

Some have speculated that Huckaby suffers from mental problems while others have painted her as a pathological killer, someone calculating enough to try to cover her tracks. Still others say they believe that Huckaby is trying to protect another person, who raped and killed Sandra with Huckaby’s help, but left her to deal with the mess.

Testa says Huckaby's attempts to divert attention from herself show that she was sane. He also says he believes that Huckaby alone killed Sandra because she didn’t want the girl to report child molestation.

Huckaby’s plea bargain allowed her to dodge other charges, and may very well have saved her from a death sentence.

In court earlier this week, Huckaby broke down in sobs when photos of Sandra were shown in court. At the sentencing, she addressed Sandra’s mother, saying: “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.”

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.