Twenty-eight-year-old murder suspect Melissa Huckaby may have taken advantage of another child months before allegedly raping and killing eight-year-old Sandra Cantu in late March. It’s a story that begs the question: Given that previous knowledge, to what extent and for how long did police overlook Huckaby as a suspect because she’s a woman?
According to a report from a Tracy, California, police dispatchers’ log, a woman in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park reported her daughter missing on January 7. The log notes a neighbor’s granddaughter drove the 7-year-old girl away to a city park in a purple Kia Sportage and came back four hours later. Melissa Huckaby drives a purple Kia Sportage and has lived with her grandparents in that mobile home park, which Sandra Cantu also called home before her gruesome slaying.
A doctor had found benzodiazepines—muscle relaxants—coursing through the girl’s 45-pound body. Police filed a report, but made no arrests.
By the time Huckaby brought the dark hair, blue-eyed girl home, police had already canvassed the streets, knocked on doors and searched the mobile home park’s pool area. The little girl went back to her mother, and that’s the end of the first call.
That same night, someone called police again about the missing child, this time from the local hospital’s emergency room. A doctor had found benzodiazepines—muscle relaxants—coursing through the girl’s 45-pound body. Police filed a report, but made no arrests.
The details of the log indicate that police knew about Huckaby long before farmhands found Sandra’s body encased in a waterproof Eddie Bauer suitcase on April 6. Tracy police refused to talk about the report because they said it’s tied to the investigation into Sandra’s murder. Huckaby, they say, is the only suspect.
Police had no reason to arrest Huckaby after that January report about a missing child, said Tracy police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman after the story was publicized. If they found probable cause, he said, they would already have taken her into custody. But now the department has a grisly murder case on its hands. And family of the 7-year-old girl Huckaby allegedly took earlier in the year say police too quickly dismissed the earlier incident. They’re angry.
A reporter from a local TV news station asked Huckaby hours before her April 10 arrest if police had questioned her in connection to a report about a girl someone abducted, molested and drugged. Huckaby said that investigators had indeed talked to her about that.
The greater question is how much evidence did local police dismiss about Huckaby because of her sex? Police hinted that the drugged-up 7-year-old may have been force-fed the pills by a man who lives nearby. But Huckaby was the one who drove the girl away and brought her back. A few investigators have also hinted that there may be another arrest in the Cantu case—that perhaps Huckaby allegedly committed her crimes with a man’s help.
But how much of that is a twisted sexist prejudice? How much of that speculation is colored by the assumption that a woman is somehow incapable of committing the gruesome acts police say Huckaby did? Just because it’s statistically improbable, doesn’t mean it never happened. Every case is exceptional in some sense – this one especially so. Residents have overwhelmed the Tracy police department with calls about how they must be wrong—the killer’s a man, and he must still be out there. Even investigators close to the case initially doubted the story evidence reportedly told: That a woman not only killed, but somehow raped Sandra Cantu with a foreign object, possibly even after her death.
The January report that alleges Huckaby abducted another child only strengthens the case against her.
If Huckaby is convicted, FBI and other agencies will study her case for its statistical rarity, police said. Lots of people in Tracy believe that if the allegations are true, then someone must have helped Huckaby. No Sunday school teacher and mother with a girl of her own would do such disgusting things to her daughter’s playmate, many say. Studies say that Huckaby just doesn’t match the usual profile of a woman who commits a sex crime. Only one percent of people arrested for rape are women, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. And most of those women act as accomplices with men, the report says.
But police maintain that Huckaby kidnapped, raped and killed Sandra on her own. Adding to the peculiarity of the case is the lack of motive. Even after the emotional five-hour interrogation that led to her arrest, Huckaby offered no clues to investigators about what drove her to the violent act alleged against her. But with a history of arrests, abuse and mental healthy problems, there was apparently no motive. Huckaby allegedly killing Sandra Cantu could have been an accident or an impulse. Police refuse to say. But admittedly, there’s a lot even they don’t know.
Xtra Insight: Was Melissa Huckaby Raped? by Jennifer Wadsworth
Xtra Insight: Do Women Rape? By Marcia Clark
Xtra Insight: The Mystery of Melissa Huckaby by Demian Bulwa
Jennifer Wadsworth is a reporter for the Tracy Press in Tracy, California, where she writes about schools, politics, and crime.