The family of a 7-year-old girl allegedly abducted in January by suspected murderer-rapist Melissa Huckaby says they believe 8-year-old Sandra Cantu would be alive today if police had done their job months ago. Lora Polk, 41 says local police should have done more when her daughter returned high on muscle relaxants after an afternoon at the park with the 28-year-old Sunday-school teacher.
Polk’s daughter told her that Huckaby took her to Wendy’s and gave her water that “tasted like medicine.” The little girl could barely remember anything that day.
Polk claims that Huckaby took her daughter on January 17 without permission. She said Huckaby returned four hours later, after she reported her daughter missing, and after police had combed the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy, California, where they live. The little girl seemed fine at first, Polk said. She was just emotional and seemed tired.
Dinnertime rolled around by the time Huckaby brought back the girl, so Polk said she took off for McDonald’s to buy her daughter a Happy Meal. But in the car, the girl started to nod off, she started to slump and she slurred her words.
“She was not acting right,” said Polk. “It was really scaring me.”
Polk quickly headed for the emergency room at the local hospital, she said this morning. Doctors rushed the girl inside. Polk waited for hours before police showed up and told her they had found muscle relaxants in the girl’s bloodstream.
Police initially accused Polk of drugging her own daughter, she claimed. They said they smelled alcohol on her breath. Polk admitted she had drunk some beer that night. “It was the end of the day,” said Polk, who admittedly has troubles in her own past. (She has a history of drug abuse and lost a daughter in 1994 to Child Protective Services. Polk hasn’t seen her daughter since, but said she’s trying to get her life back together. She also has a 22-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter.) Police then asked Polk if they could search her home.
“Of course, I let them,” she said. The single mother lives with her grandparents in the same mobile-home park where Sandra lived before she was killed, and where Huckaby lived with her own grandparents before her April 10 arrest. The police didn’t find anything.
Child Protective Services took Polk’s daughter early in the morning on January 18 and kept her overnight. Polk walked the few miles home at 2 in the morning, around the same time Huckaby said police went to her house for questioning. Records show they never served a search warrant related to the incident.
Authorities released Polk’s daughter the next morning. That’s when she started asking her daughter about what happened the day before. Polk’s daughter told her that Huckaby took her to Wendy’s and gave her water that “tasted like medicine.” The little girl could barely remember anything that day. She remembered Huckaby took her to three parks with her own daughter, 5-year-old Madison. She remembered nothing of her emergency-room visit.
Polk and her grandfather, Brett McDonald, said they’ve kept the little girl inside the house since then, paranoid about her safety. Polk confronted Huckaby and told her that she never wanted to talk to her again.
She also said that when she heard about Sandra Cantu’s disappearance, they immediately told police to question Hucakby. When they heard that Sandra’s body was found encased in a black suitcase on April 6, they said the first thing they though of was that it could have been their own little girl.
“I started crying,” Polk said. So did her daughter, a shy second-grader at the same school Sandra attended. “I just told her that Sandra’s in heaven now, that she’s safe.” It wasn’t until Friday last week—months after Huckaby allegedly took Polk’s little girl—that police tested Polk’s daughter for sexual assault. They found nothing. Investigators talked to the little girl again last week, but she could barely remember anything from the day Huckaby reportedly took her.
Police apologized to the Polk family last week. They said they had no probable cause to arrest anyone back then, and that they’ll do what they can now. Detectives said they never dismissed the January incident, they just suspended it. It’s now part of an investigation into Sandra Cantu’s murder.
Huckaby has been held in solitary confinement without bail in the San Joaquin County Jail on charges that she kidnapped, raped, and killed Sandra Cantu. She’s due in court for further arraignment on Friday.
Meanwhile, families in Tracy, including the family of the 7-year-old, wonder why the January 17 incident ended without an arrest. It’s a felony to give a child a controlled substance, according to the California penal code. And police had a doctor’s report, a missing person report from earlier in the day and witnesses to put a case together. Someone could have been charged. But police failed to serve a search warrant at Hucakby’s home. If they did, one wonders what they might have found. Muscle relaxants perhaps?
If it’s true that Tracy police could have done more, that they could have arrested Huckaby in January on charges that she force-fed a child a controlled substance, that means the woman would have already been behind bars. It means Sandra Cantu might be alive today.
A gag order issued on Tuesday prevents police or anyone officially involved to talk about the case. But the public wants some answers. They want to know why a little girl found high on drugs after Huckaby returned her wasn’t enough probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion to press charges.
It’s a sick thought, but it’s crossed a lot of people’s minds: Do Tracy police have blood on their hands?
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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.