The reporter who helped crack the Sandra Cantu murder case reveals that alleged killer Melissa Huckaby may have been raped 10 years ago, leading to a downward spiral. Plus, did she act alone?
Twenty-eight-year-old Melissa Huckaby just didn’t have it in her to rape and kill a little girl, her friends say. The single mother of a 5-year-old child loved kids. She adored her daughter. She volunteered as a Sunday-school teacher at her grandfather’s church. She watched the girl she’s accused of killing—8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, California—play with her own daughter. She professed faith in God. And she told me hours before her arrest that news of Sandra’s death saddened her deeply.
“She used to play with my daughter,” Huckaby told me on April 10, just hours before police took her in for questioning. “It’s just so sad. My daughter is so sad.”
A letter dated May 20, 1999, just weeks before Huckaby graduated, read: “I just wasn’t meant to live, I guess. No one wants me or even cares if I live or not, and I’m just in the way, anyways.”
Later that day, about 12 hours after our conversation, police arrested Huckaby after an emotional five-hour interrogation on charges that she kidnapped, raped, and murdered little Sandra. Police from the Central Valley town say Huckaby then stuffed Sandra’s tiny body into a black suitcase—clothed in the same pink Hello Kitty T-shirt and Hannah Montana flip-flops she wore the day she disappeared—and dumped it into a manure-filled dairy pond just outside of town.
As charged, the troubled young mother now faces the death penalty or life without possibility of parole. She’s due back in court on Friday for further arraignment. Her defense wants to exhume Sandra’s body to double-check the genital trauma the coroner reportedly found. (And some investigators, believing that Huckaby did not act alone, have hinted but would not confirm that there could be another arrest.)
So, if the allegations are true, what could have pushed Melissa Huckaby to such a dark place?
A few women who have known Huckaby for much of her life provided some insight last week that I think explains a lot about her. A policeman had raped her 10 years ago, she confessed to her friends. Huckaby claimed a Cypress, California, cop handcuffed the then-18-year-old, shoved her into the backseat of his car, and assaulted her. The story, corroborated separately by a few friends who knew Huckaby at different times in her life, told me they had heard this same account from her. Orange County records show that Huckaby also told her story to police, who exonerated the officer after a brief investigation and closed the case. That summer, Huckaby wore long-sleeved shirts, despite the desert heat, to cover up the self-inflicted slashes on her wrists. She tried to kill herself at least once.
A friend Huckaby met in vocational school told me last week that she remembers vividly the moment Melissa told her about the alleged rape. Huckaby’s face turned red. It wrinkled as she tried and failed to fight back tears. “It was the first time I had seen her angry,” said the friend, also a 28-year-old single mother. “That’s sort of how I knew it must be true—because she’s normally so laid-back, but this just triggered something just to talk about it.”
Even if there was no rape, some event clearly unraveled Huckaby’s senior year of high school. Her grades plummeted. She was kicked off the dance team. She told her best friend that she had a tough time getting along with her family, especially her mother. Her first serious boyfriend moved away—it broke her heart. Then her best friend moved away to college.
Huckaby continued to struggle with depression and had a tough time getting her life together after graduation, said her father, 45-year-old Brian Lawless, a church-choir singer and air-conditioning technician from Southern California. But nothing in her character or biography would suggest that she’s capable of sexual homicide, he told reporters on Easter Sunday, two days after his daughter’s arrest.
Though her father says Huckaby’s emotional troubles began soon after high school, private letters she wrote to friends suggest the earlier origin. Huckaby wrote to her best friend in her senior year at Brea-Olinda High School in Orange County that she wanted to kill herself, and that she had had those thoughts since the sixth grade. A letter dated May 20, 1999, just weeks before Huckaby graduated, read: “I just wasn’t meant to live, I guess. No one wants me or even cares if I live or not, and I’m just in the way, anyways.” If true, Huckaby’s rape story marks one of the first in a series of abusive relationships in her life. And there’s a paper trail to prove it. Public records reveal a woman who claimed abuse at the hands of an ex-boyfriend and ex-husband, who filed for bankruptcy four years out of high school, who racked up enormous medical bills and who was twice arrested for petty theft.
She skipped back and forth over the years from Northern California to Los Angeles County, near where she grew up and where her parents still live.
Huckaby eventually moved to Northern California shortly after high school and rented an apartment in Tracy, where her grandparents live and where they led a tiny fundamentalist Baptist church—the scene of Sandra Cantu’s killing.
Huckaby soon began dating a man named Josh Palmer. In 2002, she took out a restraining order against him, claiming that he stalked her and threatened to hurt her grandfather. A year later, she married Johnny Huckaby, a man two years younger than herself. She had filed for bankruptcy-court protection just eight days before the wedding. Four months later, she gave birth more than a month before her due date to her only child, daughter Madison. In 2004, the couple legally separated. They divorced in 2005 after she accused him of child abduction, alcoholism, and physical abuse—charges he denied.
Huckaby tried to make it on her own after the divorce. She lived in Los Angeles County at the time and enrolled in Bryman College, a vocational school where she studied medical billing. Friends and family said the young mother barely survived financially. She struggled to hold down a job and raise her daughter, a bright blond, blue-eyed but sickly girl.
Police arrested and jailed her in 2006 for petty theft. Shortly afterward, she moved back to Tracy with her grandparents to get her life together. Things seemed to be falling into place for a while after the move, family and friends said. She spent most of her time with her daughter. She went to church with her grandparents. But last November, she tried to steal something from the local Target store. Police arrested her and she pleaded no contest to felony burglary/robbery and misdemeanor petty theft in the same San Joaquin County Superior Court where she now stands accused of rape and murder. Her arrest for property theft coincided with the time her grandparents allowed her to teach Sunday school at their church.
Before Huckaby entered her pleas in January, two court-appointed psychiatrists examined her and deemed her fit for trial. A judge sentenced her to a three-year probation on the condition that she periodically check in with her doctor and a social worker in the mental-health court. Transcripts and court minutes indicate she had made progress since her January 9 arraignment. They show she was being treated for an undisclosed mental-health condition, but that she lived up to all the agreements of her probation. Prosecutors told her that they’d drop the charges if she completed the mental-health program, designed to keep the mentally ill out of jail or prison, to stay employed, and to prevent suicide. Her apparent progress ended on April 3, when she missed a hearing.
Farmworkers found Sandra Cantu’s body three days later, the same day Huckaby went to the hospital for what she described to me as “internal bleeding.”
When we spoke, I asked her to elaborate, but she refused.
“Did you try to kill yourself?” I asked over the phone, the day after she left the hospital intensive-care unit, where she had reportedly swallowed razor blades. I knew police had watched her for a while during her stay.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied, politely, but uncomfortably. “Internal bleeding. I’m OK now.”
Jennifer Wadsworth is a reporter for the Tracy Press in Tracy, California, where she writes about schools, politics, and crime.