It was a brutal, gut-wrenching case to begin with, and the damning evidence just keeps rolling in. Melissa Huckaby is now charged with having drugged her daughter’s playmate and poisoning an ex-boyfriend just months before the rape and murder of Sandra Cantu.
Since that case first hit the news, there’s been widespread disbelief that a crime so dreadful could’ve happened in a town so small. “This just doesn’t happen here! It’s a quiet little town,” said a shocked Tracy resident when the news first broke of the 8-year-old Sandra Cantu’s rape and murder at the alleged hands of neighbor Melissa Huckaby. That sentiment was echoed nationwide, and was a large part of what made a local case a national headline.
The only thing all those Tracy, California, surveillance cameras did was provide haunting images of Sandra Cantu's last moments on earth, as she skipped happily in her Hello Kitty shirt toward Huckaby's trailer.
Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, people stubbornly cling to the belief that big, horrific crimes don’t happen in nice, little towns. That mind-set might explain why the police didn’t press harder on Huckaby when they first investigated the drugging of the 7-year-old girl back in January. As I predicted from the moment this case broke, there were signs of trouble all along. Consciously or not, people don’t like the idea that even small towns provide no safe haven from depravity.
But collective safety demands that we all let go of the comforting myth, and accept a bitter truth: Children are just as frequently kidnapped, raped, and murdered in small towns as they are in big cities, and on a per capita basis may even be more at risk.
There's a statistical explanation for the myth, which I'll detail below. But anecdotally, just run through the most notorious child rape/murders of the past 20 years. Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old who was snatched out of her own home at knifepoint back in 1993? Petaluma, Calfornia. Megan Kanka, the 7-year-old whose 1994 murder, at the hands of a neighbor, gave us Megan’s Law? Hamilton Township, New Jersey. Twelve-year-old Ashley Pond and her friend Miranda Gaddis, both raped and murdered by neighbor Ward Weaver? Oregon City, Oregon. Samantha Runnion, the 5-year-old rape/murder victim who was kidnapped while playing outside her house? Stanton, California.
The small-town myth has two roots. First, the emotional. “It’s the need to feel in control," says a noted family psychologist. "People want to believe that there are things they can do to keep their kids safe, and choosing where to live is at the top of the list." Hollywood feeds this. “We created our own version of a mythic Mayberry," a Hollywood writer for the popular family drama 7th Heaven told me, "because that’s what viewers said they wanted.”
Then, there are the aforementioned statistics, which provide a false sense of security. Parents who feel that small towns are safer for their kids are right in some respects. A small town tends to be homogenous—not necessarily in a racial sense (though that may be true as well), but socioeconomically—which alone reduces the crime rate because, as any veteran cop will tell you, the vast majority of crimes have to do with money. In a big city, where the “haves” live cheek by jowl with the “have-nots,” propinquity alone causes crime, and if you add the number of property crimes that stem from drug use, the number goes even higher. In a small town, as one police officer from a small desert community south of Los Angeles explains, "everyone feels like they know each other, and people steal from a stranger quicker than they’ll steal from a friend. Plus, because most folks are in the same boat as you are, what’s the point?”
But note that all these trends center around robbery, burglary, and other property-centered offenses. They have no application to sexual predators, who can be anywhere, and as we’ve seen, can look like anyone. The number of cases in which the murderer lived next door, across the street, or down the block far outstrips those in which the perpetrator was a stranger.
Unfortunately, despite headlines and statistics, the small-town myth survives even as the children die, because, as the family psychologist put it, “We want to believe there’s something we can do to make sure these killers never get near our children. And so we set up surveillance cameras, we have the Amber Alert, we put more police officers on the street. These are all good ideas, but obviously, they don’t and can’t always work.”
In small towns, they almost never do. The parents wait too long to call. As a Los Angeles prosecutor who’s handled child abduction cases points out, “You don’t run to call 9-1-1 when your kid is out playing in the neighborhood and she’s ten minutes late for dinner.” Then a more neighborly police force is less likely to sound the alarm before alerting their constituents—in the Cantu case, two days went by before the public was asked for information. And such delays generally make everything else irrelevant. “These predators act on impulse and they don’t linger with the victim," a veteran Los Angeles detective explains. " By the time they’ve got the child, it’s only a matter of minutes—not hours—before it’s too late.” And technology isn't the answer either. The only thing all those Tracy, California surveillance cameras did was provide haunting images of Sandra Cantu's last moments on Earth, as she skipped happily in her "Hello Kitty" shirt towards Huckaby's trailer.
If anything, small-town dwellers are an easier target for child predators, precisely because there is a sense that everyone “knows” everyone else and no one wants to believe that the quiet guy next door who always buys raffle tickets for the high-school marching band is a rapist or murderer. Willful blindness is easier.
Why? Because when a stranger gives off a bad vibe, a mom won’t have any need to deny what she feels—she’ll pull little Jimmy or Susie away in a heartbeat. But the entire process turns upside down when the man on the playground is Mark, the school-bus driver. So even if her intuition tells her something isn’t “right” about him, she’ll push the feeling down, and so unintentionally imperil her children. That’s why in some ways, a small town is even more dangerous than the big, stranger-filled cities.
This doesn't mean we scare the hell out of kids with gruesome stories of the monster lurking at the end of the cul de sac. It just means we don’t turn off our intuition because we live in a small town, and we don’t blind our eyes to signs of trouble because someone is a neighbor, a friend, or even a family member. It means we pay attention to how our children react to others, whether they’re male or female, young or old, Sunday-school teachers or mechanics. In sum, it means we don’t rely on police or metal detectors or cameras to do the job that only we can do: intuit. And we don't hold onto the idea that "it can't happen here." It can.
Marcia Clark, the former L.A. district attorney who prosecuted the O.J. Simpson murder case, has since served a regular legal television commentator. She has written a bestselling book, Without a Doubt, served as a columnist for Justice Magazine and is finishing her debut crime novel.