A Sunday school teacher was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and killing her daughter’s 8-year-old playmate, Sandra Cantu of Tracy, Calif., after admitting to police that she owned the suitcase in which Sandra’s body was found, authorities said Saturday.
Melissa Chantel Huckaby, 28, the granddaughter of a pastor, was taken into custody late Friday night, about five hours after she drove herself to a police station for questioning, said Sgt. Tony Sheneman of the Tracy Police Department.
“I couldn’t begin to even theorize what her motive is,” Sheneman said at a news conference that was streamed live on the Internet. “The outcome alone is beyond explanation.”
Sandra’s mother, Maria Chavez, 41, was grief-stricken and in shock, said Angie Chavez, Sandra’s aunt.
“How could another mother do this to another child?” she said Maria Chavez had asked her.
A break in the investigation into Sandra’s death came after Huckaby gave an interview Friday to the Tracy Press, telling the newspaper that she had owned a large, black, rolling suitcase that she said was stolen March 27, the same day Sandra disappeared.
Huckaby’s description of her suitcase resembled the one that contained Sandra’s body, the newspaper reported.
Last Monday, farmworkers discovered the suitcase at a dairy farm irrigation pond about 2 1/2 miles north of the girl’s home. Inside, investigators found the dead child dressed in the same clothes she was last seen wearing -- a pink “Hello Kitty” T-shirt, black leggings and “Hannah Montana” flip-flops.
Huckaby’s interview with the local newspaper was inconsistent with what she had told investigators earlier, police said Saturday.
After reading the published report, investigators asked Huckaby to come to the police station for more questioning Friday night.
“She revealed enough information to us that we had probable cause to arrest her,” Sheneman said Saturday. “She admitted yesterday and to the Tracy Press that the suitcase was hers.”
Huckaby told the Tracy Press that she had packed the suitcase with supplies to spruce up her church classroom. But she said she forgot it, leaving it outside on her driveway at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park where she lived.
“There’s been a lot of speculation on the news about what happened to my suitcase,” Huckaby told the newspaper. “It’s not my granddad’s. It’s mine, and someone took it.”
According to the newspaper, Huckaby said she called police with the intention of reporting her missing suitcase, but decided to make a report online instead and hadn’t gotten around to it when police started questioning neighbors in the mobile home park about Sandra’s disappearance. She said she told police then that her suitcase had gone missing, the newspaper reported.
But before her interview Friday with the Tracy Press, police were not sure whether the suitcase belonged to Huckaby, Sheneman said.
As police questioned her Friday night, she was initially “calm, cool and collected,” Sheneman said. Then she “became very emotional, then was calm again and then became resigned to what was happening.”
Sheneman declined to disclose how or where Sandra was killed. There are no other suspects.
Huckaby, who is 5 feet 3 and weighs 125 pounds, was being held at the San Joaquin County jail and is not eligible for bail, police said.
“Nothing we can say can return Sandra to her family,” Sheneman said.
Investigators spoke to Sandra’s family at 2:15 a.m. Saturday, spending 45 minutes with them.
“They were in disbelief,” he said.
Sandra was “very close friends with” Huckaby’s 5-year-old daughter, Sheneman said. The two girls lived on the same street -- just five doors from each other -- and played frequently at Huckaby’s home.
Angie Chavez, Sandra’s aunt, said in a phone interview that she was happy that a suspect had been caught “but then shocked and in disbelief that it was a woman.” She said the family wants to know why Sandra was killed.
She said Sandra’s three older siblings -- two sisters, ages 20 and 11, and a brother, 15 -- were taking their sister’s death hard.
The usually talkative 11-year-old sister, she said, “has been quiet and crying a lot.”
Angie Chavez described Sandra as a spunky, giggly, cute second-grader at Melville S. Jacobson Elementary School who loved doing cartwheels and enjoyed reading children’s books aloud.
Police said autopsy results and warrants related to the case are sealed.
“There’s still a lot of work left to be done over the next several weeks to ensure that Ms. Huckaby pays for what she’s done,” Sheneman said.
By late Saturday, the road where Sandra had lived on the edge of a busy freeway was empty except for a crush of TV news trucks parked in front of Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park. A police car blocked the entrance.
Farther up the road, police tape had been removed from Clover Road Baptist Church and the plain, one-story building was shuttered.
According to public records, Huckaby lives with her grandfather, Clifford Lane Lawless, who is pastor of the church, which is just 500 yards from their home.
Her marital status was unclear Saturday.
“She spent an extraordinary amount of time” at the church, Sheneman said.
Police seized evidence from the church, but Sheneman declined to identify it. He said authorities had “significant details” on Huckaby’s criminal record but would not discuss them.
According to public records, Huckaby was convicted of felony property theft in Los Angeles County in November 2006.
She was born Melissa Chantel Lawless in 1981 in Orange County, according to public records.
Federal court records show that Melissa Chantel Lawless of Tracy filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003. She listed $5,200 in assets, including $3,000 in jewelry. Her debts totaled $26,300, which included thousands of dollars in medical bills and credit card expenses, according to the records.
Mary Jones of Livermore, Calif., who described herself as a longtime friend of the Lawless family, said she has known Huckaby since she was a little girl.
She expressed disbelief about news of her arrest and the allegations against her.
“That would shock me greatly, if it were true,” Jones said. “That’s not the Melissa I know.
“It doesn’t fit in with her or the family at all,” Jones said. “The family is basically Baptist, totally churchgoing folks.”
Jones said she received a card from Huckaby last Christmas but last spoke to her several years ago.
At the time, Huckaby was with her then-baby girl, Jones recalled.
“She was a doting mother,” Jones said. “She was taking good care of the baby.”
She recalled how Huckaby sang in the choir as a child at her parents’ church.
The arrest came 15 days after Sandra was reported missing. Hundreds of volunteers and search-and-rescue crews joined the search after the little girl with brown hair and brown eyes vanished March 27 from the mobile home park where she lived with her mother, siblings and grandparents.
Sandra’s disappearance shook the city of 78,000 in an agricultural area about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Sandra was last seen on a surveillance camera that caught her skipping down a street after a play date that Friday afternoon.
Sheneman said many in the community “wished us luck in getting the guy that did this, the monster, the man that would do this.
“Finding out, one, that it’s a woman that was responsible for Sandra’s kidnapping and murder and then finding out it’s a member of the community is another blow,” he said.
“Finding out that it is someone that Sandra’s family knew is double blow.
“Our community will start to heal at some point, but today’s going to be a very difficult day for everyone to be able to digest that.”
Times staff writers Robert J. Lopez, in Los Angeles, and Alexandra Zavis, in Tracy, and Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.