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'Unanswered questions' remain in Cantu killing

The evidence against her mounted, but Melissa Huckaby stuck to her story as police questioned her: She had nothing to do with the abduction, rape and murder of a Calif. girl.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The evidence against her mounted, but Melissa Huckaby stuck to her story as police questioned her in April 2009: She had nothing to do with the abduction, rape and murder of an 8-year-old neighbor girl.

"She's the type of person that thought she could always explain her way out of situations," Tracy Police Det. Nate Cogburn told the grand jury that would charge Huckaby in Sandra Cantu's death. "And that was clearly what she thought she was going to do in this case."

More than 1,800 pages of grand jury transcripts and other documents were released Friday, shedding some light on the young Sunday school teacher who eventually pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murdering her daughter's playmate. Huckaby, 29, has never revealed her motive and investigators have been at a loss to explain why she did it.

"There are so many unanswered questions that we will never know," prosecutor Thomas Testa said.

What emerges from the documents is a portrait of a depressed woman with a troubled past and a penchant for cutting herself, her family said.

'Calm, calculating mind'
According to a probation report, she described her childhood as "kind of rough" and said she was raped by a police officer when she was 19. She said she was diagnosed as bipolar and suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy, testified that Sandra's killer showed a "calm, calculating mind at work."

The way the body of 8-year-old victim was placed in the suitcase after the killing showed the work was likely premeditated, Omalu said during the July 2009 hearings. He testified that Sandra suffered mightily before she died of suffocation and was undoubtedly sexually assaulted.

"This was not something heat of the moment," Omalu said.

That calculating mind also on display the night of March 28, 2009, when Sandra was still missing and neighbors held a candlelight vigil in the mobile home community where Huckaby and Sandra lived.

Hannah Montana slippers
During the vigil, a hyperventilating and tearful Huckaby ran up to investigators clutching a misspelled note she claimed to have found wedged in a nearby wall, according to the transcripts. The note said Sandra had been "stolin" and dumped in a nearby pond.

The girl, clad in a Hello Kitty T-shirt and Hannah Montana slippers, was indeed found stuffed in a suitcase submerged in the pond. It turned out that Huckaby wrote the letter, prosecutors said.

Two days before the suitcase containing Sandra's body was pulled from an irrigation pond, Huckaby checked herself into a hospital after swallowing a razor blade.

The documents showed Huckaby told investigators she accidentally swallowed the blade while sleepwalking. Prosecutor Testa contended the action showed the "consciousness of guilt."

Police quickly zeroed in on Huckaby as the prime suspect after Sandra's body was found.

Still, she kept up her innocence claim.

"Why would someone want to take her," Huckaby told police from her hospital bed. "Why do people hurt other people...because they are sick in their heads...disgusting."

She even tried to bamboozle her grandmother during her hospital stay.

"I hope she wasn't sexually assaulted," she said in a text message to the grandmother on April 6, 2009.

She still equivocated once she was arrested and confronted with overwhelming evidence that she committed the murders, including video surveillance, a witness spotting her in the remote area where the body was found and numerous inconsistencies in her interviews with investigators.

Game gone wrong?
Her new story was that Sandra perished during a game of hide-and-go-seek gone wrong.

According to court documents, she finally told investigators that she urged Sandra to climb into the suitcase during the game with her daughter. Huckaby said she zipped Sandra into the suitcase and then forgot about her until it was too late, finding a lifeless body when she finally returned.

She said she "freaked out" and dumped her body in the irrigation pond.

Huckaby still maintains she did not sexually molest Sandra. The doctor who performed the autopsy testified otherwise in the transcripts released Friday. But a judge Friday barred release of the actual autopsy report at the family's request.

The Associated Press, Bay Area News Group and The Record of Stockton had been seeking the release of the grand jury transcripts and other documents in the case.

Sandra's uncle, Joe Chavez, later blasted the news organizations because such records could include the autopsy report, saying that would violate the family's privacy.

"They should be ashamed of themselves!" Chavez said. "This is irresponsible journalism run amok."

The news organizations said it is in the public interest to release the information so the plea deal and the court's determination about sentencing can be evaluated.