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Los Angeles Times

Tracy woman faces charges of kidnapping, raping and killing girl, 8

The Los Angeles Times, By Alexandra Zavis, April 15, 2009

Melissa Huckaby - female sex offender  rapist

Melissa Huckaby, 28, cries during her arraignment in which she's charged with murder with the special circumstances of kidnapping, rape with a foreign object and lewd or lascivious conduct with a child.

With distraught members of the suspect's and victim's families present, a judge continues Melissa Huckaby's arraignment to April 24. She is being held in the death a neighbor girl, Sandra Cantu.

Reporting from Stockton -- Pale and struggling to hold back tears, a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher appeared in court for the first time Tuesday to face accusations of kidnapping, raping and killing an 8-year-old Central Valley girl.

Melissa Huckaby, who was wearing a red prison jumpsuit with her hands and feet cuffed, appeared disoriented when she was ushered into the packed courtroom and faced a wall of TV camera crews, photographers and reporters.

Her lip quivered and she squeezed her eyes shut when San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard Vlavianos read the charge: murder with the special circumstances of kidnapping, rape with a foreign object and lewd or lascivious conduct with a child. Huckaby did not enter a plea. She spoke only when the judge asked if she wished to be represented by the public defender's office.

"Yes," she whispered.

If convicted of the murder charge and any of the special circumstances, she could face a death sentence or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dist. Atty. James Willett said he has not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

The proceedings lasted less than 10 minutes. At the request of the public defender, Ellen Schwarzenberg, who represented Huckaby in a previous petty theft case, the arraignment was continued until April 24. Schwarzenberg also requested that the families of Huckaby and the 8-year-old victim be ordered not to discuss the case with the media. Prosecutors did not object, and Vlavianos said the decision would be made by his colleague, Judge Terrence Van Oss, who will preside over future hearings.

The death of Sandra Cantu, whose remains were found in a suitcase that farmworkers pulled from an irrigation pond 10 days after she disappeared March 27, has shocked and angered her home town of Tracy, about 60 miles east of San Francisco.

Huckaby lived with her grandfather, the pastor of the Clover Road Baptist Church, five doors down from Sandra's family at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy. Her daughter was Sandra's playmate.

Security was unusually tight at Tuesday's hearing in nearby Stockton, with at least a dozen bailiffs to maintain order in the courtroom.

Members of both families were present but sat on opposite sides of the courtroom and avoided contact. Some of Sandra's supporters wore T-shirts bearing her image. The girl's aunt and uncle had tears in their eyes as they listened to the accusations. Huckaby's father was also tearing up as he hustled out of court with three relatives. Both families refused to talk to journalists.

Sandra's distraught father, who is separated from her mother, later told reporters that he was given the wrong time for the hearing and arrived too late. The police have not said where and how Sandra was killed, but have indicated that it was not long after she was last seen on surveillance footage, skipping down a street in the mobile home park.

After Tuesday's hearing, plain-clothed investigators returned to Huckaby's home and the nearby Clover Road Baptist Church to execute Read More ..arch warrants, but declined to say what they were looking for.

At a news briefing, Police Sgt. Tony Sheneman appealed to any members of the public who are worried that their children might have had inappropriate contact with Huckaby to contact the Tracy Police Department.