Murder of Sandra Cantu

Sandra Renee Cantu (March 8, 2001 – March 27, 2009) was an American girl who gained national attention after she disappeared from Tracy, California, on March 27, 2009. Her body was discovered ten days later inside a suitcase in a local irrigation pond.[2] On April 10, police arrested a local woman, 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby (born February 23, 1981), and charged her with the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Cantu. Huckaby pleaded guilty to the kidnapping and murder of Cantu and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2010.[3]

Sandra Cantu
Sandra Renee Cantu

(2001-03-08)March 8, 2001
DiedMarch 27, 2009(2009-03-27) (aged 8)[1]
Tracy, California, U.S.
Cause of deathHomicidal asphyxiation
Body discoveredSan Joaquin County, California, U.S.
Resting placeTracy, California, U.S.
Known forMurder victim
Parent(s)Maria Chavez (mother)
Daniel Cantu (father)
Melissa Huckaby
Melissa Lawless

(1981-02-23) February 23, 1981 (age 43)
Criminal statusIn prison
Conviction(s)Kidnapping and murder
Criminal penaltyLife imprisonment without parole

Disappearance and body discovery


Sandra Renee Cantu, eight at the time of her death, lived at Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy, California,[4] with her mother, grandparents and three older siblings.[5] She was a second grade student at Melville S. Jacobson Elementary School.[6] On Friday, March 27, 2009, Cantu played at a friend's house after school until approximately 4:00 p.m., when she returned home. She later left home saying that she was going to play at another friend's house. When she did not return for dinner, she was reported missing to the local police at 7:53 p.m.[5]

Police collected footage recorded by a surveillance camera near the family home. The footage, which showed Cantu crossing the street in front of her home before moving out of frame, was played on national news stations. A search of the mobile home complex was conducted without results and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was called in to assist on the case. Over the course of the weekend of March 28–29, police dogs, equestrian teams, all-terrain vehicles and a helicopter from the California Highway Patrol were brought in to search for Cantu. A $22,000 reward was offered for information in the case.[5]

One early suspect was a local man who was witnessed kissing Cantu on the lips two years earlier at a local swimming pool, when she was six. He was interviewed and cleared of any involvement.[5][7]

On April 6, a suitcase containing Cantu's body was found during routine draining of an irrigation pond.[8] An autopsy established that Cantu had been beaten and sexually abused with a foreign object before being smothered, while toxicology results showed that she had ingested Alprazolam.[9][10]



The profile that FBI experts assigned to the case was a white male aged between 25 and 40 with a criminal history of sexual assault or child pornography. Upon finding Cantu's body, police became suspicious of a number of coincidences regarding Melissa Huckaby, a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher who also lived in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park and whose daughter was a friend of Cantu.[11] On the day Cantu disappeared, Huckaby sent a text to Cantu's mother that said "tell the police that I had something stolen today around 4 p.m. I don't know if that makes a difference or not".[12]

The next day, during a vigil for Cantu, Huckaby approached police and FBI agents to report that she had found a note on the ground. They reported she was "very agitated, crying, hyperventilating". The note read: "Cantu locked in stolin [sic] suitcase. Thrown in water onn [sic] Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road. Witness."[13] Huckaby had a history of mental health problems, including borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Prior to the discovery of the body, Huckaby was not a prime suspect. She was interviewed on multiple occasions, but her behavior was assumed to be attention-seeking, rather than evidence of involvement.[11]

After the body was found in the suitcase Huckaby had reported stolen, investigators began taking a closer look at Huckaby's behavior. They took notice of "the unusual fact that a woman who reported losing a suitcase should be the one woman out of everyone in this complex who should happen to find a note that reports that the stolen suitcase was used to hide the child's body".[11] The police got another lead when a retired U.S. Marine and his wife notified police that they had spotted Huckaby and her SUV at the irrigation pond on their property at Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on March 27. They reportedly recognized Huckaby on television. The witness described her as "distracted and hurried", and she told him, "I just had to pee real quick" when he saw her.[9][11] Police continued to review the footage from the surveillance camera installed outside Cantu's home, which showed Cantu walking in the direction of Huckaby's residence at 3:54 p.m. on March 27. The camera had captured Huckaby's SUV driving in the opposite direction eight minutes later. At approximately the same time, Huckaby called the trailer park manager to report that a suitcase made by the manufacturer Eddie Bauer had been stolen from her trailer. Eighty-five minutes later, a surveillance camera located outside the parking lot of the church at which Huckaby taught Sunday school captured her driving away from the church. Thirty minutes after that, she was captured returning to the church. It was during this 30-minute time frame that she was spotted at the irrigation pond.[10] FBI agents searched the church and collected a rolling pin from the kitchen which reportedly had a "bloody smudge" on it as well as a bent handle, authorities said. The rolling pin tested positive for Cantu's DNA.[9]

On April 10, 2009, Huckaby was arrested and charged with the murder of Cantu.[14][15] She received further charges regarding the druggings of a 7-year-old girl and a 37-year-old man; these charges were dropped as part of a plea bargain in which Huckaby pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder and kidnapping of Cantu in order to avoid the death penalty. Huckaby was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.[16][10][17] At her sentencing, Huckaby said, "I still cannot understand why I did what I did. This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life." The prosecutor in the case speculated that she killed Cantu for attention.

See also



  1. ^ "Crying mom charged with cantu murder, rape :/". Fox News. Associated Press. April 14, 2009. Retrieved 2014-03-04.
  2. ^ "Former Teacher Confesses to Murder of Girl, 8". ABC News. June 14, 2010. Retrieved August 2, 2017.
  3. ^ Ferran, Lee; Netter, Sarah (May 10, 2010). "Melissa Huckaby Pleads Guilty to Sandra Cantu's Murder". ABC News.
  4. ^ Hernandez, Jodi; Preuitt • •, Lori (2010-06-14). "New Documents Give Gruesome Details on Cantu's Death". NBC Bay Area. Retrieved 2023-12-19.
  5. ^ a b c d Netter, Sarah (March 31, 2009). "The Frantic Search for Sandra Cantu". ABC News.
  6. ^ "California woman pleads guilty in Sandra Cantu murder". Times Reporter. 2010-05-10. Archived from the original on 2021-06-15. Retrieved 2021-06-14.
  7. ^ "FBI re-questions man they say admits to kissing missing California girl". Fox News. April 3, 2009.
  8. ^ Netter, Sarah (April 7, 2009). "Sandra Cantu found in a suitcase; police closing in on a suspect". ABC News.
  9. ^ a b c Lee, Henry K. (June 15, 2010). "Tracy girl's killer apologizes, gets life term". San Francisco Gate.
  10. ^ a b c Goldman, Russell (June 14, 2010). "Melissa Huckaby Used Noose to Kill 8-Year-old Sandra Cantu". ABC News.
  11. ^ a b c d Simerman, John; Casmi, Sophia (June 19, 2010). "A calculated killing: The case against Melissa Huckaby". San Jose Mercury News. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved March 3, 2014.
  12. ^ Breuer, Howard (June 27, 2010). "INSIDE STORY: Clues to Why Melissa Huckaby Murdered an 8-Year-Old Girl". People.
  13. ^ Hernandez, Jodi; Preuitt, Lori (14 June 2010). "New Documents Give Gruesome Details on Cantu's Death". NBC Bay Area. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  14. ^ Vives, Ruben; Rong-Gong II, Lin (April 12, 2009). "Sunday School teacher charged with kidnapping, murder". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. Retrieved 1 October 2017.
  15. ^ Fagan, Kevin; Allday, Erin (12 April 2009). "Woman, 28, jailed in Sandra Cantu slaying". San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, California: Hearst Communications, Inc. Retrieved 1 October 2017.
  16. ^ "Teacher guilty of murdering 8-year-old; other charges dropped". Boston Globe. Associated Press. May 11, 2010.
  17. ^ Justin, Lafferty (10 May 2010). "Update: Huckaby's plea brings sudden end to case". Tracy Press. Tracy, California: Tank Town Media. Retrieved 1 October 2017.