Calif. woman pleads guilty in Sandra Cantu murder

A local Sunday school teacher's guilty plea in the killing of an 8-year-old girl has brought relief to residents of this small California city, even as disturbing questions remained - including how, where and why the girl was murdered.

Hours after 29-year-old Melissa Huckaby admitted on Monday to killing Sandra Cantu, police stood guard at the entrance to the mobile home park where both the victim and the defendant lived.

Evelyn McClelland, 61, a neighborhood resident for 26 years, believed the plea in last year's killing will bring some measure of peace to the victim's family and to a Northern California community striving to overcome the mistrust that descended after the girl's disappearance.

"The children are back outside playing again. This all closes a very painful chapter in Tracy," McClelland said.

A 10-day search after Sandra - a playmate of Huckaby's daughter - went missing in March 2009 ended when her body was found stuffed in a black suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond a few miles from the mobile home park.

Huckaby was arrested less than a week later after telling a reporter that the suitcase that contained Sandra's body was hers, but it had been stolen out of her driveway the day Sandra disappeared.

Her guilty plea in San Joaquin County Superior Court to first-degree murder with a special circumstance of kidnapping came in a deal with prosecutors.

All other charges - including two involving rape and lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 - were dropped under the agreement, according to court spokeswoman Sharon Morris. Huckaby would have been eligible for the death penalty if convicted in a jury trial.

Morris said Huckaby now faces 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole when she is sentenced next month.

Susan Alley, 50, another mobile park resident, was also relieved to hear Monday's news. She said neighbors only recently have started to feel comfortable around each other again.

"It's gotten better out here. Nobody trusted each other," Alley said.

At Melville S. Jacobson Elementary School, where Sandra was a second-grader, Principal Cindy Sasser showed off a school garden and playground dedicated to Sandra last fall.

"It has been a long ordeal and hopefully this plea will bring some peace," Sasser said.

Huckaby also had been charged with previously drugging a 7-year-old girl and a 37-year-old man, whom police believe she had been dating. Those charges also were dropped in the plea deal.

During Monday's hearing, Judge Linda Lofthus maintained a gag order imposed in the case last year, according to Tracy police spokesman Tony Sheneman. That means details of evidence against Huckaby remain sparse, as they have since she was arrested.

Attorneys in the case did not return calls seeking comment. Angie Chavez, Sandra's aunt and the spokeswoman for the Cantu family, declined comment Monday, citing the gag order. Members of Huckaby's family did not immediately respond to messages.

Investigators have never said how, why or where Sandra was killed. Autopsy results have remained sealed. Criminologists said at the time of her arrest that allegations that a mother acting alone raped and murdered a child not her own were nearly unprecedented in recent U.S. history.

During the Monday morning hearing, Huckaby calmly answered the judge's questions about whether she was in a sound state of mind and understood that she was entering a guilty plea, said courtroom artist Vicki Behringer.

"She was just really relaxed and pleasant. She looked better than I had seen her in a long time," said Behringer, who has attended every court hearing in the case.

At several prior hearings, including her arraignment, Huckaby appeared in court tearful and disheveled.

Prosecutors wanted the judge to ask more questions to ensure the defense could not backpedal later by claiming Huckaby was not in her right mind, but the judge was satisfied with Huckaby's answers, Behringer said.

Steven Clark, a Bay Area defense attorney and former prosecutor who attended several of Huckaby's pretrial hearings, said Monday that prosecutors and the defense likely worked for months to reach a plea agreement.

"This community was so outraged by this murder that I think a death verdict was a real possibility," he said.

Clark said that the guilty plea also spares Sandra's family the years of appeals and retrials that would have likely followed a death penalty verdict.

"They now know that Melissa Huckaby will never get out of jail again and that the gruesome details of Sandra's murder will not be played out on a national stage," Clark said. "This way they are assured, because of the brutal nature of this crime, they won't have to relive it over and over again in a courtroom."

Wohlsen reported from San Francisco.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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