“As police held a news conference downtown that night, FBI agents locked down Clover Road Baptist Church. They searched the mobile home where Huckaby lived with her grandparents, Pastor Lane Lawless and his wife, Connie, and Huckaby’s 5-year-old daughter. They searched her Kia Sportage with the tinted back windows.
Huckaby tracked the news from her bed at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital. She had checked herself in two days earlier, claiming she accidentally swallowed an X-acto knife blade while sleepwalking. Police watched her room.
She had called the mobile home park office shortly after Sandra’s disappearance to report her suitcase missing. She seemed to tell everybody about the theft — police, her grandparents, nurses, and even Sandra’s mother, in a text message. That night, she sent other texts to her grandmother:
“They are having an 8:15 news briefing on the suitcase. That was fast. I hope they didn’t find anything.”
Later, another text to Connie Lawless: “I hope she wasn’t sexually assaulted.
Melissa Huckaby, a face of evil
“The suitcase, she said, “kinda looked like mine,” according to Bauer. “Man, it kinda looks like I had something to do with it.” But she stuck to her story. In a kitchen drawer at the church, investigators found a metal rolling pin with a bent handle and a red-brown smudge. Church members used the rolling pin to make unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper. It would test positive for Sandra’s DNA.”
“I asked her, ‘Why would someone take her?’ ” the detective told the grand jury.
“And she responded, ‘Why do people hurt other people? Because they are sick in their head, disgusting.’ ”
Connie Lawless described Huckaby, now 29, as a loner who suffered depression and had a history of cutting herself on her ankles. Diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic, she kept a bottle of prescribed benzodiazepine, the highly potent anti-anxiety drug known by the brand name Xanax. She kept other drugs, too: Adderall for pep; Paroxetine to combat depression; Furosemide, a diuretic used for heart problems and hypertension.
In January 2009, a nearby parent accused Huckaby of taking her child without permission and drugging her. The girl came home loopy. Tests found benzodiazepine in her blood. A Tracy officer questioned Huckaby, but the girl’s mother had drug issues, and Huckaby acted indignant. There was no pro.”
“Divorced and unemployed, Huckaby spent her days mostly in the mobile home park and taught Sunday school at the church a half-block away. At home, she took care of her daughter. Sandra would drop by to play, sometimes 10 to 15 times a day, Huckaby told police.
“I don’t know if you know this, but Sandra was my daughter’s best friend,” Huckaby told them.
Sandra was a neighborhood sprite and the mobile home park was her playground. She felt at ease within its gates, but under home rules she would only leave with an adult she trusted. Sandra trusted Huckaby.
At 2:45 p.m. March 27, Sandra showed up to play, but Huckaby turned her away. Sandra went to play on swings at another girl’s house.
At 3:54 p.m., a video shows Sandra skipping down the street, then turning. Then — nothi.”
“She also didn’t match the profile. FBI experts pegged a white male, 25 to 40, with a criminal history of sexual assault or child pornography. Someone who abducts for sexual purposes, then kills.
We were “focusing on all these guys in the trailer park,” Bauer said.
Huckaby helped steer them to a few men in the neighborhood.
The night Sandra went missing, Huckaby told police she went to the church about 4:50 or 5 p.m., came back about 6:30 and stayed home all night. The next day, during a vigil for Sandra, she rushed up to police and FBI agents “very agitated, crying, hyperventilating.” She said she kicked over a note on the ground: “Cantu locked in stolin suitcase thrown in water onn Bacchetti Rd. & Whitehall Rd witness,” it read, with numerous misspellings.
Suddenly, she became calm, completely relaxed. That was odd, thought FBI Special Agent Michael Conrad, a child abduction expert.
“We also commented on “… 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,” he told the grand jury.
Even Lane Lawless, Huckaby’s grandfather, was leery. “I don’t know about being suspicious. It looked “… very strange,” he testified.
The next day, a Sunday, police conducted their first major search — 250 officers from 13 agencies. They concentrated on the irrigation ponds in the area and sent divers into the nearby Delta waters. “You can’t dive those ponds. Those ponds are cow manure and (urine). There’s no visibility,” Bauer said.
They would interview Huckaby on April 1, then again April 3. But men remained the focus.”
“Omalu finished his autopsy report at home, at 5 a.m. April 7. Sandra had been beaten, sexually assaulted, smothered to death, redressed and carefully crammed into the case, in a “perfect fetal position.” The brutal sexual assault gave no evidence of semen or another body. No sign of a man.
“Look for a cylindrical object at the scene,” he told investigators.