Monday, June 21, 2010

Sandra Cantu: Closure, But Many Unanswered Questions

by Stacy Dittrich

Sandra Cantu (left) died a horrific, slow, agonizing death, according to San Joaquin County Coroner Dr. Bennet Omalu. Melissa Huckaby’s shocking guilty plea on May 10th, and her sentencing on June 14th, finally ended the battle over a gag order that had been in place for more than a year. I felt somewhat relieved; I could resume writing my book on the case, tentatively titled Searching for Sandra. Actually, I've been on a brief hiatus from Women in Crime Ink, working furiously on this book. Immediately after Huckaby’s sentencing, the excruciating details of Sandra Cantu's death, which would nauseate any human being with a soul, were revealed in the almost 2,000-page grand jury transcripts.

On March 27, 2009, Sandra Cantu, eight years old, was last seen on surveillance video, skipping toward her home in Tracy, California. For the next 10 days, an exhaustive search ensued; national media captured every minute of it. On April 6, 2009, Sandra's body was found inside an Eddie Bauer suitcase in an irrigation pond just two miles from her home. On April 10, 2009, police arrested Santu's 28-year-old neighbor, Melissa Huckaby. Huckaby, a Sunday school teacher, was charged with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault with a foreign object. News analysts worldwide were mystified. Huckaby was a statistical anomaly.

Much of the argument in favor of the gag order was essentially that the gruesome details of the crime are unnecessary for public consumption. I agree with that—to an extent--and I'll refrain from writing about them here. However, I warn you, there are many aspects of this case that raised my eyebrows more than once, and some of it needs to be discussed. Therefore, continue reading at your own discretion, with warning of some graphic content.

I am simply going to break it down into key points and let you, the readers, formulate your own conclusions. I expect to take a significant amount of criticism for my points, but I'm writing what was factual testimony. Period. Let me stress, no matter how families conduct themselves, there is no parent on this earth who should have to endure the emotional trauma of losing a child. What I touch on below is sure to be controversial, but it needs to be addressed:

*Melissa Huckaby asked Sandra’s sister, 11-year-old Miranda, to babysit Huckaby's five-year-old daughter Madison while Huckaby took some items to the Clover Road Baptist Church. So Miranda actually stood by and unknowingly watched Huckaby load the suitcase containing Sandra into her SUV.

*On the night of Sandra’s disappearance, as police were searching, Huckaby sent Maria Chavez (Sandra's mother) a text message, asking her to tell police that Huckaby's suitcase had been stolen. Huckaby had already reported this to the park manager as she drove away from her trailer with Sandra. Maria Chavez had never received a text from Huckaby before and found it odd.

*The day after Sandra’s disappearance, Huckaby handed investigators a note that read: “Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase. Thrown in water on Whitehall and Bachchetti. (signed) Witness.”

*Twenty-four hours after Sandra’s disappearance, Huckaby sent Maria another text, asking if Miranda could spend the night with her. Maria allowed this. During her testimony, Maria testified that Miranda had stayed at Huckaby’s trailer before, so she didn’t find the offer unusual. But when Miranda testified, she said she had never once spent the night at Huckaby’s, and found the request odd. Miranda testified that Huckaby asked if the police had any “evidence or leads.” Huckaby (right) left that night and was not seen until the next afternoon; she claimed she had stomach pains and went to the hospital. It would clearly appear that Maria gave false testimony during grand jury testimony. Why?

*During the autopsy, Dr. Bennet Omalu said that it was likely that Sandra Cantu may have endured prior sexual abuse (Grand Jury Testimony_Page 363.) Family members claimed they were unaware of this.

*Sandra had been suffocated, strangled and sexually assaulted with a rolling pin. One end of the rolling pin held Sandra’s DNA, the other end mixed. Just assume Huckaby didn’t hold the rolling pin in her hands while she was holding Sandra down—that’s my opinion. (I added this so that if you haven’t by now, you can clearly see Huckaby as the sick and evil entity that she is.) Sandra had bruising on her back, indicative of being hit in the back—or held down.

*Dr. Omalu also testified that two puncture wounds on the left side of her head could have either been due to blunt force (her head hitting something) or, possibly, a kitchen fork police found. He couldn’t confirm this. Needless to say, one true fact he could confirm was that Sandra was alive when all these injuries occurred. We can only hope that the generic Valium (a benzodiazepine) in her system, or the rubbing alcohol that had been placed over her mouth, rendered her semi-conscious while she was enduring this horror. Mercifully, Sandra Cantu was not conscious, and most likely not alive, when she was placed in the water.

Now, on to the police investigation…

On January 17, 2009, a mother reported that Huckaby had taken her seven-year old without permission. After the child began acting “drunk,” she was taken to the hospital, where toxicology testing found a benzodiazepine (anti-anxiety medication) in her system.

According to San Joaquin County Prosecutor Tom Testa, “…mother is really upset and wants something done. But the police don't do anything because the mother is into drugs and she's from the wrong side of the tracks and Melissa speaks really well, Sunday school teacher, so on, so forth. And the officer, the detective who was investigating it, decides not to do anything about it, which still burns up the mother to this day. She is still upset that they didn't do anything about it. Well, the detective said, 'Well, we can't prove it,' so it never went anywhere, no one was ever arrested. The mother just made sure her daughter never hung out with Melissa again or Melissa's children."

On March 2, 2009, Huckaby provides her ex-boyfriend, Daniel Plowman, with “vitamin water.” He is conscious of the fact that it tastes like aspirin. Known to all as a non-drinker and non-drug user, the next thing Plowman recalls is waking up in jail for DUI after passing out at a fast food drive-through. All he can utter is, “I was with Melissa Huckaby.” He tested positive for benzodiazepines. Same as the case in January, same as Sandra Cantu.

On March 27, 2009, Sandra Cantu disappears. Huckaby sends Maria Chavez a text about the missing suitcase. Surveillance shows Sandra headed towards the trailer of Huckaby, who has been accused twice in police reports of drugging people—including a child--within the last three months.

The next day, Huckaby hands officials a “note” she claimed she found (on a very, very windy day) that said Sandra Cantu was in a suitcase in a pond off Bachetti and Whitehall Roads. Investigators looked at the pond, but dive teams never searched it. Media rumors said police wrote her off as “an attention seeker.”

I am going to stop here, because it gets much worse. Needless to say, Huckaby’s criminal record and activities were blatantly thrown into investigators' faces from Day One. Though investigators deny it, they never looked at her. They claim they began considering her as a suspect when she "found" the note. Documents prove their claim, but still, they made no arrest until the day a local reporter posted an online article about an interview with Huckaby. The article said that during the interview, Huckaby admitted the suitcase containing Sandra's body was hers. Power of the press -- or coincidence?

I interviewed this reporter, former Tracy Press journalist
Jennifer Wadsworth—for hours, and she offered her take:

Jennifer spoke with Melissa Huckaby for upwards of an hour, then quickly wrote an article about the conversation and posted it online. It was breaking news, and other media outlets had the story within hours. Tracy police held twice-daily news conferences, morning and afternoon. On the afternoon of April 10, investigators had wrapped up their search warrants and cleared the area. As Jennifer arrived at the mobile home park for the 3 p.m. press conference, crime-scene trucks and law enforcement personnel came rushing back into the park and to the church, putting crime-scene tape back up and blocking off the area.

Jennifer’s article had only been online for two hours. This led her to believe police saw it and realized they’d erred. Until then, rumor was that investigators were looking into Huckaby’s grandfather, Lane Lawless. No one had mentioned Huckaby’s name until Wadsworth’s article appeared. Law enforcement had, in fact, focused on Huckaby for days. It could be that her admission that she owned the suitcase was the break they'd been waiting for.

There is a spectrum of reasons police might commit such an oversight. I will stop short of shouting out any wrongdoings. Why? I have spoken to them, and they put their heart and souls into this case. Not to mention the Tracy Police Department is rather large. It wouldn’t be uncommon for lines of communication to cross. I stand firm in my opinion that Huckaby should have been criminally charged in the January case, but hindsight is 20/20. Monday morning quarter-backing will do absolutely no good. The men and women in this department took this case home every night—and it ate them whole. They are parents too.

As for Maria Chavez’s testimony, she was probably scared—understandably. Seated before a table of strangers, a prosecutor, and others can be intimidating. She let her other daughter spend the night at the home of the woman responsible for her youngest daughter’s murder. She couldn’t have possibly known, and most likely was embarrassed by her decision. Her inconsistencies should be ignored. I have spoken to the Chavez family (and those close to them), and can assure you, their lives will never be the same. They aren’t doing well at all. I implore you to keep this family in your prayers.

I planted the earlier question in your minds only so I could give you a solution. I am confident other news media will raise these questions, if only to create controversy. I wanted to beat them to the punch and offer the answers most so desperately seek. The only person to blame here is the modern-day daughter of Satan himself—Melissa Huckaby. I can only hope that her time in prison is as horrific as the final moments of Sandra Cantu’s life. Based on my law enforcement experience, I don’t think she will last that long…

But I could be wrong. The murdering mother of two, Susan Smith, happily married her cell mate and is reportedly enjoying her incarceration. I just don’t see the same for Huckaby; she’s weak and unstable. If you think I was contradictory in adding some of the content in this post, believe me, this was light compared to what is actually in the transcripts.

There’s so much in the case of Sandra Cantu it will make your head spin. I couldn’t possibly include it in a blog, but I also have decided not to include graphic, irrelevant details in my book. I want Sandra’s life to be remembered with dignity, and those of the community of Tracy, California, who searched so tirelessly for her. Yes, many, many, questions remain, and I am seeking the answers. Searching for Sandra is currently slated for an early 2011 debut.

I acknowledge one thing: We may never get the answers in this case, especially to the question of why? Regardless, the citizens of San Joaquin County can rest easy now, knowing another monster is off their streets.


Anonymous said...

Oh for the love of God.. a ROLLING PIN? I dont care how drugged up you are, that is going to really REALLY hurt.

I cannot believe that she said she didnt molest her when there was DNA evidence. And why they let those charges drop. That is torture, not just rape. Was dropping the rape charges to keep her safer in prison?

TLTL said...

Great write up Stacy and I can't wait to read the book. Can't help but wonder how many others she has drugged and molested before Sandra and why she drugger her boy friend.

Cozy in Texas said...

Great coverage of the story - what a sad ending for a lovely little girl. I believe Jaycee Dugard was kept captive in an area not too far from Tracy for 18 years. If your article is anything to go by, I'm sure your book will be as equally well written.

Story Teller said...

So sad to see another innocent child victimized by someone she should have been able to trust.

Great article, and I look forward to the book!

Jan Williams said...

You mention closure in the title of your blog. There is no "closure" when your child or grandchild is murdered. It is a wound that you carry for the rest of your life - your own "life sentence". I think about my son and little grandsons every day, and parents who lost their child to murder 30 years ago tell me the same. It would be nice to get to the end of a trial and a conviction, if only to stop having to keep answering questions about the murderer. The truth is though, the appeals can go on for decades in California. I doubt I will see the end in my case.

As for the question "why?", you are right. You will never get an answer in Sandra's case, and I will never get an answer in the case of my boys. There is no answer. No reason is good enough. They all deserved so much more out of life - every murder victim does. And they deserve to be remembered for all the glorious moments that made up their beautiful lives, not just for the horrible end given them by a monster.

Anonymous said...

If I remember right from following this case, the mother of the little girl who was drugged was intimidated and threatened. Wasn't she even arrested because she'd (suppodedly) had a drink before taking the child to the hospital? Yes, the psycho should have been charged for that and for drugging her boyfriend right then! I've been threatened & intimidated for trying to get something done about a weirdo, & it's almost impossible.

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