It’s a March day in California, and eight-year-old Sandra Cantu heads across the trailer park to play with a friend. But hours later, she still hasn’t returned. For ten days, her disappearance remains a mystery. Then, a neighbor starts behaving bizarrely – and the horrific truth begins to emerge.
Sandra was born on March 8, 2001, in Tracy, a city some 20 miles south-west of Stockton, CA. The youngest of four children, she lived with her mother and her grandparents at a local mobile home park known as Orchard Estates. And when she was old enough, she began attending nearby Jacobson Elementary School.
On the afternoon of March 27, 2009, Sandra, then eight, left school and went to a friend’s house to play. At around 4:00 p.m., she went back to the trailer that she and her family shared. However, Sandra soon decided to head out again and left the property, saying that she was going to the home of another friend.
Dressed in a pink top and wearing Hannah Montana flip-flops on her feet, Sandra ventured out across the trailer park. But hours later, when she was due home for dinner, she failed to show up. As a result, just before 8:00 p.m., her family contacted the police. Somehow, Sandra had disappeared.
Soon, police were able to locate surveillance camera footage that showed the moments before Sandra disappeared. In it, the girl can be seen walking across the street outside her home. But after that, she seemed to have dropped off the face of the Earth. The footage subsequently featured on news reports up and down the country, and the hunt for Sandra began.
As the days passed, investigators turned Orchard Estates trailer park upside down. With the help of ATVs, dogs and a helicopter, they combed every inch of the area where Sandra had disappeared. But even with the FBI on hand to help, they could find no trace of the missing girl.
Soon, a reward of $22,000 was put forward in return for any details about Sandra’s disappearance. And at first, it seemed as if police might have identified the culprit. Apparently, a couple of years previously, a local man had been spotted acting inappropriately with Sandra at a nearby swimming pool.
However, police were soon able to eliminate the unidentified man from their investigation. And for ten long days, Sandra’s family waited in limbo, still unsure of what might have happened to their little girl. Then, on April 6, workers made a horrifying discovery in a nearby pond.
As the water level in the pond dropped, an abandoned suitcase emerged from the depths. And inside the case was Sandra’s body, still dressed in the clothes that she’d been wearing when she went missing. But who could have committed such an atrocious act?
According to the autopsy report, Sandra had been given a tranquilizer and subjected to a physical and sexual assault. Eventually, the girl was smothered to death. As police began to search for the perpetrator of this terrible crime, they first turned their attention to the many male residents of the trailer park.
In fact, the FBI supplied a detailed profile of the likely suspect. A white male between the ages of 25 and 40, they imagined that he would have a history of deviant behavior. But while police were searching for someone who fitted the bill, 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby, a local Sunday school teacher, began to exhibit some bizarre behavior.
The granddaughter of local pastor Clifford Lawless, Melissa lived at Orchard Estates with her grandparents and her own young daughter. And as the mother of one of Sandra’s playmates, she had often encountered the murdered girl. In fact, Melissa had even sent what appeared to be a tip-off to Sandra’s mother, Maria, on the day that the girl disappeared.
According to police, Melissa had sent a text message to Maria, informing her of a burglary at her home. “Tell the police that I had something stolen today around 4 p.m.,” it read. “I don’t know if that makes a difference or not.” And when she attended a vigil for Sandra the following day, Melissa claimed that she had made a strange discovery.
Apparently, Melissa told police that she had stumbled upon a note bearing a strange message. “Cantu locked in stolin suitcase,” it read. “Thrown in water on Bacchetti Road and Whitehall Road. Witness.” However, investigators paid little attention to Melissa and her odd, agitated behavior – until Sandra’s body was discovered.
At that point, police suddenly began treating Melissa as a person of interest in the investigation. Suspiciously, it emerged that the item she had reported missing on the day of Sandra’s disappearance was a black suitcase – the same one in which the girl’s body had been found. Finding it odd that the Melissa had both owned the suitcase and discovered the note about Sandra’s body, police arrived at Lawless’ church to conduct a search.
There, investigators uncovered a rolling pin marked with a smear of blood. And that wasn’t the only piece of evidence pointing to Melissa. While watching security footage, police spotted the young woman leaving her home just eight minutes after Sandra was last seen. Later, Melissa was also filmed leaving her grandfather’s church, before returning some half-an-hour later.
In that missing half-hour, two witnesses claimed to have seen Melissa at the irrigation pond where Sandra’s body was later discovered. Apparently, she had been acting in a distracted manner, telling the couple that she had stopped to urinate. Later, they recognized her on television and notified police about her suspicious behavior.
On April 10, 2009, Melissa was arrested on suspicion of murder. And during her trial, the horrific details of Sandra’s death emerged for the first time. Reportedly, Melissa had used the rolling pin to sexually assault the girl, before strangling her with a makeshift noose. And it allegedly might not have been the first time that she’d committed a crime.
A couple of months earlier, another child had gone missing at Orchard Estates. But after some hours had passed, Melissa turned up at the family’s home with the young girl in tow. And even though there was evidence that the child had been drugged, no charges were pressed against the Sunday school teacher.
On June 14, 2010, Melissa was found guilty and sentenced to life behind bars. In court, she appeared to distance herself from the crime. “I still cannot understand why I did what I did,” she was reported as saying by NBC. “This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life.” And while Melissa has begged Maria for forgiveness, Sandra’s family has declined to grant it to her.