Family of Sunday school teacher stunned by arrest

TRACY, Calif. " Relatives of a Sunday school teacher arrested in the killing of an 8-year-old girl found stuffed into a suitcase said Sunday they are baffled by the accusations against the woman they know as a loving, single parent.

"I just can't comprehend. There are no words," said Brian Lawless, the father of 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby, who is being held in San Joaquin County Jail on suspicion of kidnapping and killing Sandra Cantu.

Lawless met with reporters outside Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy, where the family attended Easter services. The church is just down the road from the mobile home park where Sandra was last seen.

Among the family members present was Huckaby's grandfather, Clifford Lawless, who is pastor of the church, which was searched by authorities after the girl's body was discovered.

Sandra's body was found in Huckaby's suitcase in an irrigation pond nearly a week ago, police said.

Brian Lawless said Huckaby lived for her 5-year-old daughter, Madison.

"She just always had an extra patience with her. Never raised her voice. Never yelled. Never struck her," he said. "She was that same way with other children. She loved other children."

Madison played often with Sandra, who lived down the street from where Huckaby lived with her grandfather. Huckaby taught Sunday school at her grandfather's church.

The motive in the killing had not been determined.

Huckaby was on suicide watch at the county jail, where she remained in custody Sunday without bail.

Huckaby's uncle, John Hughes Jr. of Whittier, told The Associated Press his niece was from a good home, but had hit a rough patch in her life and had moved in with her grandparents in Tracy to get past her troubles.

"They opened their home up to her to try to get her life back on track. I think a lot of families have problems like that," Hughes said.

Huckaby grew up in Orange County and was a "pretty normal kid," he said. As the eldest of nine grandchildren, she played "mother hen" to the younger children when the family got together for the holidays.

After graduating from high school, Huckaby's path appears to have become rockier. She married, had a daughter and was divorced in a few short years. She had difficulty finding and keeping a job, partly owing to the challenges of single motherhood, Hughes said.

"She's had her struggles," he said. "But there's no way (her grandparents) or anybody would be fearful that anything this horrifying could possibly come from that."

She had worked as a checker at a Food for Less grocery store in a strip mall just east of the mobile park for nearly four years, until she was fired in 2004, said Matt Duncan, an assistant manager at the store now known as FoodMaxx.

"I wouldn't have anything bad to say about her, until now," said Duncan. "I would've never suspected her to do something like this."

Huckaby had been scheduled to appear in court on April 17 to check in with a county mental health program as part of a three-year probation sentence for a petty theft charge to which she pleaded no contest.

She was arrested late Friday, about five hours after she drove herself to the local police station at the request of officers.

"She was calm, cool and collected, then she became very emotional," Tracy police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman said.

It was not immediately clear if Huckaby had hired an attorney. She was scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.

Sandra disappeared on March 27 and hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials turned out to search for her. Pictures of the girl with dark brown eyes and light brown hair were posted all over Tracy, a city of 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Police said they received 1,500 tips.

Huckaby had attended the second of several vigils for the slain girl, Sheneman said.

Police would not say where or how the girl was killed, though investigators said they believed she died very soon after she was last seen. Autopsy results are not yet available, and investigators declined to say whether they believe the slaying was accidental or deliberate.

Inconsistencies in Huckaby's story led to her arrest, Sheneman said. There are no other suspects and no other arrests are expected, he said.

On Sunday, the community was still coming to grips with Huckaby's arrest.

"I was in shock that, number one, it was a woman and, number two, a member of our community," Sheneman said.

More than a dozen local churches mobilized its members on Sunday to pray and fast for the Cantu family.

But Sandra's uncle, Joe Chavez, said he found it difficult to contain his rage toward Huckaby's family.

"I want to go over there and beat the crap out of those people, but I'm not going to do that," he said. "I just want to vent my anger but it's not in me."


Associated Press writer Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.


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