Girl's killer sentenced to life

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

STOCKTON, Calif. -- A Sunday school teacher who pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murdering a neighbor girl in Northern California made a tearful apology to the victim's family Monday as she was sentenced to prison for the rest of her life.

The punishment came after Melissa Huckaby, 29, reached a plea deal with prosecutors that took the death penalty and the possibility of parole off the table in the killing of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, whose body was found in a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond.

Huckaby offered no motive for the 2009 killing as she addressed the girl's mother, Maria Chavez. The victim was a playmate of Huckaby's daughter.

''I still cannot understand why I did what I did. This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life,'' Huckaby said, her voice trembling.

She said Sandra ''did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her.''

''I'm asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness,'' Huckaby said. ''I can't imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me.''

Later in the day, prosecutors said Sandra had died of asphyxiation.

In a summary of their investigation, prosecutors said authorities found a rolling pin with a bent handle and a bloody smudge matching Sandra's blood inside the church where Huckaby had taught.

Authorities had released few details about the killing until Monday, when Judge Linda Lofthus lifted a gag order. Prosecutors released a summary of their investigation that showed the cause of Sandra's death was ''homicidal asphyxiation.''

The summary included a pathologist's report saying she was found with a piece of bloody cloth tied around her head. Some of her injuries were consistent with a rolling pin with a bent handle.

The victim's body also contained alprazolam, a prescription sedative commonly used to treat anxiety. Prescription bottles of alprazolam were found in Huckaby's purse and home, prosecutors said.

Huckaby entered her surprise plea last month to first-degree murder with the special circumstance of kidnapping. All other charges, including allegations that she sexually abused the girl, were dropped as part of the plea deal.

Sandra's family asked the court to play a video depicting her short life. The footage brought many in the courtroom to tears, including Huckaby.

''She changed the lives of a lot of people. A lot of people,'' said Daniel Cantu, Sandra's father, who broke down as he addressed Huckaby.

''All I can say right now is, repent and think about what you've done,'' he said.

Sandra's aunt Angie Chavez told Judge Linda Lofthus that Huckaby robbed her family of the ability to see Sandra grow up, go to college, fall in love, get married and have children.

''No amount of explanation can make any sense of what she did or why she did it.'' Angie Chavez said. ''The only solace we have as a family is to know that she will never do this again.''