Family of slaying suspect says charges ‘out of character’

Melissa Huckaby was charged with kidnapping and murder in the death of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.
The family of a woman who faces charges of killing an 8-year-old playmate of her daughter’s said Sunday the accusations are "completely out of character." The Tracy, California, family offered their prayers to the victim’s family.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of this beautiful girl,” said a man who would not give his name, identifying himself only as a relative of suspect Melissa Huckaby, 28. He was referring to Sandra Cantu, who was last seen alive March 27 in the mobile home park where she lived with her family — the same mobile home park where Huckaby lives with her own 5-year-old daughter. The two children were close friends and played together frequently, Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said. Sandra’s body was found Monday, stuffed into a suitcase and submerged in a pond at a dairy farm. Huckaby was arrested late Friday after she was questioned by police. She faces kidnapping and murder charges in Sandra’s death. Watch police discuss the arrest » Sheneman told reporters Saturday he “couldn’t begin to theorize” a motive. Family members went to visit Huckaby in jail Sunday, but were told they could not see her, the relative told reporters. “We do know that the information we’ve been given regarding the charges against Melissa Huckaby are completely out of character for her,” he said. Relatives are in “absolute shock” at Huckaby’s arrest, he said.

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Huckaby is the granddaughter of Clifford Lane Lawless, pastor of Clover Road Baptist Church near the mobile home park, and she taught Sunday school at the church, police have said. The church was searched as part of the investigation into Sandra’s disappearance and death. Lawless was at the press conference, but declined to speak. “We are distressed at the possibility that such a tragedy might have happened in a place of worship,” the relative said Sunday, adding that the family asks the press and the community to “understand the church’s desire to continue their worship and ministry outreach.” Watch neighbors remember slain girl » The church “is a community of loving people,” he said. “They love God. They love their community and they have ministered to the people of this community for many, many years.” Huckaby’s family expressed appreciation for the support and prayers received from other churches. Although it has been difficult, the church has “done everything that we can to be cooperative” with the investigation, the man said. The family thanked law enforcement for what the man said was “gracious treatment.” “Our prayers are with Sandra’s family and the community for God’s comfort and mercy as we work through the process of healing for such a tragic event,” the man said. “We trust in God’s peace.” The church was planning to hold Easter services at noon Sunday, he said. “We’re very shocked,” said a woman, who also identified herself only as a family member. “It’s very out of character for Melissa. We love her dearly.” She described Huckaby as “a fantastic mother, very loving. … This is a very difficult time for us and it’s very difficult to express to you right now how we’re feeling.” Huckaby’s relatives know no more on the investigation than what has been reported by the media, the relatives said, and were not told why police were searching the church. “The only reason why our family is making it through this at all is because of our faith in God and because of his mercy,” the woman said. Asked whether she believes Huckaby is innocent, she declined comment. In a Friday interview with the Tracy Press newspaper, Huckaby acknowledged owning the black rolling suitcase in which Sandra’s body was found, but said she reported it missing the day before the child’s body was found. She said the suitcase disappeared at about the same time Sandra did. Sheneman told reporters Saturday that “inconsistencies” between that interview and statements Huckaby had made to police were one reason police asked to re-interview her Friday night. He would not say whether police believe Sandra’s death was planned. Police said earlier Saturday that they believe Sandra was already dead by the time she was reported missing. The day Sandra was last seen, she came home from school, kissed her mother and left to play with a friend who lives nearby. A short time later, she left to go to another friend’s home, a family spokeswoman has said.

Huckaby told the Tracy Press that Sandra came by her home to see if she could play with Huckaby’s daughter, but Huckaby would not let her daughter play because she wanted her daughter to pick up her toys. Sandra left for another friend’s house, Huckaby told the newspaper. The girl was last seen wearing a pink Hello Kitty T-shirt and black leggings. Police later used that clothing description to identify her body.