At the time of the rape, Melissa Chantel Huckaby was 18, just out of high school and still living with her parents in La Habra, a city in Orange County, the friends said.
The three people who knew Huckaby at different times in her life told the same story. None knew each other. One was a high school friend, another was from a vocational school, and a third was from where she used to work — all from Southern California.
The three asked that their names be withheld, because Huckaby told them of the rape in confidence. They also said they’re afraid of being caught in the media spotlight.
They all said the rape occurred at a time when Huckaby’s life began to spiral downward.
Her first serious boyfriend had moved away, which broke her heart.
Her best friend had moved away to college.
Huckaby had trouble getting along with her family, said the friends.
Private letters shared by one source indicate Huckaby was suicidal, and had been since the sixth grade.
According to a passage one of her friends read over the phone, the letter dated May 20, 1999, read: “I just wasn’t meant to live, I guess. No one wants me or even cares if I live or not, and I’m just in the way, anyways.”
Earlier in 1999, before Huckaby graduated from Brea-Olinda High School, her grades dropped, she got kicked off the dance team, and she became more withdrawn, one friend said.
Soon after graduating from high school 10 years ago, a cop asked her out on a date. Afterward, the police officer handcuffed her, shoved her in the back seat of his car and raped her — a story that all three friends said Huckaby told them.
Huckaby never reported the incident to authorities, the friends said. One of her best friends was unsure if Huckaby’s family even knew.
Today, Huckaby is 28 years old. The Sunday school teacher and single mother of a 5-year-old girl named Madison was put on suicide watch at the San Joaquin County Jail as soon as she was arrested, shortly before midnight April 10.
Police booked her without bail on suspicion of kidnapping, raping and killing second-grader Sandra Cantu. Four days earlier, farmworkers draining a filthy dairy pond north of town found a suitcase identified as Huckaby’s. Inside, police found Sandra’s body. She had been missing since March 27.
During Sandra’s disappearance, hundreds of volunteers joined 18 agencies to search for the girl. The desperate hunt for her whereabouts turned into a murder investigation when police opened the black Eddie Bauer bag to find Sandra’s body.
The mood changed from hopeful, to fearful and angry. Parents talked about how they looked forward to the day when police would find the “psychopath,” the “monster” who murdered Sandra.
Several neighbors in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, where Sandra lived five doors down from Huckaby, became suspicious of one another. Many started keeping their children inside and keeping a closer eye on their neighbors, several said.
When news broke that the alleged killer was a friend to Sandra, many in the neighborhood said they felt betrayed that the alleged killer was someone Sandra knew. Sandra used to play with Huckaby’s daughter, Madison, a bright-blonde, blue-eyed but sickly girl.
“It was someone she trusted,” said 26-year-old Amber Austin, a mother of two, the morning after Huckaby’s arrest. “The frightening thing is that they knew each other. That’s scary.”
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,” he told an Associated Press reporter on Easter Sunday, two days after the woman’s arrest. “But I'm not going to do that. I just want to vent my anger, but it's not in me."
Friends and family said few knew much about the hardships Huckaby had endured for most of her adult life — bankruptcy, divorce, physical abuse, depression. Even fewer knew of her struggles before that and how emotionally fragile she was for most of her life.
A classmate of hers at Bryman College — a Southern California vocational school Huckaby attended in 2005 — said she remembers vividly the day the recent divorceé told her about the assault.
Huckaby’s face flushed, it wrinkled, she sobbed, she got angry, said the classmate, who asked to withhold her name because the story was told in confidence.
“I had never seen her angry before, she was very laid-back, relaxed, so I figured she must have been telling the truth,” said the friend, who said the only reason she shared the story with the Tracy Press is because she believes it would make Huckaby sound more human.
“Everyone makes her out to be a monster,” she said. “But she went through a lot of stuff that people don’t know about.”
Another friend — who said she knew Huckaby very well during the two years before Huckaby was assaulted and also asked for anonymity — said she knew the preacher’s daughter had deep-seated troubles, but never knew their extent. The friend said she knew Huckaby would slash her wrists at times, and wore long-sleeved shirts in the summer to hide the self-inflicted gashes.
“She’s just a wounded person,” said the friend, sobbing uncontrollably. “I don’t think people understand that she’s so wounded, that she has so much pain in her life.”
Huckaby’s father, Brian Lawless, 45, has said that after high school, his daughter’s life started to unravel.
She became rebellious, he said. She hit a rough patch in life. She had a tough time keeping a job as a single mother. She battled depression.
To corroborate the personal accounts is a paper trail that begins in Huckaby’s early 20s.
Public records tell a story of a woman who claimed abuse at the hands of an ex-boyfriend and ex-husband, who filed for bankruptcy, who racked up enormous medical bills and who was arrested twice for petty theft.
She bounced back and forth over the years from Northern California, where her grandparents live, to Los Angeles County, where she grew up and where her parents still live.
That last arrest for property theft landed her in the San Joaquin County mental health courts. When Tracy police arrested her on suspicion of killing Sandra, Huckaby had recently started serving a three-year probation after pleading no contest in January to theft and burglary for stealing or trying to steal from Target in Tracy.
She missed a court date with a county-appointed psychiatrist on April 3, days before Sandra’s body was found, records show.
When reports came out that police found Huckaby’s suitcase, she was admitted to the local hospital in Tracy for what she described as “internal bleeding.” She refused to elaborate when asked just hours before her arrest. But police said they went to the hospital during her stay to keep an eye on her. Police said over the scanner on April 7 that they had to change detail at the hospital.
Huckaby’s grandfather, 77-year-old Tracy pastor Clifford Lane Lawless, said Friday he didn’t know what to say about the stories of his granddaughter’s rape.
“I’m not really of a mind to talk right now,” he said.
• Contact Tracy Press reporter Jennifer Wadsworth at 830-4225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that she lived in La Habra in Orange County at the time her friends said she was raped.