TRACY, Calif. — A Sunday school teacher accused of kidnapping, raping, and killing an 8-year-old playmate of her daughter, then stuffing the body in a suitcase, pleaded guilty yesterday to murder.
Melissa Huckaby, 29, entered the plea to a charge of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of kidnapping. As part of a deal with prosecutors, all other charges were dropped.
The surprise plea came during what was scheduled to be a routine pretrial hearing. The initial charges would have made her eligible for the death penalty if convicted. Her trial had been set to begin in October.
Huckaby now faces 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole when she is sentenced June 14.
Authorities say Huckaby killed Sandra Cantu in March 2009. A search ended after 10 days when the body was found in a suitcase pulled from a pond a few miles from the mobile home park where both the child and the defendant lived.
Huckaby also had been charged with previously drugging a 7-year-old girl and a 37-year-old man, whom police believe she had been dating. Those charges also were dropped in the plea deal.
Judge Linda Lofthus maintained the gag order that she imposed in the case last year, according to a Tracy police spokesman.
Attorneys in the case did not return calls seeking comment. Angie Chavez, Sandra’s aunt and the spokeswoman for the Cantu family, declined to comment, citing the gag order.
Just as at the time of the arrest, police stood guard yesterday at the entrance to the mobile home park where Cantu and Huckaby lived.
Susan Alley, 50, said she has lived in the park for nearly four years. She said she was glad to hear of Huckaby’s plea and said neighbors only recently have started to feel comfortable.