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Killer of 8-year-old Calif. girl is sentenced to life in prison

Sandra Cantu died of asphyxiation in 2009. Sandra Cantu died of asphyxiation in 2009.
Associated Press / June 15, 2010

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STOCKTON, Calif. — A Sunday school teacher who pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murdering a girl who was her neighbor made a tearful apology to the victim’s family yesterday 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.’’

Prosecutors said Sandra 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. A pathologist’s report said the victim’s body was later found with a piece of bloody cloth tied around her head. Sandra also had a prescription sedative in her system.

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

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