April 11, 2009

Think we still don’t need newspapers, or at least news content prepared by journalists? Tracy Press might have helped break Sandra Cantu case

A Tracy police sergeant acknowledged during a news conference Saturday morning that statements a 28-year-old woman made to a local newspaper reporter helped them zero in on her as a suspect in the kidnapping and murder of Sandra Cantu.

On Friday, Melissa Huckaby told the Tracy Press that Sandra had stopped by her home on the afternoon of March 27 when she went missing. Huckaby lives in the same Tracy mobile home park as Sandra’s family, and Huckaby’s 5-year-old daughter is a playmate of Sandra’s.

Huckaby told Tracy Press reporter Jennifer Wadsworth that she sent Sandra on her way, saying her daughter couldn’t play because she had to pick up her toys. Huckaby also told Wadsworth that she was the owner of the large black rolling suitcase, in which Sandra’s body was found Monday, floating in an irrigation pond Monday. Huckaby offered Wadsworth some tale of how the suitcase had disappeared from her driveway, around the same time Sandra disappeared.

“There’s been a lot of speculation on the news about what happened to my suitcase,” she told Wadworth Friday. “It’s not my granddad’s. It’s mine, and someone took it.”

In an interview with Fox News Saturday morning, Wadsworth said she was suspicious of statements Huckaby made to her. For one thing, Wadsworth confronted Huckaby with information from court records showing Huckaby had been locked up in Los Angeles County for conviction of property theft in November 2006 and that she tried to steal something from a Target last November. Those records also showed that Huckaby pleaded no contest January 9 to a felony charge of second degree commercial burglary and a misdemeanor charge of property theft with prior theft/burglary/robbery.

Wadsworth said that when she asked Huckaby about this criminal history, Huckaby said she wasn’t the same Melissa Huckaby involved in those cases—even though, Wadsworth said, the address and cell phone number listed for Huckaby in court records match her own.

Huckaby lives with her grandparents and 5-year-old daughter in a mobile home that is about five doors down from Sandra’s home. Huckaby’s grandfather, Clifford Lane Lawless, is the pastor at the Clover Road Baptist Church, near the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, and Huckaby spent a lot of time at the church and also taught Sunday school there.

In her interview with Fox News, Wadsworth expressed some skeptism about Huckaby’s claim of teaching Sunday school, saying she wasn’t sure what to believe from Huckaby.

In a news conference Saturday morning, which I listened to on KCBS radio, Tracy police Sgt. Tony Shenneman agreed that Huckaby’s comments to the Tracy Press heightened investigators suspicions of her. “A lot of statements, she made to the Tracy Press are inconsistent to statements she made to us.”

At investigators’ request, Huckaby drove herself to the police department late Friday afternoon to be questioned. Things she said to police during interviews with detectives gave them probable cause to arrest her on Sandra’s murder late Friday night. Detectives continued to question her for several more hours, during which her demeanor veered from calm and collected to emotional.

Shenneman wouldn’t comment on what specific things Huckaby said to detectives, and he also wouldn’t comment on a motive, cause, or location for Sandra’s death, or on Huckaby’s mental health status or history. The only thing he would acknowledge is that Sandra was killed soon after she was last seen.

Like most everyone else, he expressed surprise and shock that the suspect is a woman. “There was some speculation early on that it would be a man. It’s unusual for a woman, statistically, according to the FBI, to be involved in anything like this.”

He added that Sandra’s family was shocked and saddened that the suspect is someone they knew and would have trusted.

The Tracy Press and Wadsworth also were the first to report Huckaby had spent several days in the intensive care unit at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, where she was being treated for what she described as “internal bleeding.” Wadsworth told Fox News that hearing about Huckaby's hospitalization prompted her to go digging through Huckaby's court records.

Good work Wadsworth and the Tracy Press. You and the Tracy Press news staff show why it's important for professional reporters, on the ground in major stories like this, are crucial to providing the public with essential information--and with helping to uncover information that can help authorities find a resolution in a criminal case.


Anonymous said...

That's an amazing journalistic effort. Good journalism whether investigative or informational is invaluable to a society.

Anna said...

Investigative journalism is invaluable to society - I agree! May it continue on forever. You are doing a very nice job Soccer Mom.

Heartbreaking story.