April 12, 2009

The woman arrested for Sandra Cantu’s murder and possible molestation: Yes, women rarely commit such crimes. And how useful are those FBI profilers?

UPDATE Monday P.M. Prosecutors are now considering sexual assault charges against Melissa Huckaby, the suspect in the killing of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy.

News reports say Huckaby, a 28-year-old mom, Baptist pastor's granddaughter, and neighbor of the dead girl--who is already facing murder and kidnapping charges--may also be charged with raping Sandra with a foreign object and lewd and lascivious conduct.

Huckaby, who has been on suicide watch at San Joaquin County jail since being booked there early Saturday morning, is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow.

One media outlet, citing informed law enforcement sources, said Sandra may have been killed at the Clover Road Baptist Church, where Huckaby's grandfather was the pastor. The church is near the mobile home park where both Huckaby and Cantu lived with their families.

The story of Sandra's death continues to become more twisted and sad.

Meanwhile, as I did with looking at how unusual it is for women to kill, or to commit other violent crimes, today I looked into research that shows how rare it is for women to commit sexual assault.

It didn't surprise me to find that women are even less likely to be identified as sexual predators of children than men. Here are some facts I found:

--According to a report from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, both men and women molest children, although the majority of those identified, and prosecuted for a sex offense, are men.

--In this same report, here are some of the behavioral indicators of men and women who have molested children--and which may apply to Melissa Huckaby and her supposed interactions with children.

The offender: 1) May relate better to children than adults and may feel more comfortable with children and their interests; 2) Usually prefers children in a specific age group; 3) May seek employment or volunteer opportunities with programs involving children in the preferred victim age group for this type of offender; 4) May possess alcohol or narcotics and furnish them to their victims to lower inhibitions or gain favor; 5) May offer to babysit or take children on trips in order to manipulate situations to sleep with or be near children or bathe or dress them.

-- In California, there were 386 female sexual offences recorded per year, covering the period from 2000 to 2004. This is compared to 9,000 sexual offences recorded for males. In 1998, 471 women were registered as sex offenders in California, less than 1 percent of the state's roughly 70,000 sex offenders.

--Generally, the female sex offenders we've been hearing about most in the sphere of current events are the 30something teachers who have been caught having sex with their teen male students.

--One psychologist asserted that they were three basic categories of female sexual offenders. One category includes those sexually predatory teachers, and none of these categories, so far, seems to apply to whatever may have been going on with Melissa Huckaby. That Huckaby's alleged crimes don't fit easily into any of these categories could speak to the true rarity of her suspected acts. Or it could speak to the fact that we still don't know the whole story of what happened to Sandra Cantu.

--Here are those three basic categories of sexual offenders, according to this psychologist, Anna C. Salter: 1) The first group often victimizes their own biological children, mostly those under the age of six; 2) The second group, called the"teacher/lover" group, have sex with children in the groups they are involved with. The women are are usually around 30 years old and are having sex with kidsabout 15 years old; 3) Finally, the third group of women are coerced into sexual situations with children by an abusive male partner.

--Finally, most female sex offenders were themselves victims of abuse. "A University of Georgia study that is the first to systematically examine a large sample of female child molesters finds that many of them were themselves victims of sexual abuse as children."

Researcher Susan Strickland, an assistant professor at the university's School of Social Work, surveyed 130 incarcerated females--60 of which were sex offenders--and examined factors such as childhood trauma, substance abuse, emotional neediness, and personality disorders. While the majority of both (the sexual offenders and non-sexual offenders) reported being the victims of childhood maltreatment, the sex offenders were significantly more likely to experience pervasive, serious, and more frequent emotional abuse, physical abuse and neglect.


From April 12: The neighbor down the street, a mom of a young girl and Sunday school teacher, is arrested for killing an 8-year-old girl in your close-knit community. Over the 10 days the 8-year-old girl is missing, you assume, like everyone else—other neighbors, the media, probably the cops and the highly esteemed FBI investigators and profilers—that the girl’s killer is a man. A pedophile, a registered sex offender, a serial killer of children who had yet to be caught.

You would never guess, until you hear from the police, that the accused is a woman that you might have trusted to host play dates with your own kids, or to monitor kids at Sunday school classes.

The suspect in the killing of Sandra Cantu is 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby, who has been booked into San Joaquin County Jail on charges of kidnapping and murder. She lives five doors down from Sandra’s family in a mobile home park in Tracy.

By the way, the Tracy Press reported today that Huckaby is on suicide watch at San Joaquin County Jail.

Huckaby is also the mother of Sandra’s regular 5-year-old playmate, and Huckaby reportedly teaches Sunday school at the nearby Baptist church where her grandfather, whom she and her daughter live with, is a pastor.

Like most everyone else, Tracy police Sgt. Tony Shenneman, during a press conference Saturday, the same surprise and shock that Sandra's family and neighbors, and the rest of us feel, to learn that the suspect is a woman--and this woman. "There was some speculation early on that it would be a man," he said. "It’s unusual for a woman, statistically, according to the FBI, to be involved in anything like this.”


Here are some quick facts from the US Justice Department, regarding the gender of killers and the relationship of offenders involved in child killings. These statistics tell you that both Sandra’s murder and Huckaby’s alleged involvement is a statistical rarity.

--Although Sandra’s death is very much in the headlines, kids her age, 8 years old, are rarely victims of homicide. Of the all the some 14,000 homicide victims in 2006, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports show that 87 percent 18 years or older: 44 percent were 20 to 34 years old.

--Male killers for all homicides outnumber female killers 9 to 1: or according to figures from 1976-2005, 89 percent male to 11 percent female. Women account for 14 percent of violent offenders.

--Typically, most young children (children 5 years and under) are killed by a parent or a friend, acquaintance. In 2005, 51 percent of young children were killed by a parent; 27 percent by a family acquaintance. So, even though we’re talking about an 8-year-old victim in Sandra's case, instead of one 5 years old and younger, that 27 percent (family acquaintance) makes Huckaby’s alleged involvement in Sandra’s death not that unusual. And of the 572 8-year-old victims killed nationwide between 1976-2005, 71 percent knew their killers.

--Although these figures don’t directly apply to Sandra Cantu or her alleged killer, it is interesting to note that, the male-female offender ratio evens out when we’re talking about children killed by their own parents. Of all children under 5 murdered from 1976-2005, 31 percent were killed by their fathers; 29 percent by their mothers. The rest? Twenty-three percent were killed by male acquaintances (perhaps mom’s new boyfriend?); and 7 percent by other relatives.

(Perhaps a disturbing sidenote with regard to Melissa Huckaby and her own daughter: The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed neighbors who said that Huckaby lives with her grandparents because she suffers from severe allergies and wanted relatives' help to be able to have more time "to take better care of her daughter, who is super-thin and gets sick a lot." Also, neighbors thought it "odd" that Huckaby never let her daughter play at other kids' houses, but insisted on playmates coming to her house.)

--Two-thirds of violent female offenders had a prior relationship with their victims, and about 40 percent of violent female offenders were thought to have been under the influence of drugs, alcohol or both. For nearly half of the female victimizers, the violent offense took place at or near the victim's home or at school.

Meanwhile, in his press conference, Sgt. Shenneman indicated that FBI profilers were very interested in examining this case and this suspect, because of its statistical rarity.

Hmm. Were those FBI profilers giving Tracy police advice all along? And telling them to look for a man? It would be interesting to find out. And to find out whether, like the rest of us, these allegedly top-notch, elite profilers were making wrong assumptions in this case.

FBI profilers became glamorous crime-fighting figures in the Academy Award-winning film Silence of the Lambs and in Thomas Harris’s other Hannibal Lecter crime pot-boilers.

I became a bit cynical about how much amazing insight these FBI profilers offer to local law enforcement, investigating tough crimes, after reading this very intriguing expose of their work in The New Yorker a few years back. The article, "Dangerous Minds," is written by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, and it details situations in which the so-called expert analysis of these profiles was 1) flat our wrong; 2) based on good-old fashioned common sense, the kind that you or I could apply if we were asked to weigh in on a case; 3) based on the same tricks of projecting an aura of insight that are employed by astrologers and psychics.

I was thinking about that New Yorker story when I was watching KTVU last night and heard an interview with one of the most high-profile of these “expert” profilers: Candice DeLong, who has often been called the “real-life Clarice Starling” and has made quite a career of herself since retiring as an FBI profiler in 2000. She writes, speaks, has created a reality TV series and gives TV interviews like the one on KTVU last night. And the amazing insight she offered to KTVU audiences on the death of Sandra Cantu? She said it was most likely that Sandra was killed near where she and Melissa Huckaby lived.

You think? Thanks, Candice. I’m sure the Tracy police, or the rest of us never really thought of that.


Anonymous said...

It's a message to people to be conscientious about everyone who interacts with their children, not just 'strangers.'

Mr. Mayor said...

Wait, wait, so you mean she didn't drive the little girl to Guam, kill her, then bring her back to Tracy? Wow, amazing profiler. I'm happy we have her around.

Anonymous said...

The graf in your post about Huckaby's daughter being kept inside a lot due to allergies, etc., is very interesting. I, too, find that disturbing. And thin? Inside, kept from playing outside, and very thin? I can't help but wonder if the Huckaby daughter herself was in some kind of abusive or off-kilter environment. I may be totally off-base here, but I think there are some more things in the Huckaby/Lawless household that aren't quite right.

Anonymous said...


I think you're right. Even if Huckaby wasn't abuse, I think that we're going to find that there is something wrong with her mental state.

Soccer Mom said...

With regard to Huckaby's daughter being "thin" and the Chronicle referring to her as "ailing," it definitely made me wonder, and I hope the authorities look into whether something wasn't right there, too, as in whether this girl also was mistreated in some way.

That's why I mentioned it, and highlighted it.

Mom is supposedly physically fragile, and reclusive, and then has this other life as a petty thief. (Red flags! Red flags!) Actually, some people I know who have mental illnesses (depression, bipolar, schizophrenia) also have physical illnesses. That mind-body thing.

And then daughter is kept inside. Yeah, something is off. I'm curious if the Chronicle reporters heard more that they couldn't report, because they couldn't substantiate it, about Huckaby and her daughter.

I suppose, though, that those FBI profilers will get to the bottom of it!

And, sorry, that I keep writing about this case, but there's that crime writer in me that, while recognizing that this is an awful, tragic story, is also now fascinated by Ms. Huckaby.

I had actually done some pretty extensive research into the "unthinkable" crime of women killing their own children. The women often are seriously delusional and psychotic (like Andrea Yates) and are driven to believe that they are doing the right thing by their kids. Or they are driven to think that the kids are somehow evil and must be killed or sacrificed. Other women are just terribly ill and suicidal, and, with their perception of their children's identities tied up in their own, they believe their kids are better off dying with them--and dead--than without them.

No, I'm in no way justifying or excusing these sick mindsets. I'm just explaining them.

But it's very unusual for such women to ever contemplate killing OTHER people's kids.

And again, that's why this crime is so unusual.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with you, Soccer Mom, on your 12:58 points about Huckaby. I note that some posters on sfgate are raising a theory about Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy. Meanwhile, I keep thinking that maybe the killing wasn't premeditated, that it was Huckaby losing control of herself and hurting Sandra, and then having to hurriedly take action to cover up her deed (who uses her own suitcase to get rid of the evidence?). On another note about Huckaby's overall state of mind, I heard yesterday part of a radio interview that a KCBS reporter did with Huckaby before her arrest. In it, she denied (via email or IM) the theory that her hospitalization for internal bleeding related to a suicide attempt, and she wrote "LOL" after it -- something like: No, I didn't try to commit suicide. LOL .... As the reporter said to the KCBS anchor afterward: why someone would write "LOL" after such a statement is beyond me. Indeed. (on an unrelated note, but also a murder involving a woman and an area resident, did you see on sfgate and the East Bay papers that a woman who works as a barber at Rossmore has been arrested for shooting her lawyer boyfriend at his home in Oakland's Dimond District? I don't know where the woman was living; she'd moved out of the Oakland house the day before, but reports said she "couldn't remember" her new address.)

Soccer Mom said...

I haven't read the SFgate comments yet, but, yes, the "M" syndrome did cross my mind, with regard to Huckaby's daughter. Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (Isn't that a strange title?). Mom's sick a lot. Daughter's sick. I wonder if daughter has been in and out of the hospital a lot...

Yeah, I don't see it as being premeditated either, but that Sandra innocently did or said something that set this very unstable woman off when she stopped by to see if her daughter could play.

Anonymous said...

These horrific crimes leave people speculating in a frenzy. I understand it; curiosity, gossip, imagination -- trying to grasp what happened. I also find it offensive to the victims and suspects. Turning deeply awful events into a kind of spectator sport.
Why not wait for facts? Are we not patient enough?

Anonymous said...

I just read in the CC Times that they may include the following special circumstances with the murder charge: Rape with a foreign object, lewd and lascivious, and murder in the course of a kidnapping.

Anonymous said...

Psychology was my major in college. I took a Psychology of Law class and we learned that there is no science to Psychological Profiling. Many people with Psychology degrees claim to be "expert" Profilers, but the truth is they can do is make educated guesses. Many people like to give themselves fancy titles just to feel important and get famous.

Anonymous said...


the truth is *all they can do is make educated guesses.

Anonymous said...

The young reporter at Tracy Press whose interview with Melissa Huckaby helped draw police attention to the woman has filed a new story on police reports that tie an incident involving another youngster to Huckaby. Very creepy. More and more, I wonder if Melissa Huckaby uses her own daughter as "bait" to unwittingly attract playmates and potential victims into the mother's reach. A disgusting thought, but there it is. I'd previousy thought that Huckaby was taking the fall for someone else in the family. I'm no thinking that now, but dang, her own daughter sure needs protecting, both from her and possibly from others in that family.

Here's a link to the Tracy Press report that I describe (seen on sfgate site April 20) :

Soccer Mom said...

10:47 p.m. Thanks for that link to the Tracy Press story. There had been various vague reports along those lines, but if there is something more solid now, I'm interested in reading it.