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Tracy slaying suspect's family tries to fit accusations with woman they know

April 13, 2009|Alexandra Zavis and My-Thuan Tran
  • Joni Hughes, Melissa Huckaby?s aunt, hugs her son Cooper at Clover Road Baptist Church. Huckaby struggled with depression after her divorce, and court records show she was convicted of felony theft in L.A. County in 2006.
Joni Hughes, Melissa Huckaby?s aunt, hugs her son Cooper at Clover Road… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

TRACY, CALIF., AND LOS ANGELES — Fighting back tears, the family of a Sunday school teacher suspected of killing an 8-year-old Northern California girl said they were at a loss Sunday to reconcile the accusations with the person they know as a devoted mother who loves children.

"The information that we have been given regarding the charges against Melissa Huckaby are completely out of character for her," the 28-year-old woman's uncle, Brett Lawless, of Lakewood said outside the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy, Calif., where Sandra Cantu was last seen alive March 27.

But he said his family's pain could not compare with that of Sandra's relatives. Later, at an emotional Easter service at nearby Clover Road Baptist Church, Huckaby's grandfather, Pastor Clifford Lane Lawless, and others offered prayers for Sandra's family.

"Nothing can be more tragic than losing a child," Lawless said.

For Sandra's family, still trying to come to terms with their loss, the condolences from Huckaby's family came as a "slap in the face," said the girl's aunt, Angie Chavez.

"You can't apologize for this because it is not going to bring Sandra back home," Chavez said by phone. "They get to see their daughter grow up. We don't."

Huckaby, who lived with her grandparents in the same mobile home park as Sandra's family, was arrested Friday, hours after she drove to a police station for questioning. Police said she acknowledged that she owned the suitcase in which Sandra's body was found in an irrigation pond about 2 1/2 miles from her home.

Police have not said where and how Sandra died, or offered a motive for the killing. Huckaby is being held without bail at San Joaquin County Jail. An arraignment hearing is scheduled Tuesday.

The picture of Huckaby that emerged from her family was that of a "sweet" woman, raised in the Baptist Church, who did not drink or take drugs, and had no history of mental illness.

Her father, Brian Lawless, who lives in Cypress, said Huckaby's life revolved around her daughter, Madison, 5.

"She just always had an extreme patience with her, never raised her voice, never yelled, never struck her," he said Sunday. "She was that same way with other children. She loved, loved children."

However, her father acknowledged that Huckaby had struggled with depression, especially after she divorced her husband and had to raise her daughter alone. Court records show that when Huckaby filed for divorce from her husband, John Huckaby, in Orange County in January 2005, the couple had no children. The identity of Madison's father was not immediately clear.

According to her family, Huckaby has been hospitalized several times with stomach problems and struggled to hold a job after graduating from Brea Olinda High School in 1999. She worked for a time at a Food 4 Less supermarket in Tracy, but later returned to Southern California.

Federal court records show that Melissa Chantel Lawless of Tracy filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003. Her debts totaled $26,300, which included thousands of dollars in medical and credit card bills.

Public records also show that Huckaby was convicted of felony theft in Los Angeles County in November 2006.

Last summer, the family said, she moved in with her grandparents and began teaching Sunday school to the children of their congregation.

According to both families, Huckaby's daughter become good friends with Sandra, and the two played together often. Madison left on a pre-arranged vacation with family members shortly after her friend disappeared, relatives said.

About 20 worshipers attended Sunday's service at the small church, about 500 yards from the mobile home park.

Visitors stopped in front of the park to pay respects. Some left stuffed Easter bunnies and chocolates.

Others visited the Fry Memorial Chapel to reflect before an altar covered with stuffed toys, balloons and condolence messages. A slide show of the bubbly second-grader was playing.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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