Melissa Huckaby has pled guilty and faces life in prison for the senseless murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, California a year ago. What has long been baffling about this story is why Huckaby, whose daughter was a friend of the little girl’s, strangled Sandra to death after sexually assaulting her with a rolling pin. The latest theory? A disorder called Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome.
Such behavior has a name: Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, a form of child abuse, in which a person harms somebody else, often children, for attention. The prosecutor in the case noted that Huckaby’s daughter may also have fallen victim: the child had a history of being sick and in need of hospital care way too often.
“There were 20 or so times that Melissa cut herself, set fires, or verbally or psychologically attacked someone else, such as a roommate,” says Deputy District Attorney Thomas Tesla. “And there was something like that going on here (after the murder), where she wanted to be the center of attention.”
This is just … sick. It’s horrible enough to harm children because you are angry or tired or frustrated or drunk or whatever. I have never laid an angry hand on either of my kids (and it’s not like I’m on some moral high ground here, by the way—I’m just blessed with very well-behaved children), but there have been moments where I could understand where people would. I think of it as a perfect storm—you lose your job, you go out and get drunk, you get a DWI on the way home, your kids have fed your Delmonico to the dog, and you snap. Is it right? No. Never. But I can see theoretically how it could happen. Hurting kids to get attention? I cannot fathom it.
Evidently Huckaby’s actions following the crime brought the spotlight directly on her. And evidently this is just what she wanted …
The day 8-year-old Sandra Cantu disappeared from a Tracy, Calif., mobile-home park, Melissa Huckaby sent a text message to the child’s mother.
“Tell the police that I had something stolen today around 4 p.m.,” Huckaby texted to Maria Chavez on March 27, 2009. “I don’t know if that makes a difference or not.”
That stolen item turned out to be an Eddie Bauer suitcase that contained Cantu’s body, the victim of a brutal sexual assault and murder.
Now, with thousands of pages of previously sealed documents released and the lifting of a gag order, authorities are offering a theory: The bizarre text message and Huckaby’s subsequent strange behavior suggested she killed the child in an attempt to attract attention to herself.
The text message was just one clue. Also, the day after Sandra disappeared, Huckaby was hysterical and hyperventilating as she went to police to say she had found a note on lined notebook paper.
The misspelled message stated Sandra’s body was locked in a stolen suitcase thrown in water at Bacchetti and Whitehall roads. “I wonder if she wanted to be the one who solved the case by finding the note,” Tesla suggests.
Investigators thought it unusual that a woman who reported losing a suitcase “should be the one woman out of everyone in this complex who should happen to find a note that reports that the stolen suitcase was used to hide the child’s body,” FBI Special Agent Michael Conrad would testify in the grand jury, according to transcripts.
So text messages, missing suitcases, and found notes. Wow, Melissa Huckaby, just … wow.
During an April 6 search of Huckaby’s home after the suitcase was recovered, FBI agents found a notebook with “Cute but psycho. Things will even out” printed on the cover. On the pages they found indentations matching the letters from the note.
“It didn’t take an FBI expert to figure this out,” Tesla says. “She has a distinctive way of writing certain letters. You can compare it to her known handwriting… and tell as a layperson that they’re written by the same person.”
Huckaby confessed in the face of all this, but her confession was based around Sandra Cantu getting into the suitcase for a game, ultimately suffocating accidentally. She stated at her sentencing, that little Sandra Cantu “didn’t suffer. I didn’t sexually molest her.”
But, Tesla contends, forensic evidence offers a grimmer version of the crime: Huckaby took Cantu to her grandfather’s nearby church, sexually molested her with a rolling pin, strangled her and stuffed her into the suitcase in a snug fetal position that Cantu couldn’t have squeezed into on her own. Huckaby then tossed the suitcase into an agricultural ditch that stunk so badly of manure that searchers couldn’t retrieve the suitcase until it eventually floated to the surface.
I used to be really into Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels. Dr. Delaware is a child psychologist who’s best friends with an openly gay LAPD detective named Milo Sturgis and gets involved in solving murders as a result. The book that struck me the hardest was called Devil’s Waltz, and it’s about a little girl who is constantly sick … and the increasing suspicion of both Delaware and Sturgis that she’s a victim of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome at the hands of her mother. I remember being so relieved that it was a work of fiction; even though I knew it was a real psychological condition, the book pages made it far away.
This is close, and it’s making me sick to my stomach. I’m an infamous pacifist; I abhor violence of any sort. However, if Melissa Huckaby was anywhere nearby, I’d probably be in jail tomorrow. For me, that’s saying a lot. And while Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome might be an explanation, it is no excuse … and it certainly didn’t come out of the clear blue sky based on reports of her self-mutilation, penchant for setting fires, and having a child that needed far more medical care than a kid her age should have.
Where the hell were the people around Melissa Huckaby that could have noticed what a twisted woman she was? Could something have been done that would allow Sandra Cantu to be alive today?