Sandra's body was found with a blood-soaked cloth knotted into a noose, and her official cause of death was listed as "homicidal asphyxiation," according to court records that had previously been under gag order.
At a press conference this afternoon at the Tracy Police Department, prosecutor Thomas Testa said there was evidence of isopropyl alcohol on the cloth, which authorities believed was used to smother the girl.
Facing a sentence of life in prison without parole, Melissa Huckaby apologized this morning for kidnapping and killing Sandra.
Wads of used tissue gathered on the table in front of her as she spoke to Sandra's mother in court and asked for forgiveness.
"I wish I can bring Sandra back, but I can't," said a weeping Huckaby, who was shackled at the feet and dressed in a red jail jumpsuit.
Huckaby said she still cannot understand why she committed the crime, but that Sandra did not suffer and, contrary to reports, was not sexually molested.
"I find that statement strange," Testa said later, adding that he did not believe a jury would buy those comments.
She apologized to her family -- whom she thanked for their support and unconditional love -- and to her own young daughter, of whom she no longer has custody, saying she hoped one day she will forgive her. Sandra often went over to play with Huckaby's daughter, who was 5 when the crime occurred.
Huckaby also apologized to the people of Tracy and the Police Department who tirelessly worked to find Sandra.
For her crimes, Huckaby, a 29-year-old former Sunday school teacher, will spend of the rest of her natural life in prison without the possibility of parole. In a surprise move, she pleaded guilty last month to murdering and kidnapping Sandra. In exchange, prosecutors took the death penalty off the table and dropped sexual abuse charges. Also dropped were charges in two unrelated drugging cases involving another Tracy girl and a Hayward man whom police today said was her ex-boyfriend. A theft case she was facing from Tracy was terminated.
Prosecutor James Willett said he decided to make the plea agreement largely because of the expense of a capital case that would likely be moved to Southern California, followed by perhaps decades of appeal.
"Quite frankly, right now California's death penalty is a complete joke," he said.
Tracy Police Chief Janet Thiessen said she thought Huckaby took the plea deal in part because it removed sex charges that could have prohibited her from communicating with her daughter.
"Our sympathy," she said, "goes to both families on the loss of their daughters."
Huckaby sobbed while a video about Sandra was played today in the San Joaquin Superior Court in Stockton. She didn't look away, but covered her face with her hands.
Sandra's family members also had the opportunity to speak to Huckaby before she was sentenced.
"You took the life of an innocent girl . . . she's not old enough to decide to eat ice cream yet," said Sandra's father, Daniel Cantu, who paused during his statement, overcome with emotion.
Judy Lawless, Huckaby's mother, apologized to the family and addressed Sandra's mother, Maria Chavez.
"If I could give you justice, the justice you deserve, that would be for you to have your baby girl in your arms right now. . . . From mother to mother, I'm sorry," Lawless said.
Sandra was last seen alive March 27, 2009, near her home at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy. A massive search took place in hopes of finding the little girl alive, but her body was discovered 10 days later in a black suitcase that had been dumped in a pond not far from where Huckaby and Sandra lived. Huckaby was arrested four days later.
According to an indictment summary Testa gave to the press, Sandra died within a few hours of when she went missing on March 27, 2009.
Security camera footage at the mobile home park shows that eight minutes after Sandra is last seen, Huckaby drives away from the park in her SUV, turning in the direction of Clover Road Baptist Church, where her grandfather was the pastor and she was a Sunday school teacher. About this time, Huckaby called the mobile home park manager to say her suitcase had been stolen from the front of her trailer.
An hour and 25 minutes later, the tape shows Huckaby driving away from the church. Investigators said at today's press conference that they believe Huckaby killed Sandra at the church and tried to cover her tracks by leaving her cell phone at home and making calls -- including one to her grandmother -- from the church phone, Testa said.
In the 30 minutes following, two people saw Huckaby at an irrigation pond at Bacchetti and Whitehall roads. Huckaby told them she had to urinate.
The next day, March 28, a breathless Huckaby showed police a misspelled and garbled note she said she found in the neighborhood that read "Cantu locked in stolin suitcase thrown in water onn Bacchetti Rd & Whitehall Rd. witness." Authorities said the writing bore similarity to Huckaby's.
Testa said it's possible she was trying to get caught, and that her hyperventilation immediately stopped when she showed an officer the note.
On April 6, after Sandra's body was found, police searched the church and found a rolling pin that had a bent handle and a smudge of blood later proven to be Sandra's. According to the court record, "there were injuries to the external genitalia which were consistent with the diameter of the rolling pin handles." The girl's family and church members said Sandra had never been in the church before.
Prescription bottles of a drug detected in Sandra's body, Alprazolam, were also found in Huckaby's purse. According to the Alprazolam website, the drug -- sometimes marketed as Xanax -- is used to treat anxiety.
In addition, police found that one of the window blinds in the church was missing a cord. An FBI expert determined that the remaining cords were consistent in every way with one that was used to bind shut the suitcase that contained Sandra's body.
At the time, Huckaby was considered as someone possibly aiming to insert herself in the limelight of a high-profile search.
"If she were trying to help, she could have done something much earlier," Testa said. "She wouldn't cut the cord of a blind, and tie the suitcase and dump it."
The one thing no one could say for certain is what Huckaby's motive was for killing Sandra.
"Why she did it, I don't know," Bauer said.
Huckaby was interviewed a number of times, including for six hours the night of April 10, when she was arrested. She told detectives the death was accidental.
But police believe the murder was planned down to the detail of using a suitcase, said Tracy police detective Tim Bauer, adding that Huckaby had a history of mental illness and is a bipolar schizophrenic. It was previously reported that she was initially placed on suicide watch in jail for trying to swallow three razor blades in the days before her arrest.
Huckaby turned down a reporter's request for a jailhouse interview, and her attorney, Sam Behar, declined to comment to the press.
Before today, few details about the case were known. A gag order that Lofthus lifted this morning, which prevented anyone involved in the case from talking about it to the media, had been in place since last year and key documents -- including grand jury transcripts, search warrants and autopsy reports -- remained sealed.
At 1:30 p.m., an attorney representing Bay Area News Group -- which includes the San Joaquin Herald, the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury News -- and two other media organizations argued before Lofthus to have those documents unsealed. Members of Sandra's family were against the release of the documents, saying they do not want additional details of Sandra's death to become public because it will cause them to suffer even more pain.
Lofthus ruled to lift the order on the grand jury transcripts -- except images and exhibits that show autopsy photos -- affadavits, search warrants pertaining to Huckaby and the arrest warrant. Those items will be released at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the earliest, in order to give lawyers for Sandra's family time to appeal.
The autopsy report was also ordered to be unsealed, but at the discretion of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office. The report was not part of the court records to which Lofthus had access. The Sheriff's Office said it was awaiting written confirmation of the decision from the court before releasing the document.
Among items Lofthus ruled to keep sealed were records pertaining to the Tracy minor whom Huckaby was accused of drugging in an unrelated case.
Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report. Contact Sophia Kazmi at 925-847-2122.