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Published:April 15th, 2009 10:53 EST

Sunday School Teacher Indicted for 8-Year-Old's Rape and Murder

By Christopher HIllenbrand

The woman who courted 8-year-old Sandra Cantu in her home the same day the girl went missing appeared before a Northern California judge, to face charges on the girl`s murder. The girl was later found dead and stuffed into a suitcase, by farm workers in a local irrigation pond.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, was escorted into a San Joaquin County courtroom by bailiffs for her arraignment hearing on the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Cantu. As the judge spelled out the charges she was being charged with, Huckaby burst out into tears.

The judge issued the charges: one count of murder with the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 and murder in the course of a kidnapping, according to The Associated Press.

State prosecutors filed their charges before the accused was to appear for her hearing.

As California law states, the "special circumstances" implies that if Huckaby is convicted, she could face a maximum sentence of the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors haven`t decided if they`ll pursue the death penalty in the trial.

The woman was a Sunday school teacher at Clover Road Baptist Church, where her grandfather serves as pastor, before being arrested for the girl`s death last Friday, four days after the 8-year-old was discovered in the search following her disappearance.

Cantu was last seen on March 27th on surveillance footage showing her skipping past the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, where she lived with her parents only five doors down from the accused 28-year-old.

Local law enforcement officials conducted a ten-day canvassing of the area before the workers at the farm located 2 miles north of the mobile trailor park found the body as they drained the farm`s irrigation pond.

Authorities said that the girl was found with the same pink "Hello Kitty" T-shirt and black leggings she had on when she was later sighted on March 27th: the same day Huckaby reportedly had the girl over to play with her daughter.

Hours before she was arrested for the girl`s death on Friday, Huckaby agreed to sit down for an interview with a reporter from the Tracy Press, During their talks, the 28-year-old admitted that the suitcase, in which Sandra was found, belonged to her and that it turned it up missing that same Friday.

Police got a search warrant to search the Clover Road Baptist Church, and the pastor`s home where Huckaby lived, days after Cantu`s body was recovered. The items that were confiscated in the house have not been verified as admissible in the court of law. Pastor Clifford Lawless was later questioned by law enforcement, but offered no insight into his granddaughter`s whereabouts or actions on the day the murder supposedly occurred.

But the motion described that the murder occurred "on or about" the date of Friday March 27th. The state didn`t speculate as to how, why or where Sandra Cantu was murdered, and the Medical Examiner`s Office is yet to release the autopsy`s findings.

Melissa Huckaby had no prior convictions before the allegations in question, according to prosecutors.

Huckaby was raised by her parents in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, before moving to and from Tracy, 60 miles east of San Francisco, after high school. Family members further descived Huckaby as an adoring mother with a firm Christian foundation.

Relatives came on Monday evening to visit Huckaby at her holding cell in the San Joaquin County Jail , where she is currently being held without bail. Those in the family said that they joined Huckaby in a group prayer, and wept over her future.

Brian Lawless, Huckaby`s father, said: "We`re in shock. The young lady I see in film, that`s not my daughter."

Angie Chavez, Sandra`s aunt, said: "I`m in shock (also). The whole thing is unimaginable."

Sandra`s murder rocked the sense of security deeply ingrained in the small homespun community. Parents have claimed that the girl`s murder, and how she was defiled before her death, has led them to question their own certainty over how safe their children really are, even though this is an isolated incident.

The community plans to hold a public memorial service for Sandra Cantu on Thursday.