After the book “Searching for Sandra” by Ohio deputy and author Stacy Dittrich was published, I spoke to San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa about the murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.
Most of the interview didn’t fit into the story http://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130327/A_NEWS/130329904/-1/a_special0263, which was published Wednesday.
Here’s more on it.
When Sandra was reported missing from the Orchard Estate Mobile Home Park in Tracy, it was pretty evident that there was foul play, Testa said.
Testa requested to be assigned to the case, having successfully prosecuted a number of murder trials in the past in which there was no body found, including the cases of serial killers Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog.
Sandra seemed to just have “disappeared from the face of the earth.”
Circumstantial evidence can be offered to prove who did it, Testa said, in what is referred to as habit evidence. In other words, looking at her habits and seeing if anything is out of the ordinary.
Nothing was missing from her room. If she had run away, she would have likely took some of her belongings.
“You put that kind of evidence together and you make a case that they’re dead,” he said.
Testa said he feels the case was properly resolved with a plea deal in which Melissa Huckaby admitted to the murder, receiving life in prison without the possibility of parole. (She did not admit to the rape, however). The family approved the deal and they were spared from reliving the case in a trial.
It’s “somewhat dissatisfying” to Testa, however, that many of the facts couldn’t be more carefully scrutinized in a trial where witnesses would have been cross examined.
“A trial answers questions because all the facts come out,” Testa said. “So there are still some nagging questions.”
Like did anyone aid Huckaby in hiding anything or in protecting her?
There’s a good chance Huckaby would have taken the stand and therefore prodded for those answers.
Nonetheless, Testa emphasized that he believes the plea deal was a “good resolution.”
About a week into the investigation and a daunting search that drew hundreds of volunteers, Sandra’s body was found stuffed inside an Eddie Bauer black suitcase in an irrigation ditch just north of the mobile home park.
There were so many people investigators were looking at, including sex offenders who lived at the mobile home park, “that they did not look at a female let alone Melissa Huckaby,” Testa said.
But that changed when Huckaby started doing suspicious things.
He believes they started suspecting her when she claimed to find a note – the note ultimately pinpointed the location where Sandra’s body was found and mentioned Huckaby’s supposed stolen Eddie Bauer suitcase – the day after Sandra disappeared. She was hyperventilating as she told them about it.
Then, when she was questioned, her demeanor changed to being calm and collected. It was strange how she could turn it off and on.
Then, the finding that Sandra’s rape by a foreign object was more grounds to suspect a woman rather than a male, Testa said.
“It was an extremely unusual fact pattern,” Testa said.
“I do from time to time think about it,” he said.
Testa’s timeline of events: DOC (1)