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Families try to cope after arrest in girl’s death

TRACY, Calif. – The woman suspected of killing an 8-year-old girl found stuffed into a suitcase is being held in an observation cell where jail staff monitor her mental health, officials said.

Meanwhile, the families of the suspect and the slain girl attended Easter services Sunday at separate churches, struggling to cope.

Melissa Huckaby, a 28-year-old Sunday school teacher, is in custody at the San Joaquin County Jail, held without bail on suspicion of murder and kidnapping of Sandra Cantu. The girl was a playmate of her 5-year-old daughter, Madison.

Huckaby’s father, Brian Lawless, said he did not believe his daughter was capable of what police accuse her of doing.

“I just can’t comprehend. There are no words,” he told reporters. He said Huckaby lived for her daughter and “was that same way with other children. She loved other children.”

Sandra disappeared on March 27, and her body was found April 6 by farmworkers, stuffed in a suitcase in an irrigation pond. Huckaby was arrested early Saturday.

Police declined to give details but said said inconsistencies in Huckaby’s story during questioning led to her arrest. They said they have no motive for the slaying.

On Sunday, citizens in this city of 78,000 people about 60 miles east of San Francisco were still coming to grips with Huckaby’s arrest and Sandra’s death.

Sandra lived with her mother down the street from where Huckaby lived with her grandfather, Clifford Lawless, pastor of Clover Road Baptist Church.

About 400 parishioners, including members of the Cantu family, packed into a high school cafeteria to hear Journey Christian Church Pastor Scott McFarland’s Easter sermon.

Journey was one of more than a dozen churches that mobilized members Sunday to pray for the Cantu family. McFarland sent a special message to the family that, like Christ, Sandra’s spirit had risen to heaven.

“Jesus is out of the tomb and Sandra is too,” McFarland told The Associated Press after the sermon. “She’s not in a grave, she’s not in a suitcase. She’s in heaven and celebrating the best Easter ever.”

About 20 parishioners and an equal number of reporters filled the Lawless’ church on Sunday. Clifford Lawless and others offered prayers for Sandra’s family.

It was not clear if Huckaby had hired an attorney. Lawless family members said jail officials had denied their requests to visit her, and they have not spoken to her since the arrest.

San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Deputy Les Garcia said the mental health staff has not cleared Huckaby to have visitors and she is still in an observation cell. Huckaby also turned down media requests for interviews, Garcia said.

Huckaby’s uncle, John Hughes Jr., told The Associated Press his niece was from a good family but had hit a rough patch. He said she had moved in with her grandparents in Tracy about a year ago.

“They opened their home up to her to try to get her life back on track. I think a lot of families have problems like that,” Hughes said.

Huckaby was scheduled to appear in court on April 17 to check in with a county mental health program as part of a three-year probation sentence for a petty theft charge to which she pleaded no contest.

Huckaby grew up in Orange County and was a “pretty normal kid,” her uncle said. As the eldest of nine grandchildren, she played “mother hen” to the younger children at holiday gatherings.

After graduating from high school, Huckaby’s path appears to have become rockier. She married, had her daughter and was divorced. She had difficulty finding and keeping a job, partly because of the challenges of single motherhood, Hughes said.

Sandra’s uncle, Joe Chavez, said he found it difficult to contain his rage toward Huckaby’s family.

“I want to go over there and beat the crap out of those people, but I’m not going to do that,” he said as he stood at the entrance to the mobile home park where the little girl lived with her mother. “I just want to vent my anger but it’s not in me.”

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