TRACY -- Everybody was on the lookout for "the monster, the madman who would do this," the police spokesman said.
Instead, investigators said it was a neighbor -- the mother of one of her best friends -- who kidnapped and killed 8-year-old wisp Sandra Cantu, then stuffed her little body in a suitcase and dumped it into a dairy drainage pond.
On Saturday, the day before Easter, Tracy police announced they arrested and booked Melissa Chantel Huckaby, 28. Police said it was inconsistencies in what she told them and the Tracy Press that led to her arrest.
As a Sunday school teacher, she ministers to the youngest of her pastor grandfather's flock at the city's Clover Road Baptist Church.
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"Finding out it's a woman responsible for Sandra's kidnapping and murder, and finding out it's a member of the community is another blow, and finding out it was someone Sandra's family knew is a double blow," Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said Saturday.
"Our community will start to heal at some point," Sheneman added. "Today is going to be a very difficult day for everyone to be able to digest that."
Tracy Police Chief Janet Thiessen has said that the little girl was probably dead by the time she was reported missing March 27.
Authorities did not disclose how or where Sandra was killed. They also wouldn't say if Huckaby confessed.
"I couldn't begin to theorize what her motive is," Sheneman said.
Sandra's aunt, Angie Chavez, said, "We are very glad that they apprehended someone for this."
A nine-person entourage that included her grandfather, the Rev. Clifford Lane Lawless of the Clover Road church, descended on the San Joaquin County Jail about 3 p.m. Saturday to visit Huckaby. The family, which could not get in for a visit at that time, declined to comment on the arrest.
Sandra and Huckaby lived about 75 yards away from each other in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park, about two miles from where Sandra's body was found Monday. Huckaby lives with her grandparents at the park.
Suspect's daughter a friend
Huckaby's 5-year-old daughter was "close friends" with Sandra, according to Sheneman. He said Sandra "frequently" went there to play.
Detectives served search warrants on several locations during the course of the investigation. One focus of the probe has been the Clover Road church, a quarter-mile down the street from the mobile home park. On Friday, investigators searched the church for a second time, and it was that night around 6 when the case broke.
It came when Huckaby drove into the Tracy police station "on her own accord," Sheneman said, for her second interview with police.
"She walked in the front door of the police department and started a conversation with our investigators," Sheneman said. "During the course of the conversation, she was calm, cool and collected, and then became very emotional, and was calm again, and then became resigned."
By 11:15 p.m. Friday, Huckaby said enough for police to book her on suspicion of murder. The interview continued until 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Sheneman said that at 2:15 a.m., detectives called Sandra's family with the news.
"They were in disbelief," the sergeant said.
News brings anger and shock
At the mobile home park, Sandra's uncle, Joe Chavez, shared the anger felt by a family that won't get to see a part of its future grow up.
"What was she teaching in Sunday school?" Chavez said of Huckaby. "About God and love? How to treat your fellow human beings? What kind of Sunday school teacher was that?"
Modestan Susan Levy, mother of slain Washington intern Chandra Levy, appeared arm-in-arm with Angie and Joe Chavez as they spoke with reporters. Levy said she was there to support the family as they, too, dealt with the tragic loss of a child.
Elsewhere at the mobile home park, if there was any sense of relief that a suspect had been arrested, it was outstripped by the stunning news of who was arrested.
"To hear that it's someone from the church, in a position of trust, is shocking," said Rafael Palma, a park resident and a minister at the Apostolic New Life Center in Tracy. "I'm like everybody else, expecting this to be some creepy guy."
Female child killers are rare
FBI statistics from 2007 show that far fewer women than men are involved in homicides -- less than 10 percent of U.S. murders were attributed to women that year.
When it comes to the murder of a child, it's even more rare.
"It's very unusual for women to be involved in an abduction and murder of a child," said Candice DeLong, a retired FBI profiler based in San Francisco. "Sometimes we see this when the woman is working with a male partner. It does not appear to be the case this time."
Sheneman said there are no other suspects and no other arrests are expected.
A fear that ripples through any neighborhood shaken by murder ran through Orchard Estates, which police blocked off to visitors Saturday.
"Everybody is like not going outside no more," said 14-year-old Elizabeth Gon- zalez.
Insights into the life and times of Huckaby were hard to come by. Carlos Martinez, a handyman who lives in the mobile home park, said she seemed to keep quiet, even when his own daughter once told Huckaby her daughter was cute.
"She didn't say anything," Martinez said. "I was thinking, how rude."
According to the Tracy Press, Huckaby's name popped up in the newspaper's search of San Joaquin County court records last week. Huckaby pleaded no contest in January to burglary and theft charges and also was convicted in Los Angeles County in 2006 on theft charges, according to the paper.
Woman denies arrest record
Huckaby denied in an interview with the paper Friday that the records referred to her.
In the same interview, she said she owned a suitcase that appears to match the one in which Sandra's body was found. Her explanation in the paper about the suitcase's disappearance from her grandparents' home conflicted with what she told police in their original canvass of the case, according to Sheneman. It was those inconsistencies that led to her arrest, he said.
Huckaby said in the newspaper interview that she had set the suitcase in front of her house the day Sandra disappeared and that "someone took it." She did not say why she set the suitcase outside.
She also told the paper she was hospitalized for several days last week with "internal bleeding."
The case carried at least $32,000 reward money, which Sheneman said was offered to the farmworkers who found the suitcase that contained the girl's body.
They refused to accept the money, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.