STOCKTON, Calif. – A Sunday school teacher pleaded not guilty Friday to charges she kidnapped, raped and killed an 8-year-old Northern California girl and drugged two other people.
Melissa Huckaby's lawyer, Sam Behar, entered the plea on behalf of the 28-year-old defendant, who sat quietly beside him during a 10-minute hearing in San Joaquin County Superior Court.
Huckaby is accused of killing Sandra Cantu, a playmate of Huckaby's young daughter, who went missing in March. A massive search for Sandra ended 10 days later when her body was found stuffed in a black suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond a few miles from the mobile home park where she lived.
Huckaby also pleaded not guilty to charges that she previously drugged a 7-year-old girl as well as a 37-year-old man, whom police believe she had been dating. The girl lives in the same mobile park where Huckaby lived just down the street from Sandra.
The plea came after increased pressure from prosecutors, who filed a request this week asking Judge Linda Lofthus to enter a plea for Huckaby if she refused to do so herself. Behar had repeatedly requested more time to review hundreds of pages of evidence in the case.
"I think we just needed to move things along," prosecutor Robert Himelblau said after Friday's hearing.
Huckaby is charged with murder with the special circumstances of rape, kidnapping and lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14, which could make her eligible for the death penalty if convicted. She also is charged with two counts of furnishing someone a harmful substance and one count of child endangerment in the drugging case.
The judge scheduled a preliminary hearing for Huckaby to start on Sept. 24.