Former Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby pleaded guilty Monday to first-degree murder with a special circumstance of kidnapping in connection with the April 2009 kidnapping, rape and murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.
Huckaby, 29, made the surprise guilty plea in a Stockton courtroom. She was calm in court and told the judge that she understood the nature of her plea and what it meant, according to Sacramento-area TV station KCRA.
Huckaby had also been charged with drugging and performing lewd acts on Sandra but those charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. Unrelated charges of drugging another child and a man were also dropped. She faces life in prison without the possibility of parole and is scheduled for sentencing June 14.
Sandra's aunt was in the courtroom Monday but was not able to comment because of a gag order that's still imposed on the case.
Prosecutors believe Huckaby acted alone in the murder. The San Joaquin County district attorney had earlier sought the death penalty.
Sandra disappeared from her home in the Orchard Estates mobile home park on March 27, 2009. Hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials turned out to search for her as hundreds of tips flowed into police. Security video provided a lasting image of the little girl skipping down the street.
On April 6, 2009, farm workers draining an irrigation pond a few miles from the mobile home park found a suitcase with the child's body inside.
Huckaby said early in the investigation that Sandra had visited her home on the day of her disappearance to play with her 5-year-old daughter. But, Huckaby, said she turned Sandra away because her daughter needed to pick up her toys and Sandra went to another friend's home.