Melissa Huckaby, 28, was charged with murdering her daughter's friend, Sandra Cantu, in a gruesome crime that has shocked and terrified residents in Tracy, a city of about 78,000, 60 miles east of San Francisco.
Huckaby, who volunteered as a Sunday school teacher at her grandfather's Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy, was due to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon.
Prosecutors filed the murder charge before Huckaby's scheduled court appearance and included in their allegations the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 and murder in the course of a kidnapping.
The special circumstances mean Huckaby, if convicted, could face life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Prosecutors have said they have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Sandra disappeared March 27. She was last seen on a surveillance camera skipping outside the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy where she lived just five doors down from Huckaby.
A 10-day search by law enforcement and the community ended on April 6, when farmworkers draining an irrigation pond a few miles away from the mobile home complex found the suitcase that was later determined to contain Sandra's body.
Police have said Sandra was found wearing the same clothes she had on when she was last seen: a pink "Hello Kitty" T-shirt and black leggings. They have not said how, why or where she was killed, and the coroner's office has said autopsy results are pending.
Huckaby was arrested Friday, hours after she told a Tracy Press reporter that the suitcase was hers but it had been stolen the day Sandra went missing.
A case like this would be "extraordinarily rare," says criminologist James Fox, if Huckaby indeed committed the crime.
Fox, a professor at Northeastern University and co-author of "The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder," said on The Early Show Tuesday, "Only 10 percent of murderers are female. But they generally kill in the family, not outside the family. When you add rape as a possible charge, we're talking about only about 100 cases over the past three decades. Add to it the fact that the victim was a female and a child -- I can only find one other case (like it), 25 years ago in South Carolina. Talk about very few and very far between!"
The implication of the case, he told co-anchor Julie Chen, "offends our sense of what motherhood should be like, and the way that mothers should behave. They should protect their own child, as well as being protective of all the children in the neighborhood. Not be their molester or murderer, allegedly, of course. So much about this case strikes a nerve."
What could possible have motivated Huckaby to kill, assuming, for the moment, she was Sandra's murderer?
"When men kill," Fox says, "it's often aggressive and predatory. An offensive move. When women kill, it's usually a response. Sometimes self-defense, sometimes defending others. Or a response to some emotional state of mind. ... even a response to some degree of conflict, or anger. There may be, here, for example, something involving her own five-year-old child, who was a playmate of the victim. We don't know all the details yet. But my guess is that this is not an act that was planned by the perpetrator, but that something happened in their interactions with the child that precipitated this act."