The story behind the story

How a young reporter’s legwork gave police the clue they needed in the Sandra Cantu case

The new political thriller State of Play offers an entertaining take on the notion that nothing can replace the kind of old-fashioned fact-digging practiced by the best reporters and endangered today by the demise of so many great newspapers. But there’s a real-life example much in the news these days that makes the case even more vividly.

By now everyone has heard of the killing of Sandra Cantu, the 8-year-old Tracy girl whose body was found in a suitcase. Her story, and that of the woman suspected of murdering her, Sunday-school teacher Melissa Huckaby, has become an international journalistic phenomenon.

Few people, however, have heard of Jennifer Wadsworth, the 22-year-old reporter for the Tracy Press in the first year of her first full-time newspaper job (she was previously an intern for the alternative newsweekly East Bay Express), whom police credit with helping to crack the case. She’s the story behind the story.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, Wadsworth became intrigued by Huckaby when she learned that a woman (Huckaby, as it turned out) had been admitted to the hospital and that the suitcase had once belonged to Huckaby’s family.

She dug up court records showing not only Huckaby’s address, age and cell-phone number, but also her criminal record. And she called Huckaby and talked with her for 40 minutes, during which time Huckaby admitted owning the suitcase but then made numerous statements that contradicted what Wadworth knew to be true from her research. Many of Huckaby’s statements also contradicted what she had earlier told the police.

Wadsworth’s story, posted the next day on the paper’s Web site, prompted Tracy police to pull Huckaby in for further questioning, after which they arrested her. Knowing she owned the suitcase had been key, they said.

Wadsworth’s story was a classic example of wearing out shoe leather to get the story. That’s what good reporters do. As she told Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold, “Journalism is just telling people what’s going on. And in that sense, it will never die.”