'Wings of Protection' helps families of missing persons

February 18, 2003 

Nearly every day since Christmas, Laci Peterson's lovely face has smiled from the front sections of newspapers and appeared on the evening news, and Donna Raley cannot help but feel cheated.

"What about Dena?" she asks, her voice rising with emotion. "Everyone knows about Laci and Chandra and the women who went missing in Yosemite. But what about my daughter? No one knows about Dena!"

Like Laci and Chandra Levy and Carole Sund and Julie Sund and Silvina Pelosso, Dena Raley McCluskey is a woman with Modesto ties who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Unlike the other missing women, she never became a household name.

Dena Raley's name has appeared in The Bee 23 times since she disappeared. By comparison, Laci Peterson's name has appeared 116 times. And Raley insists police never gave the matter proper attention after Dena vanished in October 1999. Dena would turn 40 this year.

"What is it about these other people that makes them so much more valuable than my child?" Raley, 55, asks of the cases that have captured the public's attention.

Answers do not come easily.

For a while, Raley nearly drowned in her anger and pain. Then she channeled them into a mission. Last year, she and Chandra Levy's mother, Susan, formed Wings of Protection, a support group for people with missing loved ones.

"I realized that these families were hurting as much as I was," Raley says. "Of course I want to find my daughter. But I care about these families, too."

Raley, a nurse, runs the group out of her spacious home in a gated community in Modesto. Wings of Protection has 25 members who attend regular meetings and get practical advice, emotional support and grief counseling. The group also operates a Web site and holds vigils in an effort to educate people about missing men, women and children throughout the country.

According to federal authorities, about 200,000 people turn up missing every year. Most, like Dena Raley McCluskey, a green-eyed slip of a woman who weighed less than 100 pounds, disappear quietly and are quickly forgotten by all but those who loved them.

Dena, 36 years old and divorced, vanished on Oct. 10, 1999, after spending part of the weekend with a boyfriend with whom she had a volatile relationship.

Donna, who is Dena's stepmother but raised her as her own daughter, and her husband, Bill, Dena's father, both believe the boyfriend, Mark Keough, was involved in her disappearance. A Modesto police sergeant said that Keough, like Laci Peterson's husband, Scott, has neither been identified as a suspect nor ruled out.

Three days after Dena disappeared, police found her car on Oakdale Road in northeast Modesto, a few blocks from Keough's house. Police searched his car and home, and found some of Dena's jewelry, but have never been able to gather enough evidence to arrest anyone.

Keough, who has a history of domestic violence charges filed by Dena and other women, asserted his innocence and his love for Dena in a conversation taped by police after her disappearance. The Raleys have had no contact with him for more than two years, and he could not be reached for comment.

Bill and Donna Raley have lost hope that Dena is still alive, but they want her remains recovered and her case solved.

"That would end some of the mental torment," says Donna Raley. "Her case got dumped onto a table somewhere, put in a drawer or a cabinet and forgotten about. That's the most frustrating thing."

Police insist that they have investigated the case thoroughly and have no intention of giving up on it. But they say Dena's case is complicated, in part because she led a "risky" lifestyle in the months and years before her disappearance.

Those risks include heavy drinking, associating with people with criminal backgrounds, and filing and then recanting domestic violence charges, says Al Carter, the Modesto police sergeant who supervises the department's Crimes Against Persons unit.

Wedged between investigations of the Yosemite killings in February 1999 and Chandra Levy's disappearance in May 2001, Dena's case "got lost in the shuffle," Raley charges.

Carter disagrees.

"Unfortunately, I don't control what the news media concentrates on," he says. "But the fact is that in this case we have no body. No crime scene. No cooperation from Keough. All of those things put kinks in the investigation."

It was Chandra Levy's disappearance that spawned Wings of Protection. In part because of her association with then-Rep. Gary Condit of Ceres, Chandra's story gained nationwide media coverage and massive police attention, while Dena's case seemed moribund. It drove Donna Raley crazy at first.

"But six weeks into it, I thought, 'I have got to meet that girl's mother. I have got to put my arms around her and tell her I'm a mom like you and my daughter is missing and I know what you're going through.' " Shortly after that, Wings of Protection was born.

"At the support group meetings, mostly we just talk," says Raley. "We talk about how we have been affected. We cry. Sometimes we laugh." They share information and advice for interacting with the police, the news media and the court system, and for dealing with their complex emotions.

"At first when something like this happens to you, it's very isolating," says Wings member Helen Purvis, whose godson, Michael Madden, 20, disappeared in August 1996 after leaving his Modesto home for a fishing trip in Tuolumne County. "You don't know who to talk to, where to turn.

"This group has helped me mentally, emotionally, physically. We are like a big family. We find we all have a lot in common, even though the cases are different."

Outside of these confidential group meetings, Raley and Levy help people assemble DNA kits for themselves and relatives, speak to Rotary and Lions clubs, organize vigils, post fliers. Wings has received telephone calls from families across the country and from as far away as Australia.

Rick Muniz, who had the horrifying experience of finding his son Jerome's body buried in a shallow grave after the teen-ager disappeared in late 2000, says groups like Wings of Protection are ports in the storm for families who have experienced tragedies unimaginable to most.

"If no one else is going to support us, we can support one another," says Muniz, a Stockton resident. "It's therapy, in a sense. No one else understands what we have been through."

Shortly after Laci Peterson, 27 years old and eight months pregnant, disappeared on Christmas Eve, Donna Raley appeared unannounced at the front door of her mother, Sharon Rocha.

"We talked for a while, and we cried together," Raley says. "If she needs me, I am here."

Wings of Protection can be reached at 545-5569 or www.wingsofprotection.org.

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