After eight years of searching, Modesto police say they believe they have found the body of Dena Raley-McCluskey and the man responsible for her death.
Information and evidence gathered in the past several weeks led detectives Wednesday to human remains in a shallow grave in a secluded area of Tuolumne County near Groveland.
Sgt. Craig Gundlach, a Modesto police spokesman, said investigators believe the remains are those of Raley-McCluskey, 36, who was last seen Oct. 10, 1999.
Detectives on Thursday arrested Russell Jones, 47, of Modesto on suspicion of murder, he said. Jones was being held at Stanislaus County Jail without bail Friday night.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said Jones is expected to be arraigned Monday afternoon.
"It was enough evidence that was discovered to satisfy us that we're in the position to file charges," Fladager said.
Raley-McCluskey's stepmother, Donna Raley of Modesto, said she believes Jones did not work alone and there are others responsible for her daughter's murder.
The remains have not been positively identified, but investigators are confident it is Raley-McCluskey's body, Gundlach said, adding that it could take weeks, possibly months for forensics experts to positively identify the body.
"If it is her, (the body) might have been there eight years," he said.
Raley-McCluskey was last seen when she stopped to visit an aunt. Three days later, her boyfriend reported her missing. The next day, police found her 1987 Nissan Stanza on Oakdale Road in northeast Modesto.
Raley-McCluskey's keys and purse were not in the unlocked car.
Not knowing took a toll
Raley said their family is relieved to know an arrest had been made and her body apparently had been found.
"Everybody is really happy that we finally found Dena and are able to bring her home," said Raley during a news conference at Modesto police headquarters.
She said there were times her family grew very frustrated with the lack of leads and arrests in the investigation. Not knowing where her daughter was took a heavy toll on the family.
Raley thanked investigators who worked the case throughout the years and the detectives who found her daughter.
"Dena was a very important part of our family; we missed her," Raley said. "And now that we can bring her home, have a Christian burial and a place to go is worth more than anything that any of us could ever know."
On Friday, a small team of Modesto police investigators remained at the grave in Tuolumne County, collecting evidence.
With the help of a backhoe operator, investigators found the body on property, records show, owned by Jones' parents, Robert David and Betty Jean Jones. The secluded 4.9-acre parcel off Whites Gulch Road is about a mile east of Groveland. It's a hilly, thickly wooded area covered with pines, pine needles, oak trees, manzanita and poison oak.
Jones' father declined to comment.
"We don't want to talk about it right now," said Robert David Jones, as he stood behind a black security door at his northwest Modesto home.
Modesto police officials were tight-lipped about the evidence that led detectives to the body and the arrest of Jones, who has worked as a mechanic and as of a year ago was disabled. Officials said they fear releasing the information would jeopardize the investigation.
"There's a lot of work left to do in this case," Gundlach said. "The investigators are working right now as we speak."
Gundlach would not rule out the possibility of finding other suspects, but he said investigators believe Jones played a key role in Raley-McCluskey's disappearance and death.
Gundlach said Jones and Raley-McCluskey had "some type of friendship." He said investigators had questioned Jones in the past as part of this investigation.
Raley-McCluskey once rented a bedroom from Jones at a Modesto house he had owned, one source said.
Finding the body
Detectives found the body on the property, which is accessible by a dirt road. There is a garage or workshop, a couple of travel trailers and an old pickup-mounted camper on the land.
The backhoe operator worked in a triangular area in a small clearing. Yellow police tape remained Friday as the team of investigators, headed by Detective Phil Owen, continued to work. They declined to comment.
They had managed to work in relative obscurity since Wednesday, gaining the attention of only a few people in Groveland despite the parade of vehicles in and out of the property.
Police set up shop
Only those living along Whites Gulch Road knew of the activity. Mike Mil-lard, who lives near where the body was found, said he knew that police were in the area but had no idea what they were looking for.
None of the staff or customers at the grocery store on Ferretti Road, the main thoroughfare into Pine Mountain Lake, seemed to know anything was going on, which is unusual for a small town in which news generally spreads fast.
Employees at P.J.'s Cafe and Pizzeria knew something was up only because Modesto police Sgt. Scott Heller came in to arrange meals for the investigators.
"(Heller) came in Wednesday morning and wanted to open up a tab here," restaurant employee Monica Cervantes said. "He said he (represented) the chief of police of Modesto. "I never asked him (why they where there), but I wondered about it."
Another employee, who declined to give her name, did ask.
"They wouldn't tell us," she said. "They said, 'You'll read about it in the paper before we tell you.' "
Heller supervises the Crimes Against Persons Unit, which includes the Cold Case Squad created in March.
Detective Craig Grogan is assigned to work these cold cases full time and is sifting through more than 40 unsolved major crimes cases. A missing persons investigator also is assigned to the squad.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said Heller, Grogan, Sgt. Craig Plante and Sgt. Matt Medina re-examined about seven binders filled with information gathered over the years in Raley-McCluskey's case.
"It was outstanding detective work," Wasden said. "They did what we expected that unit to do."
Bee assistant librarian Karen Aiello contributed to this report.