After downing a few beers, Russell Jones would say the strangest things, according to former neighbors.
Things like getting away with murder. And hiding a body on his father's remote property. And using the old man's equipment "to make it quick and easy."
"I thought this was merely drunken banter," said Josh Case, who lived across an apartment walkway from Jones six years after Jones' petite former renter at another Modesto home disappeared in October 1999.
Case and his wife, Dawn Metzger, said they were stunned when news broke Nov. 2 that Modesto police had unearthed a skeleton on Halloween from a makeshift grave on property owned by Jones' parents near Groveland. Using dental records, authorities closed a mystery that had stumped them for eight years.
The human remains, police determined, were those of Dena Raley-McCluskey, Jones' for-mer renter.
Russell Todd Jones, 47, hasn't granted interview requests since his Nov. 1 arrest, a sheriff's spokesman said. He's been charged with the murder and remains behind bars with bail set at $2 million. But much of Jones' past was known to The Bee because of an unrelated case.
Three years after Raley- McCluskey vanished, Jones fell victim to swindlers who prayed with him and then duped him into signing over the deed to the house he once shared with Raley-McCluskey. Much of Jones' life came out as he and his girlfriend, Brenda Hines, who was terminally ill, took the witness stand in that fraud case. And Jones exchanged numerous phone calls with The Bee before and after Hines' death in May.
Jones had bought the modest, nondescript house at 1217 Karen Way in Modesto for $85,000 in 1998. He said his father fronted the $5,000 down payment because Jones never had much money.
The high school dropout later bragged about skills in construction, air conditioning and mechanics. But he often struggled to pay the mortgage, records show.
Before she vanished, Raley- McCluskey rented the home's master bedroom and master bathroom, while Jones lived in a smaller bedroom and another man rented a third room, said the woman's stepmother, Donna Raley.
Waymon Floyd, 77, still lives two doors down.
"She was a shy, quiet little girl," Floyd remembered.
Her mother, Barbara West, says her 36-year-old daughter weighed 90 pounds. They shopped for her in the girls' section of a store before attending the wedding of West's niece shortly before her daughter vanished, West said.
Raley-McCluskey had been dating Mark Keough, family members said, but the relationship was volatile. West said her daughter called to say she had been fighting with Keough but didn't want to attend the event solo.
"She said, 'I'm asking Russell to be my escort,' " West recalled. " 'Russell?' 'Yes -- my roommate.'
"At the wedding, my aunt came over to take a family picture. "Nobody asked him, but (Russell) got into the picture. When my aunt had it developed, she gave me an 8-by-10 and I looked at my husband and said, 'What the hell? He's not family.' So I've got a picture with him in it.
"The man was very nice- looking. When the police showed me his booking picture (re- cently), I would have never known it was him. I got to thinking, eight years of hiding something bad you've done would take a toll on your body."
Floyd, the neighbor on Karen Way, said Raley-McCluskey gave him a small copper church clock she had repaired to offer at his garage sale Oct. 9, 1999.
The next day was the last time anyone saw her alive. Except whoever killed her.
Her stepmother said Raley- McCluskey had moved out of Jones' house shortly before she went missing.
Raley and her late husband, Bill Raley, who died last year, have said they suspected Keough. He had a history of domestic violence complaints from several women, including Raley-McCluskey. Police searched Keough's car and home and found some of her jewelry, The Sacramento Bee reported, but he never was charged.
Two years after she disappeared, Raley joined Susan Levy to form Wings of Protection, a support group for loved ones of missing people. Levy's daughter, Chandra, was a former fed-eral prisons intern from Modesto whose body was recovered from a Washington, D.C., park more than a year after she disappeared in 2001.
West said Keough approached her at a Wings of Protection vigil in Modesto's Downey Park.
"He came up and hugged me, but I just pushed him away," West said. "Honestly, that's who I thought did it (murdered Dena). I would have bet my life on it."
West and Raley said Raley- McCluskey, Keough and Jones hung out together.
Years later, neighbors Case and Metzger said Jones, when drinking, would brag about sex-ual exploits and show them stacks of photographs. Among them were pictures of Jones camping with another man and a woman with whom he said he had had trysts, they said.
After Jones' arrest, they saw the same woman in archive pictures at www.modbee.com -- identified as Raley-McCluskey, they said.
Case, 23, and Metzger, 24, said they don't know Keough and have no idea if the other man was him.
West said Keough called her on the day police said they found the missing woman's 1987 Nissan Stanza on Oakdale Road, less than two miles from Jones' home. Keough told West he had discovered the car and gave its location to police, she said.
Police never identified Keough as a suspect but never ruled him out.
He was sentenced June 12, 2003, to state prison for possession of a controlled substance in Santa Clara County. Keough, 49, remains incarcerated at the California Correctional Center near Susanville.
A year after Raley-McCluskey vanished, Jones was injured in a car accident, according to court records. "My knee was tore up, broken foot, collarbone dislo- cated," he said. He never worked full time again.
Jones had dropped out of high school but received a GED dip-loma three years later, he said, and dabbled in psychology classes at Modesto Junior College. Later, he worked as an auto mechanic and in an auto body shop.
"I did prep and detail for three years," Jones testified in October 2006 in the fraud case. "I was an electrician, I know plumbing and I can read blueprints. I can build a house from the ground up."
But the accident in 2000 left him disabled, and a man crazed with road rage later kicked him in the face "and beat the tar out of me," Jones said in court. Jones usually wore a knee brace and often walked with a cane.
Jones missed several mortgage payments, he later told The Bee, and filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2002, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court documents.
About the same time, Jones struck up an online romance with a woman in Cincinnati. In August 2001, Brenda Hines left her husband, drove to Modesto and moved in with Jones, her daughter, Laura Wilham, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from her home in Kentucky.
"In the first two weeks, (Jones) wouldn't let me talk to her," Wilham said. "He said she wasn't there. I finally went off on him. 'Look, you hear about people meeting on the Internet all the time who end up chopped into pieces and stuck in a fridge! I need to know my mom is still alive.' He finally put her on the phone."
People on Karen Way recalled the couple as friendly, sharing movies with neighborhood children and cooking for large groups. But Jones displayed a "dual personality," cursing loudly when the couple argued, neighbor Eddie Rivera said.
Jones later told The Bee that he cherished nights on Karen Way, barbecuing with neighbors and skinny-dipping with Hines in their backyard pool.
"I call her my wife," he said earlier this year. "After (six) years, we're married every which way but on a piece of paper."
Hines traveled east to visit her daughter and two grandchildren twice since 2001, Wilham said. Her mother didn't talk much about Jones, she said, "only that he was an alcoholic and they fought over it a lot."
Hines testified later that she took jobs at Jack in the Box and with a retail inventory com-pany, trying to pay Jones' mortgage. But it was never enough.
Jones' lender began foreclosure proceedings in January 2002.
Not long afterward, Jones received a letter from a man offering financial help. Jones picked up the phone and called Lonni Ashlock, who quickly paid a visit. Soon, Ashlock and his cohort, Ronald Buhler, prayed with Jones and Hines.
"The nature of the prayer was to help us out physically and to help us get back on our feet," Jones later testified at a preliminary hearing for Ashlock and Buhler after they were charged with fraud and grand theft. Ashlock also prayed for "world peace. I can't remember everything he said," Jones testified, "but I felt like something good was finally starting to happen."
Jones and Hines were among 14 witnesses. Such hearings typically last one day, but this one stretched for a month because attorneys knew some witnesses were fragile and wanted their testimony preserved under oath in case they died before trial.
In Hines' case, their caution proved prophetic.
Jones told The Bee that Hines' skin cancer began with a simple mole on her leg and was treated successfully. But weeks before she testified, cancer appeared in several of Hines' organs. Surgeons used 120 staples to close her incisions, cleared her to testify and waited for her to die.
Among several papers that Ashlock and Buhler shoved at Jones to sign in 2002, he later said, was a deed granting half of the Karen Way house to one of Ashlock's multiple companies. Jones later signed away the whole thing, but thought he was getting a loan, he testified. He said he didn't understand "the terminology" but trusted the men. They also got him to cancel his bankruptcy -- to make it easier to swipe his house, prosecutors said.
In late 2004, "They gave us 30 days notice and tossed us out on our ass," Jones testified. Jones found a lawyer and sued, launching one of the first of at least 28 lawsuits against Ash- lock and Buhler.
The couple moved across town to an apartment at 1125 Roselawn Ave. In August 2005, after an article outlining multiple lawsuits against Ashlock and Buh-ler, Jones called The Bee. He spoke cryptically at first, saying, "I don't want to alert Lonni." But he accused the men, saying, "They stole my house through lies and bull----."
That same month, Case rented an apartment near Jones and Hines, and Metzger joined him soon afterward.
Jones and Hines "seemed like all-American neighbors," Metzger said. They shared meals. Hines gave Metzger a shoulder to cry on when she bickered with Case and periodically watched Metzger's two young daughters. The women shopped for Christmas gifts at the former Harley-Davidson store while Case helped Jones truck items to Jones' parents' house in north Modesto.
Jones trusted Case enough to give him an apartment key so Case could care for Jones' four dogs, Case said.
But no one was allowed in the locked camper shell on Jones' 1974 pickup, Case and Metzger said. He even forbade Hines, they said.
"Make sure you look in the back of his truck," Case said last week, as though advising authorities.
"He was a good guy except when he was drunk," Case said. "Everyone has their demons."
Jones was fond of Keystone beer, they said, but was a fool for Hot Damn, a red cinnamon schnapps made by the Dutch company de Kuyper.
Jones has no criminal convictions in Stanislaus County, according to the Sheriff's Department. But Case and Metzger said he claimed that he had served time, "and said he was never going back -- the same old cliché," Case said.
The relationship eventually soured. Case and Metzger blamed Jones, who told The Bee he was assistant manager for the complex, for orchestrating their eviction and said he served them notice on their wedding day.
They moved a year ago and now live in Turlock.
In February, Hines told The Bee that her cancer had "spread everywhere." She lost nearly 90 pounds and spent most of the day sleeping.
By that time, Jones seemed to have no reluctance to talk with The Bee. He spoke about his part-Choctaw heritage, youthful times in Oklahoma, the Karen Way home he loved and lost, and the prospect of losing more.
"This time, it's hit Brenda hard," he said. "She's a tough girl, but it don't look good for the home team. I'm taking care of her as much as possible, but we're going through hell. All we can do is pray and hope. I would trade my left (testicle) and soul if it would make Brenda better.
"We were hoping to spend some time in our house again. It wasn't big and fancy, but we had everything we wanted and we loved it."
Jones called again in May and said Hines had died just after midnight. "I was holding her hand when it happened," he said.
"She's no longer hurting now, but there is no cure for this here. I tried my best. I thought we had more time. Apparently God said different. When I die, me and God are going to go rounds."
Jones still was filled with venom toward Ashlock and Buh-ler. He told more stories about the home on Karen Way.
"Hell no, I won't quit (pursuing the men). I don't give a damn if I have to live in a box behind my brother's house," Jones said.
Wilham, Hines' only child, said her mother's bank told her that regular withdrawals had been made to pay for three life insurance policies on Hines. Wilham was listed as a beneficiary on only one and could not find out anything about the others, she said.
Distrusting Jones, Wilham called the Modesto mortuary where her mother was cremated and arranged to have the ashes flown to her, she said.
Jones called The Bee again in August after hearing that Ashlock and Buhler were considering striking a deal with prosecutors. Ashlock and Buhler pleaded guilty to six felonies the next month in a deal that will net them one year in county jail. They must pay 20 families restitution in amounts to be determined at a hearing Jan. 11.
Jones said he would prefer taking back the house to cash. As for the one-year sentence, he said, "You're joking. Steal millions and get a year."
He's now looking at far longer behind bars, if convicted of murdering his former renter.
West, Raley-McCluskey's mother, said authorities somberly gathered family members before publicly announcing recovery of the remains, and a related arrest.
"When they said, 'It's Russell,' I want to tell you, you could have heard a cockroach burp in that room," West said. "It was so quiet. We looked at each other. Finally, Donna spoke up and said, 'Really?' and we all came back to reality."
Wilham said she seethes with anger.
"(Jones) had my mom living in that house where a woman lived that he killed," she said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said last week that his office, which will prosecute Jones, will continue negotiating for him with attorneys for Ashlock and Buhler, whose restitution has yet to be determined.
"Our position is, Russell Jones is a victim like any other," Goold said. "His current (criminal) charge is not related, so we'll still be seeking restitution on his behalf."
Two Modesto police crime scene technician trucks rolled up to Jones' former house on Karen Way on Thursday, barred public access with red police tape and stayed nine hours.
"It's unbelievable to me," said Floyd, the neighbor. "I just can't picture Jones doing something like this."
Jones has refused interview requests from the media, including The Bee, since his arrest, a sheriff's spokesman said.
Metzger jokingly offered a way to get Jones talking.
"Tell the detectives to give him a bottle of Hot Damn," she said. "He'll tell you anything."
He appeared willing a little more than a year ago, Metzger and Case said. What he said seemed crazy at the time, they said, but now is chilling.
"He said he'd gotten away with murder before," Case said. "When he got real drunk, he said he knew where to hide a body where it would never be found."
Case and Metzger said Jones even pinpointed the location: his parents' plot, up in the hills.
"He always told me that he could take anybody out to his father's property and use his father's equipment to make it quick and easy," Case said.
They brushed it off, they said.
"Old Russ is drunk again," Metzger remembered saying.
"When he started drinking, he wouldn't stop talking," Case said.
Metzger said, "Especially on that Hot Damn. Give him some Hot Damn and he'll tell you everything."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.