Crime

Modesto man gets maximum sentence in death of Raley-McCluskey

(BRIAN CLARK/bclark@modbee.com)
Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Annette Reese and Sonja Johnson talk after the sentencing of Russell Todd Jones. Jones was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Dena Raley-McCluskey, Johnson's sister, and was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, in Modesto, CA. Arlene Mello listens in on the conversation.
(BRIAN CLARK/bclark@modbee.com) Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Annette Reese and Sonja Johnson talk after the sentencing of Russell Todd Jones. Jones was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Dena Raley-McCluskey, Johnson's sister, and was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, in Modesto, CA. Arlene Mello listens in on the conversation.

A judge on Tuesday sentenced Russell Todd Jones to serve 11 years in prison, the maximum punishment allowed by law for a voluntary manslaughter conviction in the death of Dena Raley-McCluskey.

A jury in July determined Jones, 51, of Modesto was responsible for the death of Raley-McCluskey, his former roommate. He killed her during an argument in 1999, then buried her in a shallow grave near his parents' property in Tuolumne County and didn't tell anyone for eight years.

For the first time since he was arrested, Raley-McCluskey's family spoke to Jones.

"I have buried pets better than you buried my daughter," said Barbara West, Raley-McCluskey's mother. "You tossed Dena in a hole and poured gasoline on her."

Jones told police he covered her body with a plastic tarp and doused it with gasoline to keep animals away. He checked on the grave annually to make sure it wasn't disturbed.

West spoke looking directly at Jones, who sat next to his attorney a few feet away from her at the other end of the table usually occupied by attorneys and defendants. Her hands trembled nervously as she held the written statement she prepared.

Families of victims are allowed to give impact statements in court before sentencing. Four family members spoke during the 90-minute hearing Tuesday.

The family's statements, filled with anger and grief, gave them a chance to finally say in court how eight years of searching for Raley-McCluskey and the discovery of her remains devastated their lives.

"I will never get to hug my daughter," West said in court. "You made us all suffer."

The emotion overwhelmed West, who had to have the prosecutor read the remainder of her statement.

Frank Carson, Jones' defense attorney, argued before the sentencing that his client was apologetic and remorseful, so that's why he led investigators to the body.

"Had he not disclosed that, he wouldn't be in this courtroom today," Carson argued.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira said there were no mitigating factors to justify a shorter prison sentence. She said Jones acted in a "selfish and cowardly" manner, refusing to get Raley-McCluskey medical attention, burying her body and keeping it hidden for eight years.

"This did involve a high-degree of callousness," Silveira said about Jones' crime.

Along with causing "extraordinary hardship" on the victim's family, the judge said Jones lied to law enforcement and destroyed evidence, which eventually interfered with the judicial process.

Forensic experts never confirmed what caused Raley-McCluskey's death because the body tissue had decomposed while buried in a 3-foot-deep grave.

The judge said Jones has already served about 4½ years of his sentence in the Stanislaus County Jail as he awaited trial and earned credits for good behavior. He'll serve the remainder in a state prison and serve three years of parole upon release.

Carson said he was disappointed with the sentence. He plans to appeal the conviction and the sentence.

"I think it sends a terrible message for cooperating with the police," Carson said after Tuesday's hearing. "If you give the police an inch, you'll be crucified."

Jones told police he buried Raley-McCluskey's body in October 1999 near Groveland, where authorities unearthed her skeletal remains in October 2007. He also told investigators he cleaned blood spots from the home with a rented carpet cleaner and hot water with bleach.

Jones initially told police he found Raley-McCluskey, 36, dead in the central Modesto home they shared. He said he panicked, buried her body and didn't tell anyone because he was afraid police would not believe him.

After extensive police questioning, Jones confessed to investigators that he had punched Raley-McCluskey once during an argument over a $20 bar bill.

Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees, who prosecuted the case, asked the court for the maximum sentence. She said the conviction meant the jury ultimately didn't believe Jones' story that he found Raley-McCluskey dead and didn't know what to do.

"The only thing Mr. Jones cares about is his own circumstances," Rees argued before the sentencing. "He still continues to lie and accept no responsibility."

Robert Jones, the defendant's father, sat in court for the sentencing as he had done throughout his son's trial. He felt several hours of jury deliberation was short compared to a five-week trial.

"It just makes you feel like they didn't consider all the testimony," he said.

Raley-McCluskey's family had hoped the jury had convicted Jones of murder instead of the lesser voluntary manslaughter charge. Nevertheless, they were glad to know Jones received the maximum sentence.

Sonja Johnson said she read her impact statement in court to honor her sister, Raley-McCluskey.

"She was a friend to everyone, including you Russell, including you," Johnson said. "She looked for the good in everyone she met."

She could barely stand in court and speak, reading a four-page handwritten statement. She held a tissue tightly in her hand as she fought back tears.

The family spoke in court about the search for the missing woman, looking through neighborhoods, Dumpsters, orchards and ditches. They printed and distributed fliers, only to be paralyzed with grief as the years went by and Jones kept his secret hidden.

Unlike the others, Donna Raley, Raley-McCluskey's stepmother, tried to get Jones to look at her as she gave her statement in court. Jones never looked at the family members as he sat stoically staring at the judge's bench in front of him.

"You won't answer me, but I know you can hear me," Raley said to Jones in a stern voice. She said her stepdaughter was her "pride and joy," and her husband, Bill Raley, died grief-stricken before authorities found his daughter.

She said her stepdaughter looked at Jones as a friend, someone she sought for protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend, but Jones betrayed that trust.

"That is such a cold, callous act," Raley said to Jones in court. "I don't know how you can live with yourself, I really don't."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209)578-2394.

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