Donna Raley said she woke up on Wednesday to mourn the death of her stepdaughter, Dena McCluskey. But the family has no grave site to visit.
McCluskey was last seen on Oct. 10 eight years ago. Her family believes she was killed. But even coming to grips with that tragic realization provides no solace, Raley said.
"It's a big hole in our lives," she said Wednesday while visiting with friends and supporters in her Modesto home. "We don't have a place to go and mourn."
The anniversary of McCluskey's disappearance is a reminder that the family's search for her and her killer continues. McCluskey would be 44 years old today.
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She was 36 when her boyfriend reported her missing on Oct. 13, 1999. The next day, police found her 1987 Nissan Stanza on Oak-dale Road in northeast Modesto. McCluskey's keys and purse were not in the unlocked car.
McCluskey's family and friends used the spot where her car was found as a makeshift memorial site for two years until city officials asked them not to leave behind crosses, flowers or any other items, Raley said.
Time has taken its toll on the family, but police cold case investigators say there are signs of hope for a resolution to this mystery.
The family has those same hopes, but they want more than just to find McCluskey's body. Raley said they want to find the person who killed her, and they seek justice.
"There is no such thing as closure," said Raley, 60. "The grieving never ends. My daughter is forever gone."
The family has endured some additional pain with the death of McCluskey's father, Bill Raley, last year. His health faded as years passed and his daughter never returned.
Raley said her husband's wish was to bring their daughter home and give her a proper Christian burial.
"It was really hard on my dad," said Shannon, McCluskey's 39-year-old sister. "He died without knowing where his daughter is."
Shannon declined to give her last name because she fears retaliation from the assumed killer.
She said her father's death, while tragic, has refueled their determination to find her sister. She said they are begging for people to come forward with information about McCluskey's disappearance.
"My hope was to joggle somebody's memory or conscience," Shannon said. "The smallest comment or piece of gossip that you might have heard could be true. Somebody out there knows what happened."
Modesto police investigators are hoping for the same.
Sgt. Scott Heller supervises the Modesto police Crimes Against Persons Unit, which includes the recently created Cold Case Squad.
Detective Craig Grogan has been assigned to work these cold cases full time and is sifting through more than 40 unsolved major crimes cases, Heller said. A missing persons investigator also is assigned to the squad, and Heller plans to add a part-time cold case position.
The plan is to review the evidence and witness statements in each case and use new investigative techniques or technology to determine the solvability.
Heller said he and Grogan have read through about seven binders filled with information gathered over the years in McCluskey's missing persons case.
He said the solvability factors have pushed the investigation and a few others to the top of Grogan's priority list.
Heller would not reveal those solvability factors in the case for fear of jeopardizing the investigation. He did say the optimism is not based on any new evidence or witness statements gathered in recent years.
"I'm fairly confident that we will get a resolution in this case," Heller said. "These cases are not forgotten. It's just unfortunate that it has to take this long."
Modesto police ask anyone with information about McCluskey's disappearance to call Grogan at 572-9551 or CrimeStoppers at 521-4636. Callers to CrimeStoppers can remain anonymous and are eligible for a cash reward.
The Raley family is offering a $25,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for McCluskey's disappearance.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.