Investigators in Modesto chipped away at murder suspect Russell Jones as a backhoe operator scraped hardened earth in the foothills, according to testimony Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, and it all came together on Halloween in 2007.
Jones, who had been talking to police for days and admitted burying Dena Raley-McCluskey in the foothills, finally offered an explanation authorities believed, saying he sent his roommate crashing to the floor with a single punch, and didn't just find her lifeless body in the bathroom.
Meanwhile, investigators who had been watching a backhoe turn up soil in a forested area east of Groveland spotted a bone. A case that had been cold for eight years was blown wide open, but Jones was still free to go and Raley-McCluskey was still buried in a makeshift grave.
Everything changed the following day, when a forensic anthropologist supervised crews who used small brushes and soil sifters to recover a skeleton. Sixty miles away, a detective took a final formal statement from Jones, who was arrested and charged with murder.
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"He said he instinctively stuck her, it was just a reflex action," Detective Craig Grogan of the Modesto police said as he recounted Jones' memories of a day of drinking and an argument over a $20 bill.
A preliminary hearing, which began Monday and continues today, is being held so Judge Marie Silveria can decide if Jones should be held for trial on murder charges.
Jones, 49, has pleaded not guilty and is being held in lieu of $2 million bail.
During the third day of testimony, Grogan told the court that Jones said he helped Raley-McCluskey to the bathroom because her head was bloodied from his punch. She fell to the ground and he left so she could sleep it off.
The next morning, Raley-McCluskey was dead and authorities say Jones began taking steps to cover his tracks, which he described to Grogan and other investigators in a series of interviews.
That night, Jones loaded Raley-McCluskey's body, which was wrapped in a quilt from her bed, into the back of his truck, the detective said.
Jones had second thoughts as he headed to the foothills, so he stopped at a construction site and forced his roommate's small body into a large toolbox in the truck bed. He took back roads to property his parents owned in Tuolumne County, where he dug a shallow grave.
Police: Was covering tracks
Jones doused Raley- McCluskey's body with diesel fuel before filling her grave with dirt, so her decomposing body would not attract animals. On the way home, he stopped at a bridge along Don Pedro Reservoir to dump her purse.
Back in Modesto, he drove her car to Oakdale Road, where he abandoned it. He rented a carpet cleaner and gave his rugs a wash. And he scrubbed the bathroom with bleach.
In the years to come, Jones checked the gravesite from time to time, the detective said, to make sure it had not been disturbed.
"He said he was there at least once a year," Grogan said.
After his arrest, investigators found two former girlfriends who reported troubling incidents with Jones in 1992 and 1998: the first in Kansas, the second in Modesto.
According to Grogan, Jones told the Modesto girlfriend he could kill her and cover his tracks, and would do so if she told authorities about an assault that prompted her to move out of his home.
The woman in Kansas told Grogan that Jones had a trunk full of bomb-making materials and threatened to kill her mother because the mother disapproved of Jones. The woman's report to authorities prompted a search of Jones' Kansas home and he spent time in federal prison for violating weapons laws.
Jones acknowledged two romantic encounters with Raley-McCluskey, but said they were just friends, in part because she was too skinny for his taste. He told investigators Raley-McCluskey was too submissive with her abusive ex-boyfriend, but was a kind person and paid the rent on time.
According to Grogan, "He said she was the type of person to pick up a kitten along the side of the road and want to bring it home."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.