As supervisor of economic crimes for the Modesto police, Sgt. Craig Plante had a little time left in his schedule, so he decided to take a crack at a missing persons case that had been cold for eight years, according to his testimony Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Instead of focusing on the principal suspect -- a boyfriend whose threats against Dena Raley-McCluskey had been reported to police numerous times -- Plante decided to question a former landlord and roommate who also was a person of interest.
As a preliminary hearing in the murder case against Russell Jones got under way, Plante recalled finding a cooperative but reluctant former housemate who seemed a little too nervous to be innocent. He said Jones' demeanor persuaded him to dig deeper.
"I just took it upon my own initiative to do this case," Plante said.
According to the sergeant, Jones' story evolved during a series of interviews that began Oct. 23, 2007, led to the discovery of Raley-McCluskey's body in a shallow grave in Tuolumne County on Oct. 31, 2007, and ended with Jones' arrest on Nov. 1, 2007.
Jones initially denied any involvement in Raley-McCluskey's death.
Later he said he woke up after a night of drinking to find his roommate dead, then panicked and buried her body because he didn't think anyone would believe a parolee who had been to federal prison for violating gun laws.
After a barrage of questions and a trip to the foothills, Jones told investigators he punched Raley-McCluskey after she argued with him over a $20 bill and clawed one of his eyes. She was bloodied and dead, so he got drunk. The next morning he decided to bury her body in the foothills.
Whether he killed her or found her dead, Jones buried Raley-McCluskey's body in a forested area off Whites Gulch Road, about a mile east of Groveland, on land owned by his parents.
"He worked through the night and into the morning, digging a hole," Plante said.
Jones, 49, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and is held in lieu of $2 million bail. The preliminary hearing, which continues today, is needed so Judge Marie Silveira can decide if he should be held for trial.
Raley-McCluskey, 36, was last seen Oct. 10, 1999, when she visited an aunt. Her boyfriend, Mark Keough, reported her missing three days later.
Family members said they were suspicious of Keough, rather than Jones. According to court records, Keough had been arrested for domestic violence involving several women but never convicted.
"We all thought it was Mark," stepmother Donna Raley said during a break Monday. She was married to Raley-McCluskey's father, Bill Raley, who died in 2006. She attended the hearing with Susan Levy, whose daughter Chandra was killed while she was an intern at a federal agency in Washington, D.C.
Raley helped keep the case alive by adding $15,000 to a $10,000 reward offered by police, going on TV to talk about her stepdaughter's disappearance and forming a victims' support group with Levy.
Raley-McCluskey's mother, Barbara West, also attended the hearing.
Raley-McCluskey rented a room from Jones for about two years, in a home that Jones formerly owned on Karen Way in Modesto.
Jones was not under arrest when he implicated himself in Raley-McCluskey's death and burial, and Plante repeatedly said Jones was free to go and could have declined comment.
Jones agreed to help locate Raley-McCluskey's grave after the district attorney's office issued a letter that refers to Jones as a cooperative witness. The letter says Jones' status would not change unless the authorities developed evidence to show that Jones killed Raley-McCluskey.
Defense attorney Frank Carson said Jones' statements should be suppressed because his cooperation was coerced.
Arguments from Carson and Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees are expected at the end of the hearing.
Plante said he befriended Jones to gain his trust, but never suggested that he could escape punishment for a crime.
"I made no guarantees," Plante said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.