When the first heavy rain fell on the Northern San Joaquin Valley in the past several years, a frightful, helpless pain sunk Donna Raley into a depression.
Her stepdaughter, 36-year-old Dena Raley-McCluskey of Modesto, had been missing since Oct. 10, 1999, and her family feared the worst.
"You know your child is out there buried in some type of dirt grave," Raley said about those stormy days during her stepdaughter's disappearance. "All you can think about is the dirt getting into her nose, her mouth; all that mud."
Raley-McCluskey's family got some relief last week when Modesto police said they believed they had found the body of Raley-McCluskey in a shallow grave and had arrested a suspect.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
But Donna Raley's anguish is an example of what families experience when loved ones disappear and those responsible remain unidentified and unpunished.
The family endured additional pain with the death of Raley-McCluskey's father, Bill Raley, last year. His health faded as the years passed and his daughter never returned.
"It makes it really hard, and you cry a lot," said Raley, who raised Dena as her own daughter. "And there's nothing you can do about it."
On Wednesday, Modesto police investigators found human remains buried near Groveland in Tuolumne County. While the human remains haven't been positively identified, a police spokesman said investigators are confident the body is that of Raley-McCluskey.
Detectives on Thursday arrested Russell Jones, 47, of Modesto on suspicion of murder. Jones was being held at Stanislaus County Jail without bail. He is expected to appear in court this afternoon for an arraignment hearing.
During her stepdaughter's disappearance, Raley said her family members had three goals that sustained them:
- Find Dena and bring her home.
Raley said she believes Jones did not work alone and that there are others responsible for her daughter's death.
The ultimate goal is achieving justice for victimized families, Raley said. There is no such thing as closure, she said, and the grief never ends.
Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said the department decided to dedicate some full-time resources to investigate unsolved cold cases and created the Cold Case Squad in March.
Cold case investigators worked Raley-McCluskey's case.
"We figured there's got to be a way to help more families find resolution," Wasden said. "We're so sorry for what they're going through. We haven't given up. These cases won't be forgotten or ignored."
Detective Craig Grogan and a missing persons investigator are assigned to work more than 40 unsolved major crimes cases.
But it's more than just a two-person team, Wasden said. Grogan works on the cold cases with other detectives in the department such as investigators in the Economics Crimes Unit or the Special Victims Unit.
They sit in round-table discussions, examining and re-examining a case file with fresh eyes and new talents to move the case forward, Wasden said.
New technology helps cold case detectives discover leads such as pulling DNA evidence from a fingerprint collected years before or searching prison inmate databases for a tattoo, Wasden said.
Sgt. Scott Heller supervises the Crimes Against Persons Unit, which includes the Cold Case Squad. He said time can be a cold case detective's enemy as witnesses may die, move away or their memories fade over the years.
Heller also said time can be a cold case detective's ally when witnesses who initially refused to come forward change their minds.
"Time will weigh on them," Heller said. "They will want to clear their conscience."
'Nobody has come forward'
In 2001, Raley and Susan Levy formed Wings of Protection, a support group for people with missing loved ones.
Levy, of Modesto, is the mother of slain former federal prisons intern Chandra Levy. Her daughter's body was found at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., in May 2002, more than a year after she vanished. No one has been charged in her death.
Wings of Protection holds regular meetings to provide practical advice, emotional support and grief counseling to families of victims. The group also helps arrange vigils in an effort to educate people about missing men, women and children in Stanislaus County.
Boni Driskill is one of the Wings of Protection members who serve as advocates for victims' families, helping them work with investigators, the media and the public in the hope of solving their case.
Driskill holds an annual vigil for her daughter, Lacy Ferguson, who was shot to death after she and her boyfriend bought a pack of cigarettes at a Quik Stop Market in Modesto on Aug. 24, 2003.
Authorities believe Norteño gang members were aiming at a man from Southern California and missed. Ferguson was shot in the head and died on her daughter's third birthday.
Ferguson's mother believes several people saw the shooting but won't speak up. Waiting four years without justice has been frustrating for her family, Driskill said.
"There were a lot of witnesses," Driskill said, "and nobody has come forward."
Driskill and Levy have grown close to Raley. On Friday, Driskill held hands with Raley family members during the Modesto police news conference.
Driskill invites other families of victims to participate in her daughter's vigil in Modesto to help raise awareness of their cases. Driskill said meeting these people has allowed her to find a camaraderie and support in a "club nobody wants to belong to."
"I've met too many people this way," Driskill said. "You're going through the same range of emotions."
Staff turnover hard on families
She said it can be hard on families when new investigators are assigned to unsolved cases as detectives move to new assignments.
"You have to start from the beginning," Driskill said, when another detective is assigned to the case. "You wonder if they had time to go through all the binders in the case file."
Driskill said she has a great working relationship with Stanislaus County sheriff's detective Marc Nuno, who currently leads her daughter's case. She said she realizes the detectives can't share all the information in the case, because it could jeopardize the investigation.
But she said pushing the case forward requires her staying proactive, while raising her 7-year-old granddaughter, Haleigh.
Driskill has appeared on TV's "America's Most Wanted," posted billboards about a $25,000 reward offered by the governor's office and testified before Congress.
"I have a wonderful husband who is supportive," she said. "That's what you need, a supportive family."
Driskill said she is happy Raley can bring her stepdaughter home, and it's reaffirmed her faith that investigators will one day find her daughter's killer.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.