The Modesto man accused of killing Dena Raley-McCluskey and burying her body in a shallow grave near Groveland a decade ago will stand trial for her murder, a Stanislaus County judge said Monday.
Raley-McCluskey was last seen by her family Oct. 10, 1999.
Russell Jones, 49, became the prime suspect eight years later when a detective decided to take another crack at the case by interviewing Jones, who had declined to take a polygraph test years earlier.
"I'm elated, because we waited 10 years and we've gone through a lot of torment, hurt and anger," said Raley-McCluskey's stepmother, Donna Raley, who cremated her daughter's remains only Thursday.
"She is home now," Raley said, hugging and crying in the hallway with family members and Modesto police investigators.
Jones' attorney, Frank Carson, was trying to persuade the judge to throw out his client's confession, saying Jones was so terrified of police that he admitted to burying Raley-McCluskey's body after striking her during an argument over a $20 bar tab.
Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira said the evidence shows Jones willingly gave those statements to police. He repeatedly engaged in small talk with officers, invited them into his house and was given food and drink, Silveira said. Jones described one police sergeant as "friendly," she said.
But Silveira's ruling doesn't necessarily mean jurors will hear Jones' confession.
Carson can again attack the credibility of Jones' statements to police. Silveira allowed the statements for the purpose of deciding if there was enough evidence to send Jones to trial, Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees said.
Carson said Jones was kept behind locked doors during hours of interviews at the Mo- desto Police Department despite asking to go home. He said police threatened to throw Jones' parents in jail. And Jones believed he was immune from prosecution after police told him he was a witness, not a suspect, in the death of his roommate, according to Jones' testimony.
In a series of interviews recounted by authorities in court, Jones said he found Raley-McCluskey's body on the bathroom floor of a home they shared on Karen Way, panicked because he had served time for violating federal weapons laws and didn't think anyone would believe he didn't kill her, according to testimony.
Jones admitted burying her body and pointed out the spot to authorities after the district attorney's office wrote a letter saying Jones would be viewed as a cooperative witness unless authorities developed evidence that he killed Raley-McCluskey.
After days of questioning, Jones told detectives he sent the small woman crashing to the floor with a single punch at the end of a long day of drinking, after they argued over the cost of their bar bill.
Later, Jones told a detective that he helped Raley-McCluskey to the bathroom so she could clean up blood on her head. He said she fell to the floor, where he let her stay to sleep off the alcohol.
The next morning, Jones decided to tell no one and bury her body. Raley-McCluskey's skeleton was found Nov. 1, 2007, after several days of digging, and Jones was arrested on suspicion of murder.
Jones remains in custody in lieu of $2 million bail.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.