COLUMBIA, Mo. – A home movie shows a devoted mother, her pride evident as her 5-year-old triplets ditch the training wheels and ride their bikes for the first time without help.
Frozen in time, the moment reminds Jacque Sue Waller's son and two daughters of their 39-year-old mother's love amid the domestic uproar that threatened their parents' 17-year-marriage. The children's questions about her current whereabouts are more difficult to handle.
"At night, when they go to bed and say prayers, they want to know where Mommy is," said Ruby Rawson, Waller's mother.
Nearly two months have passed since Waller went missing on a Wednesday afternoon, the same day family members say she and estranged husband Clay Waller planned to visit a divorce attorney in the southeast Missouri city of Cape Girardeau. She was last seen near her husband's home in nearby Jackson, her car abandoned along Interstate 55 with a flat tire.
Jackson police and a regional major case squad quickly identified Clay Waller, a former Cape Girardeau County sheriff's deputy and construction company owner, as a person of interest. Clay Waller told police he and his wife argued that day but denies any role in what is currently a missing person's case. No charges have been filed.
"Clay misses Jacque. He is saddened and shocked by her disappearance," said Scott Reynolds, Clay Waller's attorney. "He hopes and prays for her safe return and his heart goes out to the Rawson family despite their repeated accusations against him."
Investigators have declined to discuss whether their inquiry extends beyond Clay Waller.
"We're continuing to make progress and following up on leads," said Jackson police Lt. Rodney Barnes. "We're not going to discuss any of our evidence."
Friends and loved ones say Jacque Waller, a former cheerleader at Southeast Missouri State University who met her future husband while in college, would never leave her children behind.
"She was the most devoted mother I've ever seen," said her father, Stan Rawson. "She loved those kids."
Nearly 100 volunteers joined police searchers on foot and horseback, aided by local K-9 units, to scour a rural stretch of Cape Girardeau County last weekend. An even larger search effort is planned for this weekend. But Rawson has said he doubts his daughter is still alive.
"I have two hopes — slim and none," he said.
Clay Waller declined an Associated Press interview request made through his attorney. In his only public comments, Waller told the Southeast Missourian newspaper this week that police and the community are on a "witch hunt" against him. Waller also denied that the couple planned to divorce, instead describing their split as a separation.
Clay Waller spent seven years with the county sheriff's department and also owned a Marble Hill-based construction company until December, the Southeast Missourian reported. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Cape Girardeau County commission in 2004 and its City Council a year later.
Ruby Rawson said her daughter's relationship with her husband began deteriorating several months ago. Jacque Waller moved in with her older sister in Ste. Genevieve, about 60 miles north of Cape Girardeau, and planned to rent her own apartment with the children in a move that would have her living closer to her parents and an older brother.
Waller also had arranged to work from home for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield after serving as a manager in the company's Cape Girardeau office.
"She was so happy she would get to be up here, near her family," Ruby Rawson said.
Waller's parents said their daughter embraced the challenges of raising three small children born after a successful in vitro fertilization procedure. They described a frequent conversation in the household: The triplets would ask, "Why did God give you three babies?" but already knew the answer by heart.
"They would say, 'Because he knew you could handle it,'" Ruby Rawson told the Southeast Missourian in a video interview.
A judge has rejected Clay Waller's attempts to visit his children, who are in temporary custody with Jacque Waller's sister. A custody hearing scheduled for this week was postponed until October.
Both the Rawsons and Clay Waller's attorney said they have been regularly briefed by police and don't want to publicly share further details that could compromise the investigation.
In the meantime, Rawson, his wife and their older daughter continue to publicize the case, hoping doing so will help bring closure.
"This thing is winding up," Stan Rawson said. "One thing we've got is a lot of patience."
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