Clay Waller gets 5 years on federal charge of making online threats

Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Ruby and Stan, right, Rawson and Lt. David James exit the Rush H. Limbaugh Sr. Federal Courthouse Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 3, 2011 after Clay Waller was sentenced to five years in a federal prison for threatening his sister-in-law on an Internet site. Waller is a suspect in the disappearance of the the Rawson's daughter, Jacque Waller, who has been missing since June. (Laura Simon)

A federal judge sentenced Clay Waller to five years in a federal penitentiary Tuesday for Internet threatening charges. But first the judge told Waller that the evidence indicated he was guilty of murdering his missing wife, Jacque Waller.

Clay Waller pleaded guilty Oct. 3 to threatening Cheryl Brenneke, his wife's sister and the guardian of his three children, on the Internet site Topix. After hearing emotional testimony from Brenneke and federal prosecutor Larry Ferrell's plea to significantly vary from the suggested six- to 12-month sentence, Judge Stephen Limbaugh imposed the maximum sentence on Clay Waller, who has spent the last several months in federal custody.

"The court finds that based on preponderance, you did murder Jacque Waller," Limbaugh told Clay Waller shortly before sentencing him.

Clay Waller

Jacque Waller has been missing since June 1, and Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle has written that the state anticipates filing a murder charge against Clay Waller in connection to her disappearance.

The sentence came after more than an hour of Brenneke's testimony, which outlined her close relationship with her younger sister and Jacque's children, as well as the mental and physical rigors her sister's disappearance had on her. Brenneke said she lost and gained weight, had nightmares and could not function normally as a result of the anxiety caused by her missing sibling.

"Jacque wasn't just my sister; she was my best friend," Brenneke testified. "I'm devastated and I still haven't gotten to grieve."

Ferrell had Brenneke testify in an effort to move the sentencing guidelines up two levels on the basis of Clay Waller targeting a vulnerable victim. Federal guidelines dictate that a victim is vulnerable when their age, physical or mental condition makes them susceptible to the criminal conduct. Brenneke's anguish over her missing sister made her susceptible to the threat, Limbaugh ruled.

Brenneke said she grew closest to her sister when Jacque Waller was struggling to get pregnant. Jacque Waller was at Brenneke's home almost every weekend and confided in Brenneke several details about her marriage, namely Clay Waller's alleged death threats against her and their three children -- threats Brenneke called constant.

Because of the threats, Jacque would often leave Clay to stay with her parents or Brenneke in Farmington, Mo., Brenneke said. Despite being several miles away from Clay, who lived in Jackson, Jacque remained fearful.

"She would not sit on my couch without the curtains closed for fear [Clay Waller] would snipe her from the woods," Brenneke said, noting that her home is on a country road in a sparsely populated area.

Although Brenneke said she begged her sister to go to the police, Jacque always refused and would go back to Clay.

Jacque eventually moved out of her home and in with her parents in March, Brenneke testified. Although Clay Waller's threats remained constant, Jacque began to move on and started seeing another man.

"She finally knew what happiness truly was," Brenneke said. "She said she finally felt like everything was coming together."

Brenneke said Jacque became tired of living in fear and that if Clay was going to kill her, she would have to accept it. On June 1, she signed papers pertaining to the divorce. After she spoke to Jacque at 3:50 p.m. that day, Brenneke said she never heard from her sister again.

When Jacque was not home in time for dinner that night, Brenneke said she knew immediately that Clay Waller had killed her sister.

"I told my husband I thought Clay killed her," Brenneke said.

Since Jacque's disappearance June 1, volunteers and law enforcement have scoured several areas around Southeast Missouri in hopes of finding her body. David James, the lieutenant at the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department who heads up the investigation, declined to comment Tuesday.

Brenneke said she toiled in constant anguish because of her sister's disappearance. On July 26, that anguish turned into fear when Clay Waller threatened her over the Internet message board Topix.

"You are dead I promise if those children get hurt, your fault, accident, nobody's fault," he wrote on Topix. "Your dad threaten [sic] clay, I know he's all talk, I will get you 5, 10, 25 years from now. You have it coming."

Brenneke said she took the threat seriously because she felt Clay Waller had killed her sister -- someone he supposedly loved -- and would have no qualms about doing the same to her.

"He thinks I have it coming," Brenneke said. "He thinks he is going to end my life."

Brenneke said she felt the threat was unconditional of what happened to the children under her watch.

Offense level raised

As a result of Brenneke's testimony, Limbaugh raised the offense level from 10 to 12, which heightened the sentencing guidelines from six to 12 months to 10 to 16 months.

Scott Tilsen, Clay Waller's federal attorney, told Limbaugh his client was unaware of Brenneke's vulnerability. Tilsen said the government was imprisoning Clay Waller for a murder he has not been charged with or convicted of and that he would appeal the sentence. Tilsen has 14 business days to file an appeal.

"We could have a system where we punish people for crimes they're not charged with, but that would not be the system our founding fathers implemented," Tilsen said.

Clay Waller has denied any involvement in his wife's disappearance. Authorities have labeled him a suspect on numerous occasions.

Assistant Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney Angel Woodruff, who argued in November to get Clay Waller's father's testimony preserved, was present at the hearing and declined to comment. James Clay Waller Sr. allegedly told federal investigators while they were looking into the Internet threat that his son had confessed to murdering Jacque Waller. Preservation of his testimony was denied because charges hadn't yet been filed against Clay Waller, and the elder Waller died Dec. 20.

While investigators do not have the elder Waller's testimony, they have carpet with Jacque's blood on it that was found in a crawl space in Clay Waller's home. They've also scoured the area near where Jacque's vehicle was abandoned and found some evidence there, though authorities won't discuss what was found.

Before being sentenced, Clay Waller apologized for the threats.

"I'm sorry for any kind of trouble I caused," he said. "I just miss my kids."

Limbaugh accepted Tilsen's plea to send Clay Waller to a federal penitentiary near Southeast Missouri. Waller will be required to serve 85 percent of the sentence and will get credit for the four months he's already served. After the hearing, Tilsen said the closest penitentiaries are in Marion, Ill., and Memphis, Tenn.

Once he gets out of federal prison, Clay Waller will face state theft and harassment charges. Because he is in federal custody, he cannot attend court dates for those charges.

Clay Waller remains in solitary confinement in the Pemiscot County Jail, Tilsen said.

Brenneke said her brother-in-law's sentence brings some closure, but that the ultimate closure will come when they find her sister.

"I feel safe knowing that he's behind bars," Brenneke said. "The judge came to the conclusion that he did kill my sister. Justice was served."


Pertinent address:

555 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, Mo

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