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Denise Fraley was last seen alive in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the early morning hours on Sunday, September 12, 1982.
Denise and her husband, David Fraley, had played in a band Saturday night at a private Cedar Rapids party. Once the couple left the event, Denise was never seen alive again and foul play is suspected in her disappearance.
David Fraley never reported his wife as missing. And, for more than a month, he deterred his wife’s family from filing any missing persons report.
On Thursday, March 19, 1992, Cedar Rapids Gazette writer Jeff Burnham, as part of the Gazette’s “Murdered, Missing, Unsolved” week-long series, wrote extensively about three Iowa women — Jane Wakefield, Lynn Schuller and Denise Fraley — who were strangers in life but connected in volatile relationships, separations and pending divorces.
The following is an excerpt from the story in which Burnham focused solely on Denise Fraley’s life and what happened in the months following her still unsolved disappearance.
Don’t mess with the Mafia.
That warning, issued in the shadow of Denise Fraley’s disappearance nearly a decade ago, kept her out-of-state relatives from coming to Cedar Rapids in search of answers for six months.
Heeding that warning, made by the missing woman’s husband, 29-year-old Dave Fraley, is a decision that Denise Fraley’s family has regretted ever since.
Her sister and parents are convinced the Mafia had nothing to do with Denise Fraley’s disappearance. They fear the 30-year-old woman was murdered. And they often wonder if the six-month delay cost them the chance to prove what really happened.
Born and raised in northwest Missouri, Denise Stark was a cheerleader in high school and graduated as valedictorian of her class. She came to Cedar Rapids in the early 1970s to live with her grandmother. That’s when Denise met Dave Fraley, and the two were married in 1975 in Urbana, his hometown.
A daughter, Haley Jo, was born in 1979. Denise Fraley stayed home to raise the girl while Dave worked as a pest control technician. Both played in bands, often with Denise singing and Dave playing piano.
The two used illegal drugs, according to court records filed later. The judge found that Dave was a drug courier. The judge, based on statements made by Dave, also found that Denise was a drug courier.
Violent episodes were scattered through the marriage, according to a 21-page ruling issued by a judge during a custody battle after Denise Fraley disappeared. There were two documented episodes where she entered a local hospital after her husband had tied her up and beaten her.
The judge’s ruling also says police were called to the Fraley home in June 1981 after Dave Fraley threatened his wife with a gun while he was drunk. Dave later said that in all of the violent episodes, he was merely defending himself from his aggressive wife. But the judge wrote the evidence indicated Dave was lying.
The marriage deteriorated to the point that Dave Fraley filed for divorce in May 1982. Denise Fraley responded by asking for custody of the daughter, then 2-1/2 years old, and a restraining order preventing Dave from making any contact with them. A judge granted the restraining order after Denise cited recent violence by Dave, including threats that he would kill her.
The two had been trying to work out their differences when they spent Labor Day Weekend 1982 with Denise Fraley’s sister in northwest Missouri. That was the last time her sister saw or heard from Denise.
The band the Fraleys were in played at a private party in Cedar Rapids the evening of Sept. 11, 1982, after Dave Fraley had made arrangements to provide the music. He later said Denise disappeared that night, but he gave differing accounts about where he last saw her — whether at the party or back at home. In a deposition related to the divorce, he explained those differences by saying he had been drinking and may have been smoking marijuana.
More than a month went by before Denise Fraley’s family in Missouri had any idea that Denise was missing. Finally, Denise’s mother called the Fraleys in mid-October in hopes of talking to Denise. The phone was answered by Dave Fraley, who hung up when Nadine Stark asked for Denise, Stark later said. She then called the Cedar Rapids police, who sent an officer to the house to see if anything was amiss. It’s unclear what transpired when the officer spoke to Dave Fraley — he declined to comment when contacted by The Gazette and police files on the case were not available.
Nadine Stark officially reported Denise Fraley as missing on Oct. 18, 1982. Within a week, Denise’s sister, Linda Plowman, said Dave Fraley called and explained that Denise had tried to run off with several thousand dollars in drug money that was not hers and that he feared the Mafia was looking for her.
Fraley warned the family that the Mafia wouldn’t take kindly if Denise’s relatives traveled to Cedar Rapids looking for answers, Plowman said. And so, for six months, they heeded Dave Fraley’s warning and stayed away. Meanwhile, an investigation by Cedar Rapids police had stalled.
Finally, Linda Plowman decided she didn’t care if the Mafia was involved — though she never believed that anyway. In March 1983, she and her mother made the first of many trips to Cedar Rapids in search of answers.
They convinced police to reopen the investigation. They hired their own private investigator. They also hired an attorney and entered the divorce proceeding to obtain custody of Haley Jo.
While the custody issue was pending, the Plowmans obtained temporary custody of the child for about six months. During that time, they later said in court affidavits, Haley Jo told them she had seen her mother tied to rocks and thrown into a river.
Child development experts later interviewed the girl and said her statements should be taken seriously. But they could not conclude whether she was speaking of something she had actually seen or if the story came from watching the movie “Poltergeist.”
The police investigation again stalled, but not before detective Robert Manchester said he believed there was a “50-50” chance that Denise Fraley was murdered. He even named the likely killer.
Through the various investigations, Denise’s family started learning that Dave Fraley had given several conflicting explanations about what had happened to Denise. While some were told that Denise may have been harmed by drug-dealing thugs, some were told by Dave that Denise had simply left to further her singing career.
The custody battle continued for several months. Included was a deposition by Dave Fraley that said Denise called him two days after the party, said she had been “ripped off” in a drug deal and told him to take care of Haley Jo. He said he hadn’t seen her since.
He explained the other accounts by saying he had speculated to some people about what might have happened to Denise.
In the same testimony, Dave Fraley said he had been kidnapped and forced to take a lie detector test by individuals with the Mafia who wanted to find Denise Fraley and the money she had allegedly taken. But he also indicated he wasn’t particularly interested in helping police find those thugs or in helping find Denise.
The divorce was granted in January 1984. The custody battle ended about the same time when Juvenile Judge Brent Harstad awarded custody of Haley Jo to Dave Fraley.
Dental information and charting is available and entered.
If you have any information about Denise Fraley’s suspicious disappearance or suspected homicide, please contact the Iowa DCI at (515) 725-6010 or Lt. Craig Furnish at the Cedar Rapids Police Department at (319) 286-5478.