Dana Bruce smiles softly as she poses in a black dress.
She stands and leans back against a chest freezer in the strapless, knee-length gown, one leg crossed in front of the other.
Her voluminous dark hair is tucked behind her ears as it falls to her shoulders. Her mouth turns upward into a grin.
Bruce’s smile is bigger when she holds her children.
Beaming, she cradles Dylan and Destany, who are still small enough for both to fit in her lap. They stare into the camera while their mother wraps her arms around them.
Both pictures have begun to fade in the 10 years since Bruce last held her children.
Dylan, 13, feels the distance of a decade from Oct. 4, 2008, the night his mother left him and Destany, now 11, with a babysitter and never made it home.
The Sedalia Police Department poured countless hours of manpower and years of investigating into Bruce’s disappearance, but the case remains open. A lack of hard evidence has given no clear picture of the night she went missing after going to a Sedalia bar.
Neither Dylan nor Destany has any memory of their mother, they said. So, they turn to internet searches of her disappearance. Dylan said he reads online articles about his mother once a month.
They rely on the memories of those who knew her, developing an understanding of their mother from other people’s recollections. Their paternal grandmother, Janet Uplinger, keeps a box of photos and baby books of Bruce, who was 23 when she disappeared, to preserve her memory.
“The only things I have are pictures,” Destany said. “I think she’s nice, caring because I heard that she would never leave us alone. She would always be with us.”
Bruce was a dedicated mom who came from a difficult background, Uplinger said. She spent time in the foster care system and lived in a girls group home in Sedalia.
“I think her biggest motivation was she just wanted a better life than the life she had had,” Uplinger said. “She never wanted to go back to that type of life.”
Bruce met Dylan and Destany’s father when she was a teenager and became closer with his family than her own. She lived with Uplinger in the Jefferson City area on and off. When she moved back to Sedalia, she kept in contact with her children’s paternal relatives, many of whom live in Sedalia.
Bruce was the primary caregiver for Dylan and Destany, and the three of them were practically inseparable.
“If she went somewhere she took them with her,” said Junior Jeffries, great-grandfather to Dylan and Destany. “If you saw her, you’d see her two kids, as well.”
Uplinger began caring for the children once Bruce went missing. She later filed for custody and became Dylan and Destany’s legal guardian.
“I always told (Bruce) that I would make sure to help her take care of these kids, and I had to keep my promise to her,” Uplinger said. “She’d just moved into this new apartment, and she told me that day that she just wanted me to be proud of her, like she was trying to make her life better and better for the kids.
“Those were her last words to me, and it always kind of stuck in my head.”
Bruce’s disappearance constantly turns in Marty Holdeman’s mind, as well.
The former SPD detective joined the case in the days after she was reported missing. Police learned Bruce had dropped her children off at a babysitter’s home and went out for Saturday night.
Video evidence placed Bruce at Malone’s bar in downtown Sedalia, but facts on where she went afterward and with whom have been elusive. Rumors have swirled in the years since Oct. 4, 2008, and accounts and reports have done nothing but conflict with each other, Holdeman said.
Officers walked along creeks, and dive teams swam through rock quarries. Detectives investigated in cities nearby, including a location in Smithton and an empty house in Cole Camp.
“I saw these guys work,” Holdeman said. “We gave it everything we had.”
Investigators from SPD even flew across the country, as some followed up on a suspect who had left Missouri, said former SPD Chief John DeGonia, who was the head of the department when Bruce went missing.
Leads drew detectives far and wide and eventually to nowhere. With an abundance of gossip and lies surrounding Bruce’s disappearance, Holdeman said finding the truth became like grasping at smoke.
“If more people came forward and said, ‘This is what I saw, this is what I know,’ I believe it would have took a faster direction,” DeGonia said. “When you look at the footage, there were several people in (the bar).
“You can’t tell me there’s 50 to 100 people who just don’t know what’s going on.”
Leads started to dwindle, but Holdeman stuck with the case. Even after he retired from SPD, he continued as a reserve officer solely to chase down tips about Bruce.
He has since left SPD’s reserves, and the case has passed on to another Sedalia detective, Travis St. Cyr. The detective said he has shared the case with the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Violent Crimes Support Unit, who can enter the files into an electronic format and put a fresh set of eyes on the investigation.
In the meantime, Bruce’s family is still waiting for her to come home, her children hoping to have more than pictures.
“I just pray that someday someone will come forward with some information to let us know what happened,” Uplinger said. “I feel like we’re going to resolve this case. I feel like someone’s going to come forward. I know we’re going to find the truth.”