Her four kids don't know what tense to use when they speak of mom — Denita Hedden's oldest daughter bounces between using past and present tense, not knowing which is right.
The Macoupin County woman remains missing, as she has been since her birthday on Jan. 25.
Hedden's estranged husband, Mike Hedden, said he had called a psychic for his own clarity and to learn where Denita Hedden could be found.
Mike Hedden says a a psychic told him the woman is in water with rip rap — loose stone —and in sight of a red barn. A second psychic told him something similar, "almost verbatim," Mike Hedden said.
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But there's a lot of water between where Denita Hedden lived and where she was last seen at the Ameristar Casino in St. Charles.
Since Denita Hedden's disappearance, her smiling face, often pictured with at least one of her children, has graced missing fliers and the Facebook pages of her friends.
The Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis investigated her disappearance, but eventually disbanded. The Macoupin County Sheriff's Department keeps searching and investigators have ideas about what happened to Denita Hedden, but they are not releasing those theories to the public as the investigation continues.
More than 130 law enforcement and volunteer firefighters from 11 counties searched more than 22,000 acres in early February, Macoupin County Sheriff Shawn Kahl said.
"I'd never been involved in one that big before, ever," Kahl said.
Searchers concentrated on roadways near Royal Lakes to find any evidence, he said.
The Macoupin County Emergency Management Agency worked with dozens of search teams, including cadaver dogs, but remain frustrated.
Their efforts included searching Bunker Hill Reservoir, both when it was covered in ice and after it had melted, said EMA Coordinator Jim Pitchford. They’ve drained 10 feet of the lake to expose more shoreline for the dogs, who are rewarded when they find human remains. The dogs are alerting to something, he said, but if it’s related to Hedden’s disappearance or not no one can say.
“None of these dogs have been rewarded because they haven’t found a target,” he said.
Now, the dogs need a break.
"Now we're just hoping somebody comes forward with something ... my goal is to get something and get the Major Case reactivated. There's people out there that know this, and know what happened, and we need to keep pressure on them big-time. We just need something," the sheriff said.
The family and friends are doing what they can, keeping Denita's picture on Facebook and starting GoFundMe pages for the children, who struggle to talk about — and how to talk about — their mom.
Her mom "likes to dance" with her, said 15-year-old Alexis, Denita Hedden's oldest daughter. Alexis misses driving around Gillespie with her mom, singing and dancing to the car radio.
Eva, the youngest at 10, giggled that Mom "couldn't cook, she would burn water."
Isaac, 14, and Chloe, 13, didn't have much to say on a recent afternoon. Getting words out, much less using the right tense, is impossible when Mom has been missing almost two months.
"It's sad," said Mandie Featherstone, who had been married to one of Denita Hedden's brothers. " ... Even the police have offered their condolences to the family."
The family's church, Nameoki United Methodist Church in Granite City, had a service for Denita Hedden on March 3.
The Rev. Mike Rayson said the kids attend church nearly every Sunday with Mike's sister Myna Hedden, who is the youth minister at the church. Mike Hedden also attends, Rayson said, and Denita Hedden came when "the kids were doing something more extraordinary than usual."
The service had about 130 people, about half from the church and about half were friends and family, Rayson said.
"I've seen the difficulty in how do you talk (about Denita Hedden), not just in the kids but other members of the congregation. Which is why we talked about 'Remembering '... when we use memorial or funeral, it means one thing."
The church has started a fund to pay for the children's future needs, Rayson said, such as fees for summer church camps some of the children have expressed interest in.
"People have been very generous," he said.
Denita Hedden had her struggles, friends and family say. She had once overcome a problem with crack, Mike Hedden said. A car accident in February 2017 caused injuries that took months to heal.
She had filed for divorce from Mike, although friends say they were amicable and she sometimes still stayed at his house in nearby Gillespie with the kids.
"It was a difficult family dynamic toward the end ... she was in contact with the kids but not around," Rayson said. "Mike is very, very committed to his kids."
Mike Hedden is not a suspect in her disappearance, Kahl has said.
"Everything he's told us has panned out," the sheriff said of Mike Hedden.
"Mike's a pretty stoic man," Featherstone said. "They may have split up but Mike loved her."
Strong family ties
Denita Hedden was last seen at the Ameristar Casino on her birthday, when unanswered texts and messages had family and friends concerned right away.
"I wished her a happy birthday, and she never responded," said one of her brother's, Raymond Dyer, of Staunton. Her other brother, Justin Dyer, has lived with Mike and the kids for some time.
On the day she disappeared, Raymond and Mike were out with all the kids, hoping Denita would join them for dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
"Us three pretty much always stuck together," Dyer said of him, Denita and Justin.
When she didn't respond, they knew something was wrong. Her roommate reported her missing to the Macoupin Sheriff's Department on Jan. 28.
Police activated the Major Case Squad on Feb. 2.
Alexis said her mom and Uncle Justin would frequently joke and laugh together while hanging out with all the kids.
"She was always, really high spirited person. 'Let's get out and have fun with the kids,'" she would urge, Raymond said.. Alexis said her mom loved to take them to the park; there were always kids around Denita.
Even after Featherstone and Justin Dyer divorced, she and their daughter were still part of Denita's family, Featherstone said.
"I was the brother's ex-wife; he wouldn't make it to (their child's) practices, but she was at every practice, every game," Featherstone said on the phone as her daughter stood near. "My little girl just said to make sure they know Aunt Dee was always there."
"It's not just her kids ... my kids are super close to her. We all lived together; you've got your mom and then you've always got that one other maternal family member, you know what I mean? That was her."
Denita Hedden's daughter Chloe was quiet on a recent afternoon while others talked about her mom. Isaac, her older brother, kept his hands busy with a video game and his eyes averted.
"Chloe has messaged me and asked, 'Are they sure? Are they really sure she's gone?'" Featherstone said. "You know that they don't grasp it, I don't think."