By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
When Denise wasn't working, she was almost always with her family, whether she was bass fishing or playing bingo with her mother in Washington County near Potosi or taking her grandmother, who lived a block away from Denise, out for a day of shopping and French onion soup at Famous-Barr. She liked to putter around her gray frame home, making sure it was "just so," tending to the zinnias in her garden or her multicolored rosebush, splashing around with the kids in her backyard pool. On her days off, she'd have pajama parties with Jennie -- an evening of popcorn and movies, just the two of them huddled in front of the VCR. If Johnnie Brock's had a new shipment of Beanie Babies in, Denise could be found waiting in line, because Jennie loved them. Every Christmas, she showered her daughters with gifts, racking up charges on her credit card no matter how tight the family finances. It was her favorite time of the year. She'd have the tree up and decorated the day after Thanksgiving, without fail. She favored holiday sweaters, much to her older daughter's chagrin, especially a green one with a snowy landscape scene. She could be incredibly soft-hearted, and her generosity extended beyond her family. One year Denise took in a young girl and her mother who'd ended up at a Salvation Army shelter, buying the child a heap of presents that she could scarcely afford. When one of her friends, also a single mom, was struggling at Christmastime, Denise handed her one of her credit cards and instructed her to shop. "Pay me back whenever you can," she told her.
Denise's birthday was creeping up on her -- her 40th would have been in August -- and she was dreading it. At the same time, though, family members had begun noticing a surge of confidence and optimism in Denise that they hadn't seen before, or at least in a long time. At Angie's urging, Denise got a different haircut, a more up-to-date style. She was going to a tanning booth occasionally, getting manicures, talking about the men at work who flirted with her, such as a St. Louis Blues hockey player who repeatedly asked her out. Denise was flattered by the attention. She was also proud of the career she had carved out for herself, and she cherished the rewards of her hard work, trading her old Ford Escort for the white 1997 Chrysler Cirrus complete with the gold trim package. In the car, Denise listened to the same kind of music as her daughters and kept up with the latest tunes. In July, she and Jennie went out and bought a Third Eye Blind CD with the song "Semi-Charmed Life." "She used to say that was her life," Angie recalls. "She'd say, "This is the life I live, a semi-charmed kind of life.'"
It certainly hadn't been an easy one.
Denise grew up in South St. Louis the eldest of four daughters. Even as a child, Denise could be outspoken, hot-tempered and strong-willed. At 16, she insisted on moving out, dropping out of high school and marrying her high-school sweetheart. Her mother, Sandy Cantrell, described that time as Denise's "hippie stage." She was pregnant two months later and gave birth to Angie at 17. But the marriage was rocky, and Sandy says her daughter moved back home when she was pregnant. Denise and her husband gave it a second try when their daughter was 3 months old, but it didn't last. The marriage ended in divorce.
Denise married a second time when Angie was a toddler. But that marriage was also short-lived. It lasted about a year-and-a-half until Denise met, and fell in love with, Larry Wolff, who was a friend of her second husband's. They married in 1983 at a ceremony at City Hall. The wedding made the television news. "I didn't even know she was getting married; I tried to talk her out of it," Sandy recalls, describing Larry, back then, as a man with long hair who wore chains and boots with big heels. "Denny says to me, "Mom, you ain't gonna believe this, but watch Channel 4. We got married on TV.' City Hall had just decided they were going to do small ceremonies, and they wanted to do a little advertisement of what they were doing," Sandy says. "They had a cake and everything. It was bizarre."
That marriage was often rocky. Both Larry and Denise could be stubborn and hot-tempered, Sandy says, and when they had a big argument, the two would race to get home first and move all the furniture out of their house or apartment. Things seemed to settle down somewhat after a few years, and their daughter, whom they named Jennifer Sue, was born in 1987.
By 1990, the couple had moved into a double-wide trailer in Robertsville, Mo., near Pacific, where Larry's parents owned 3 acres. Denise felt isolated and bored there with no money and no car. Cathy Hatton, one of Denise's younger sisters, says Larry would often stay at Cathy's house in St. Louis, because he was working for the city as a plumbing inspector and had to have a city address, but often, when Denise called to speak to him, Larry wasn't home, Cathy says. "He stopped buying groceries and paying the bills down there, and he wasn't coming home," she says. Denise's older daughter, Angie, from her first marriage, also did not get along with Larry. Family members disagree on precisely what the final straw was, but eight months after moving to Roberts-ville, Denise called Cathy and told her to rent the biggest U-Haul she could find and help her move out of the trailer while Larry was at work. Cathy did.