BEND, Ore. -

It was a brutal murder that shocked Central Oregon. Now, Brenda Middlekauff's killer -- her own husband -- is serving life in prison.

But, it took a long nine years for Darrell Middlekauff to go to trial.

It began in July 2002, when the La Pine woman was reported missing by her co-workers at Bend's Fred Meyer. Based on the circumstances of her disappearance, Deschutes County sheriff's detectives suspected early on something terrible had happened to her. But her husband, Darrell, told several conflicting stories of where she'd gone.

"At that point, red flags go up," said Det. Sgt. Chad Davis, one of the lead investigators on the case. "If this is truly a loved one, then you're going to be on the phone trying to find them, doing everything you can, and he was not doing that. He was evasive, he was continuing in his drug world."

(Middlekauff later would admit to using and dealing meth for a number of years.)

As those early weeks turned into years, investigators made several trips to California, where Darrell Middlekauff had previously lived, to track down witnesses, and re-interviewed family and friends.

But with no hard evidence -- and no sign of Brenda -- detectives began to struggle.

"We were kind of grasping at straws, in terms of trying to find her," Davis said of the investigation as it entered its third year. "We had done some searches of properties with cadaver dogs trying to find her, without success. It went so far as people were contacting us, psychics had contacted us trying to give us leads."

Then came a bombshell in the case.

Human remains were discovered in a barrel, less than a mile from the couple's home. Dental records proved it was Brenda; she'd been tied up with duct tape, and shot three times in the head.

"That really re-invigorated the case, because now we had a body, we had the cause and manner of her death, and we had evidence to collect as well," Davis said.

Items found inside the barrel -- like a quilt, and clothing -- matched those from Brenda's home.

At the time Brenda's body was discovered, Darrell Middlekauff already was serving time in prison in Eastern Oregon for an unrelated burglary.

Then came a second key piece of evidence: letters Middlekauff wrote from prison, detailing the crime in a way only the murderer could know.

After a grand jury indictment -- and with only weeks left on his burglary sentence -- Middlekauff was charged with aggravated murder in his wife's death in 2006, and was transferred to the Deschutes County Jail, where he would spend the next five years.

It was a personal victory for sheriff's Det. Sgt. Chad Davis. He'd joined the case in 2004, when he transferred into detectives.

"So I was able to see the case from when she went missing until we actually had him in custody," he said.

As fate would have it, Davis rotated off the case at that point, and later would transfer back onto detectives -- six months before Middlekauff's eventual trial in 2011. He would be in court nearly every day for the trial and sentencing, and saw the case through to the very end.

But back in 2006, Middlekauff's arrest would be the first piece of closure for Brenda's sister, Rita Ege.

"I've gotten to know Rita Ege quite well, and we communicate over the phone, and there are Christmas cards sent back and forth and things like that," Davis said.

The momentum in the case began to shift more toward the prosecution, once Middlekauff was charged

With more than 900 pieces of evidence, more than 100 witnesses to call in the case, and thousands of pages of police reports to review, Deschutes County Deputy DAs Beth Bagley and Steve Gunnels poured their lives into the case.

"Just the sheer volume of information involved in it was beyond anything I'd ever managed or dealt with in my career," said Bagley, who spent all nine years on the case.

Bagley and Gunnels originally were preparing for Middlekauff's trial to begin in early 2009. But then, another twist, and delay.

"We came up close to the trial date -- and he fired his attorneys, got a new set of attorneys, and they were on the case for about a year," Gunnels said. "Then those attorneys were fired ,and he started over again."