Pastor Robert “Bob” Lee Pelley and his wife Dawn M. Pelley were doing the best they knew how blending their families. Both widows, Bob had brought his son Jeff Pelley and daughter Jacque Pelley into the marriage, while Dawn had brought three daughters, Jessie, Janel, and Jolene. In an effort to unify the family, Bob and Dawn adopted one another’s children.
While to outsides it may have appeared the Pelleys were a modern day Brady Bunch, behind closed doors it was anything but. Jacque said that she and Dawn frequently argued because she thought Dawn’s homemaker style raising was oppressive for young girls. Jessie later said that Bob was a strict disciplinarian who expected his family to perfect preacher’s children.
Disagreements with stepparents or frustrations with their own parents, there was trouble brewing in the Pelley home. And it was about to boil over.
Dad Says No
Jeff Pelley was 17 years old and a high school senior in the spring of 1989. He wasn’t much different than a lot of boys that age in that he had started getting in to a little trouble as he sought independence as a grown man rather than a boy. And just as many father’s of teenage boys are prone to do, Bob tried to keep his son on the straight an narrow with firm discipline but, because of his role as a preacher, Bob was probably more harsh than some since his son’s behavior could be a major reflection on his abilities to “lead.”
Jeff’s most recent trouble had involved petty theft and, as punishment, Bob had forbid his son to attend pre or post prom activities. Bob also grounded Jeff from driving his Ford Mustange, instead telling him he would provide transportation to and from the prom for Jeff and his date.
Jeff was angry, as would be expected of any teenage boy about to miss some great activities surrounded the second biggest night for a high school senior. He screamed at his father and tossed the common threat of leaving home after graduating and never coming back. Jeff said nothing most parents of rebellious teens haven’t heard before.
But just how angry Jeff really was, was about to come a matter of debate for many, many years to come.
On Saturday, April 29, 1989, Kim Oldenburg, a classmate of Jeff’s, stopped by the Pelley home with her mother and date before going to the prom. Kim later testified that she felt a great deal of tension during the visit and observed that Jeff seemed angry and sullen.
Later that evening, Jeff called his date Darla Adams to let her know he would be late picking her up but first he stopped by an Amoco station and asked to use a wrench because his car was idling rough. After a few minutes under the hood, Jeff was on his way.
Jeff picked Darla up at a friend’s house at approximately 5:30 p.m., went to South Bend for a nice dinner, then attended the dance for the rest of the evening. After the dance was over, they joined other seniors and their dates at the local bowling alley. When bowling began winding down, Jeff and Darla went over to Kim’s house where she was hosting a post-prom slumber party.
The next morning, Jeffrey, Darla, and other members of the Lakeville, Indiana, graduating class of 1989, headed out for a class trip at Six Flags Great America just outside of Chicago, Illinois.
Years later, Darla would say while they were hanging out with friends at the theme park that Jeff suddenly had a premonition. “He told me he had a strange feeling something bad happened at home,” Darla said.
Foreboding or confession? That was the million dollar question.
Where’s The Preacher?
About the time that Jeff was picking up Darla, Crystal Easterday was wondering what was keeping Bob and Dawn Pelley. They said they were going to come by and see her prom dress, but they never showed. So instead Crystal went by the Pelleys on her way to the prom but found no one home; the curtains and blinds were shut, which she found odd but didn’t give it much more thought.
At six o’clock that evening, the Pelley’s neighbor noticed the curtains drawn tight while he wa mowing the yard. He too thought it was strange, as well as the basement light that was still burning after nine o’clock later that evening.
Around 9:30 a.m. the next morning, as congregants gathered at the Olive Branch Church of the United Brethren, several of them noticed the absence of Pastor Bob and his family. When the time for services to begin came and went, folks began discussing it possible reasons for the Pastors no-show.
Was he and the family sick? Surely he would have called someone to take over. Had the family gone out of town? Again, they were certain Pastor Bob would have made arrangements for someone to preach a sermon. These were just a couple of questions members of the flock asked themselves.
After the clock’s seconds hand made several laps, some of the men decided something was terribly wrong and decided to make the short trek to the parsonage next door and check on the Pastor and his family.
Although there was a sense of dread among the made as they made the walk, they kept trying to convince themselves there was a plausible explanation.
Upon arrival, their first idea was to look the windows but they discovered the blinds were uncharacteristically closed for the daytime hours. So they knocked, loudly and several times, but never received an answer. With the uneasiness growing by the minute, Will Tisdale used a spare key from the church gain access to the home.
Almost immediately they found Bob Pelley lying dead from gunshot wounds in the hallway. Tisdale frantically called 911.
While waiting for help to arrive, the group would also discover Dawn Pelley and her daughters Janel and Jolene, also dead from close-range gunshot wounds, dead in the basement.
When police and ambulance arrived, the men told of their discoveries. They also told police that three members of the Pelley family were unaccounted for: Jeff, Jacque, and Jessie.
Had they been kidnapped? Killed and their bodies hidden? Could they be responsible for the killings and on the run?
Police began searching for the three missing Pelley children.
Present and Accounted For
While investigators worked the scene and others were trying to find the missing children, Jessie Pelley returned home from a friend’s house where she had spent the night.
She was confused by all the activity taking place at her house. At only 9 years-old, her first thoughts were something horrible had happened; maybe her dog had died. But soon enough Jessie would learn the much more horrible truth about her parents and sisters.
Despite the shock and trauma Jessie was experiencing, she was able to tell detectives Jacque Pelley was visiting a friend away at college and they called her home and Jeff was on a class trip to Six Flags. Police tracked him down, informed him of the murders, then held him at the theme park office until officers could arrive to take him home.
With everyone present and accounted for, it was time to figure out who had killed this family.
It Has To Be Jeff
Police were already aware of Jeff’s run-in with petty theft, but after taking statements from a few friends of Bob’s at the church, they learned that chances were slim Bob would have had a “change of heart” about Jeff driving his car. According to, Bob had even went so far as to remove certain vital pieces to make sure Jeff didn’t sneak and drive. Bob was that determined to get Jeff back on the straight and narrow.
With no signs of forced entry, police were certain it was an inside job and Jeff certainly had motive. Jeff denied killing his family and kept insisting he was able to drive his car to prom and attending the class trip because his father had relented after making his son promise there would be no more trouble.
Regardless of Jeff’s claims, detectives were certain he was the killer. But there just wasn’t enough evidence to prove it.
The case would remain unsolved for the next 13 years.
Life had moved forward to the remaining Pelly children. Jeff had moved to Florida. He had married and was a Sunday school teacher.
In mid-2002, Saint Joseph County, Indiana, District Attorney Christopher Toth knew he was skating on thin ice with constituents. They were dissatisfied with his job performance, or lack thereof it should be said, and one of their biggest gripes was the unsolved Pelley murder.
As part of his campaign for re-election, Toth promised to get justice for the Pelleys. As if to prove his intentions, Toth got an indictment from the grand jury against the Pelley’s son and on August 2, 2002, Jeff Pelley was arrested and charged with murdering his father, stepmother, and his stepsisters.
Toth had previously declined to seek charges against Jeff, as had the prosecutor before him. Now, however, he used it in an effort to satisfy voters and keep his job.
It didn’t work. Toth’s opponent, Michael A. Dvorak, took over prosecution of the case when he was sworn into office in January 2003. He too had made a promise of justice to voters – and he intended to keep it.
At all costs.
In 1989, when Jeff realized he was the prime suspect, he and his grandfather had spoke with Michael Dvorak, who was then a practicing attorney. When it was brought to his attention in 2002 and Jeff asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed, Dvorak refused to recuse himself and carried forth with trying the case himself.
Despite only having a circumstantial case against Jeff, and a weak one many believed, on Friday, July 21, 2006, Jeff Pelley was found guilty of murdering his family. In October 2006, he was sentenced to 40 years for each murder; a total of 160 years.
In April 2008, the Indiana Court of Appeals “reversed and remanded” Jeff’s conviction but on February 19, 2009, the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated his conviction.
According to the Justice for Jeff website maintained by sister Jacque, in March 2009 The Innocence Project agreed to take Jeff’s case but there have been no updates since that time.
As of this writing, Jeff Pelley is an inmate at Indiana’s Wabash Correctional Facility. He first eligible date for release is October 2, 2085 when he is 114 years old.
In other words, short of judicial intervention, Jeff Pelley will die in prison.
This Author’s Personal Thoughts on the Jeff Pelley Case
Smudged fingerprints and no DNA makes it more difficult to get a conviction in these days of CSI and Law & Order; but it’s not impossible. Just look at Jeff Pelley!
As a two-time mother of teenage boys, I know how angry they can get. Yes, sometimes I’m certain they were angry enough to kill. But to expect they’d then wipe away their fingerprints (and actually get them all), wash and dry a load of clothes, shower off, pull the curtains and blinds closed, and lock the door behind them as they walked out is completely out of the realm of a normal teenage boy; especially in a span of 20 minutes. Is it possible? Yes. Probable? No.
What about Jeff’s seeming lack of cooperation with police during questioning? Considering how those things usually go, I don’t give it much thought.
And the timing of Jeff’s arrest is all too convenient. Chris Toth had declined to prosecute before, but suddenly had a change of heart? With no new evidence? Ha! Like that isn’t a game that’s been played before.
One also can’t forget the Pelleys’ sudden departure from Florida after Bob Pelley, as a bank employee, recovered over a million dollars in missing money or that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) shut the bank down in 1990. It may sound like a wild theory with insinuations of drug lords and other cloak-and-dagger figures, but it’s enough to create reasonable doubt. But the jury was never allowed to hear of such a theory.
I’m not saying Jeff is innocent just that, if I had been sitting on that jury, I could not have convicted him on the flimsy evidence and political aspirations.
I guess you could say I’m a prosecutors nightmare. I believe that when you are sending a person to prison, the standard of evidence must be high; teenage recollections, especially 17 years later, don’t cut it for me.
As English jurist William Blackstone said, “Better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”
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