Archive for 2000s

“Inconsistent with the Laws of Nature”

The Pelley Family

Some people just can’t accept the fact that a case built entirely on circumstantial evidence can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty of a crime. They like to see fingerprints on the knife, hear eyewitness testimony, or, thanks to TV’s love affair with DNA, atomic-level proof that the defendant left a piece of himself behind at the crime scene.
 
People have, and will continue to be, executed after being convicted solely on circumstantial evidence.
 
To a juror, the rules of evidence demand that circumstantial evidence must carry the same weight as evidence that points directly to the defendant’s guilt.
 
So, why is it difficult for some to accept the fact that Robert Jeffrey Pelley, known as Jeff, killed his father, stepmother, and two stepsisters so he could attend his high school prom? Among those who believe Pelley is not a murderer are his surviving sister, Jacque Delp, and a family friend and former detective Phillip Hawley; they believe that the murder investigation was botched by detectives who too-quickly narrowed the focus of their investigation on Pelley and the criminal justice system that ignored exculpatory evidence that might have raised reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror.
 
When a case is built solely on circumstantial evidence it can be knocked down by a defense that can present an equally plausible scenario. While the defense is under no obligation to present any evidence of innocence and may rely solely on the state’s ability to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, a circumstantial case offers the defense an opportunity to present an alternative theory of how the crime occurred without having to explain away direct evidence like fingerprints, DNA, or what-have-you.
 
So, in the interest of justice, the Malefactor’s Register will present the two sides of Jeff Pelley’s case and let the readers decide if the jurors and Indiana Supreme Court made the right decision when they agreed that Pelley was the person who nearly obliterated an entire family with a shotgun one warm Saturday night in April, 1989.


Things weren’t going smoothly in the Pelley household that spring. Seventeen-year-old Jeff was at war with his father, the Rev. Robert Pelley, whom everyone called Bob.
 
Jeff reportedly was resentful of Dawn, his stepmother. Jeff’s mother had died of cancer in 1985 and Bob had married Dawn less than a year later. She brought three daughters to the family: Jessica, Janel, and Jolene, ages 10, 8, and 6, respectively. Jeff’s sister, Jacque was 14 at the time of the murders.
 
The family dynamics pitted Jeff and Jacque against the rest of the family, particularly, Dawn.
 
“We didn’t always get along with Dawn or see eye to eye with her,” Jacque told ABC News in a retrospective on Jeff’s case. “We did not agree with the way Dawn was raising the girls, because it was different than the way we were raised.”
 
The feeling was mutual on the other side, said Jessica during the same program.
 
“I just remember a lot of rules,” she said. “Like in church, we couldn’t talk at all. We had to sit there and listen. If we did talk, you know we got a spanking when we got home.”
 
Prior to becoming a minister, Bob worked at a Florida bank with ties to known drug dealers. One incident that may have a bearing on the case occurred shortly before the family moved to Indiana. Bob, who was the IT director at the bank, was called into work one night around midnight after a surprise audit revealed that $1 million had been embezzled. Bob worked with investigators to track down the culprit.
 
Shortly after, Bob heard the call of the Holy Spirit and took a job as a minister at the Olive Branch Church of the United Bretheren in Christ in Lakeville, Indiana, about 10 miles or so outside South Bend.
 
Scott PelleySometime in April 1989 Jeff had been grounded, throwing a serious wrench into his prom-night plans with his girlfriend, Darla. Part of the grounding involved Bob prohibiting Jeff from driving his prized Ford Mustang and attending any activities around the prom — including a class trip to the Great America amusement park outside Chicago. To ensure that Jeff did not simply grab some keys and drive uninsured, Bob told a friend that he had removed a part of the engine from the Mustang.
 
Shortly before prom night, Jeff told Darla that he was lobbying his father to ease the restrictions for the weekend.
 
Eventually Jeff received permission to attend the prom on the condition that Bob drive him and Darla. Shortly after that announcement, Jeff told Darla that his father had a change of heart agreed to allow Jeff to attend all prom-related events on his own. He told Darla to keep the news quiet because “it was a sore subject” amongst the family. This conflicted with testimony of five people at Jeff’s murder trial who said that Bob told them that Jeff was only going to the actual dance and that Bob was driving him.
 
Jeff went to work at McDonald’s as usual that Saturday morning, returning home in the early afternoon. The entire Pelley family was present except Jacque and Jessica who were spending the weekend with friends.
 
As the prom approached, friends of Jeff’s began dropping by the parsonage where the Pelleys lived. At 4:30, Kim, a former girlfriend and her mother and prom date stopped by to show off the young lady’s prom dress. Kim later testified that she felt tension at the house and that Jeff was particularly quiet and not dressed for the prom: he was casually dressed in a pink and blue shirt and blue jeans.
 
Another friend, Matt, stopped in for a few minutes until he realized that he left his date’s corsage at home. He departed and at 5:15 p.m., passed the house, noticing Jeff’s car in the driveway.
 
Darla received a phone call from Jeff at 5:20 p.m. He said he was at a nearby Amoco gas station and called to let her know he was experiencing car trouble and was running late. The attendants later told police that Jeff was dressed in a black shirt and jeans.
 
By 5:30 p.m. Jeff and Darla were at a friend’s house, where Jeff changed into a tuxedo. The two couples then left for a prom-night dinner. Meanwhile, back at the Pelley household, a family friend who had been expecting Bob and Dawn to stop by to see her in her prom dress showed up on the porch on her way to the dance. She found all of the Pelley vehicles except Jeff’s where they were expected to be. She did notice that the house was uncharacteristically silent and dark. All of the window shades were drawn and the doors were locked.
 
Jeff and Darla enjoyed a dinner in South Bend and around 7:30 p.m. arrived at the prom. He and Darla attended a post-prom party at a local bowling alley and then spent the night at a sleep-over at a friend’s house.
 
Around 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 30, Jeff and Darla left the sleepover to get Darla’s car and some money. While Darla was retrieving money from her house, Jeff spoke with Darla’s mother, who said she was surprised that he was going to Great America. Jeff responded that he had a “two-day pass from Pelley prison.” Jeff and Darla and the group from the slumber party proceeded to Great America.
 
At Great America, Jeff became quiet and told Darla that he “had a feeling that something was wrong,” and “felt like something wasn’t right inside.”
 
The Pelley family was discovered around 9:30 a.m. when they failed to show up for the Sunday service at the church. Trustees from the church found a spare key and entered the house.
 
The church elders found Bob Pelley’s body in the upstairs hallway. He had been shot twice with deer slugs from a 20-gauge shotgun, once in the chest and once in the neck. His feet were pointed toward the end of the hallway leading to Jeff’s bedroom and the master bedroom, and he was dressed in everyday clothes rather than pajamas or church clothes. The trustees called an ambulance. After the paramedics arrived, they found the bodies of Dawn, Janel, and Jolene huddled together in the basement, also dressed in everyday clothes. Each had been shot once from a distance of a few feet with the same shotgun. Dawn had been shot in the temple, Janel in the forehead, and Jolene just below her right eye.
 
There was no sign of burglary or forced entry and the only item that anyone could identify as missing was Bob’s 20-gauge Mossburg pump-action shotgun. Jessica told police that she saw the gun on the gun rack in Bob and Dawn’s bedroom before she left to visit friends on Friday afternoon.
 
Inside a washing machine was a small load consisting of a pink and blue shirt, blue jeans, and socks that had been through a wash cycle. A luminol test of the washing machine cylinder was inconclusive, indicating either a reaction with blood or with the phosphates found in laundry detergents used in 1989.
 
Jeff was somehow tracked down at Great America by authorities and brought back to Lakeville. On the way home, Jeff — unprompted — said he “didn’t do it,” and asked Darla if she believed him.
 
Jeff gave two statements to police, one at 4:45 a.m. in the presence of his grandparents. He said he stopped at Casey’s gas station to fix his car that he said was idling too fast. At 7 p.m., he gave another statement and repeated the same story. However, by this time police had questioned Darla, who told them that Jeff had called from the Amoco station.
 
Jeff, visibly upset by being called out by detectives, claimed he stopped at both Casey’s and the Amoco — fixing his car at the Amoco and then heading to Casey’s to buy a soda. The detectives pointed out that soda was available at the Amoco.
 
Once investigators came out and accused Jeff of the murders, he “slumped down in his chair, lowered his head, covered his eyes, and asked whether he could see Darla that night, whether he would go to jail that night, and whether he would get the electric chair,” according to testimony at his trial.
 
Jeff was not arrested until 2002, he did not go to trial for the murders until 2007 — when he was 34 years old — due in large part to legal wrangling between the state and defense about admissibility of evidence related to counseling the family underwent in 1988 and 1989. An entire law review article could be written about those proceedings, but that’s outside the scope of this article. Additionally, another article could be written about the court’s decisions about what evidence was admissible and what wasn’t.
 
At trial Jeff’s defense was that it was impossible for someone to meet the timeline established by the prosecution. In short, his case-in-chief was that the state’s theory of the crimes was “inconsistent with the laws of nature and human experience.” Pelley argued that a teenager, within twenty minutes, could not kill four of his family members, put his clothes in the washing machine, pick up the shotgun shells, take a shower, get dressed, draw the blinds, lock the doors, fix his car, and dispose of the gun and shells.
 
Jeff also wanted to present numerous statements that might explain an alternative theory of the crime. However, most of the evidence was ruled inadmissable — rulings that have held up on appeal. He was not allowed to present evidence about:

  • Bob’s role at the corrupt bank
  • Inconsistencies between statements made by Jacque and Jessica about the presence of the shotgun in the master bedroom that Friday
  • How he did not have any bruising that might have resulted from firing so many shots from a shotgun
  • The alleged presence of suspicious cars outside the parsonage in the days leading up to the murder (He offered a report made to investigators in August 2002 that a resident on the Pelley‘s street said that another person who also lived on the street told him he had seen a white limousine with Florida license plates in the area of the Pelley home on the day of the prom in 1989)
  • The long delay in charging him and the allegation that the prosecutor said “there was not enough information to charge this case,” and
  • The prosecution was politically motivated to help the prosecutor during an election year.

Jacque has continued to fight for Jeff’s release, presenting evidence she claims will exonerate her brother. According to an article in the South Bend Tribune, Jacque claimed to have uncovered the following evidence:

  • Aother man who reportedly confessed to the crimes. She said the man knows details of the crime scene not revealed to the general public.
  • Robert Pelley also received a death threat in the weeks before the family was killed, and
  • Despite an extensive search, no murder weapon — or the Mossburg — has ever been found.

A website devoted to Jeff’s case indicates that The Innocence Project is interested in his case, but no updates have been made to the site since 2012.

Poison for Dummies

George Trepal

Imagine the predicament of Special Agent Susan Gorek of the Polk County, Florida, Sheriff’s Department. She was hot on the trial of a suspected poisoner and acting undercover, only to be served several meals by the man’s wife at a murder mystery party where poison was the fatal weapon.
 
Not only was her quarry, George Trepal, suspected of killing his neighbor, Peggy Carr, and attempting to kill the rest of her family, he was possibly flaunting his actions by staging a mystery party based on the facts of his crime.
 
“When a death threat appears on the doorstep, prudent people throw out all their food and watch what they eat. Hardly anyone dies from magic,” Trepal wrote in a brochure promoting the event Voodoo for Fun and Profit. “Most items on the doorstep are just a neighbor’s way of saying, ‘I don’t like you. Move or else.'”
 
That was exactly the reason authorities suspected that Trepal poisoned the Carr family: He just didn’t like them.
 
Trepal and the Carr family blended like oil and water, and while nothing excuses Trepal’s unilateral solution to the problems he was having with his neighbors, the facts that came out at Trepal’s murder trial indicate that the Carrs were not exactly the folks most of us would want for neighbors. They were loud, sometimes selfish and inconsiderate, and there were a lot of them, which conflicted with Trepal’s desire simply to be alone.
 
Trepal and his wife moved into their home in Alturas, Florida, in the early 1980s and apparently existed in a tense but quiet solitude alongside their neighbors, a divorced father named Pye Carr and his son. The homes were located amid orange groves and were very isolated. The next nearest neighbors were about a quarter-mile away.
 
The quiet solitude ended in 1988 when Pye married Peggy and she moved into the home with her son. Around the same time Pye began to illegally convert his garage into an apartment for his two daughters and granddaughter. That construction caused the first major altercation between the Trepals and the Carrs after Trepal went to the county authorities and reported Pye’s actions. The county ordered Pye to cease and desist until he received the zoning variance and obtained the appropriate permits, which he eventually did, obviously increasing the cost of the project.
 
Most of the incidents between the Trepals and Carrs were of the annoyance type: lots of complaints about loud radios, motorcycles crossing the property lines — which prompted the first “death threat” by Trepal — and barking dogs. They were certainly not the kind of irritants that would result in murder.
 
While Trepal was the most frequent complainer, the Carr family was not without blame. After the relationship between the families deteriorated the Carrs would often provoke Trepal with loud noises and usually refused to turn down the radio when Trepal or his wife complained. Probably not the nicest thing to do, but not deserving of death threats and murder.
 
In June 1988, the Carrs received a letter threatening that they would all die if they did not leave Florida immediately: “You and all your so-called family have two weeks to move out of Florida forever or else you will all die. This is no joke.”
 
To the Carrs there was no doubt who wrote the letter, but apparently they shrugged it off as another of Trepal’s idle threats.
 
What the Carrs did not know was that their neighbor was an accomplished chemist who once served three years in prison for manufacturing methamphetamine. They also did not know that Trepal and his partners used the “P2P method” where thallium nitrate can be used in the process. Specifically, thallium III nitrate can be used to produce phenyl-II-propanone, an immediate precursor used in the manufacture of both methamphetamine and amphetamine. When the P2P is produced, a sediment drops out of solution, and that sediment is thallium I nitrate. The P2P is then used to manufacture meth, and the thallium I nitrate is disposed of.
 
To the well-informed homicidal chemist, however, thallium in any form and in the right dose can be fatal.
 
Thallium is a bluish-white metal that is found in trace amounts in the earth’s crust. In its pure form, thallium is odorless and tasteless. People who ingest large amounts of thallium over a short time have reported vomiting, diarrhea, temporary hair loss, and effects on the nervous system, lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys. Death by thallium poisoning is a slow, painful process.
 
On October 23, 1988, Peggy Carr began to show symptoms of an unknown illness, including nausea, pain in her chest and extremities, and difficulty breathing. She was admitted to Bartow Memorial Hospital the next day and stayed for three days. Back at home, Peggy’s symptoms worsened, and the children in the Carr home, Travis and Duane, began to show similar symptoms. On October 30, 1988, Peggy, Travis, and Duane were admitted to Winter Haven Hospital
 
Fortunately for the Carrs, the physician treating the family suspected thallium poisoning based on the symptoms displayed. Within one day, thallium poisoning was confirmed.
 
Despite treatment, Peggy Carr’s condition deteriorated, and within a week she lapsed into a coma from which she never awoke.
 
She died on March 3, 1989 when life-support was disconnected. Duane remained hospitalized for two months and Travis for six months, but both eventually recovered. Tests revealed the presence of thallium not only in Travis and Duane, but also in Pye, his daughter Gelena, and his granddaughter Kasey, who also lived with Pye and Peggy.
 
Florida officials did not consider Peggy’s death a homicide but did begin an investigation into how the family came into contact with thallium.
 
At the Carrs’ home investigators recovered an 8-pack of 16-ounce glass Coca-Cola bottles from the kitchen. Three bottles were full and four were empty.
 
Florida and FBI Laboratories tested and found thallium in the three full bottles and thallium residue in the four empty bottles.
 
The lot numbers of the cola bottles allowed police to trace when and where the bottles were produced. Officials determined that it was impossible for eight bottles containing thallium to end up being packaged together. Coca-Cola officials claimed that they had not received any other reports of poisoning or threats related to tampering with their product.
 
The bottle caps from the three full bottles showed evidence of having been removed by a small tool and then placed back onto the bottles with a press or capping device. The investigation became a criminal one.
 
Detective Ernest Mincey of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office led the investigation and the interview of Trepal that put him on the police’s radar. In his interview, which took place on December 22, 1988, Trepal looked very nervous.
 
When asked why someone might want to poison the Carr family, Trepal said perhaps someone wanted them to move out of their house, which, Trepal noted, the Carrs had done. Mincey found this response suspicious because it was different from those given by the more than 50 people Mincey had already interviewed and that it was “almost identical” to the threatening letter.
 
Further investigation revealed that Trepal lied to investigators on several points: He told Detective Mincey and FBI Agent Brad Brekke that he was a self-employed computer programmer and technical writer and he knew nothing of thallium. Trepal also told police that he accompanied his wife to her office each day (she was a physician and was never implicated in any crime) when in fact he stayed at home. This gave him access to the Carr home because they told police that they rarely locked their doors.
 
Additional circumstantial evidence helped make Trepal the primary suspect: He made homemade wine and owned a device that could be used to re-cap soda bottles.
 
Despite Trepal’s strange behavior, there was not enough evidence to charge Trepal with any crime. The investigation went cold until Trepal gave authorities a reason to suspect him even more and the perfect opportunity to nail him for his crime.
 
In April 1989 an article in the local newspaper profiled upcoming events for the Mensa organization, of which Trepal and his wife were members. The article discussed an upcoming “Mensa murder weekend” role-playing event that Trepal and his wife were hosting. Susan Goreck, a Special Agent with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, began an undercover investigation of Trepal by attending the event under the assumed name “Sherry Guin.”
 
The Mensa murder weekend was held at a local hotel. There were four “murders” acted out during the weekend, which the participants, while acting out their roles, tried to solve. The story concerned voodoo. The murders were very sophisticated, and each of the four was preceded by the victim receiving a threatening note. Trepal’s wife wrote the murder scenarios with Trepal’s help. In particular, Trepal himself wrote a booklet given to participants during the weekend that discussed, among other things, poisoning and threats by neighbors.
 
It stated:


Few voodooists believe they can be killed by psychic means, but no one doubts that he can be poisoned. When a death threat appears on the doorstep, prudent people throw out all their food and watch what they eat. Hardly anyone dies from magic. Most items on the doorstep are just a neighbor’s way of saying, “I don’t like you. Move or else.”

Agent Goreck ingratiated herself with Trepal during the weekend and became friends with Trepal and his wife. When Trepal told Gorek that he and his wife wanted to sell their home, she responded that she might be interested. Eventually they reached an agreement where Gorek would rent the house.
 
During the weekend, Trepal told Goreck that he and his wife were planning to move and that Trepal might be selling his Alturas home. Goreck told Trepal she would like to look at Trepal’s home if it were for sale.
 
In November 1989, Trepal and his wife moved to Sebring, Florida. From December 1989 to January 1990, Goreck rented Trepal’s home in Alturas. While Goreck was renting Trepal’s house in Alturas, she and other law enforcement officers searched it. FBI Agent Brekke found a brown bottle inside the drawer of a workbench in Trepal’s detached garage. Brekke uncapped the bottle and saw residue inside it. Goreck sent the bottle to the FBI Lab for analysis. The FBI Lab informed investigators that the bottle contained thallium I nitrate.
 
Numerous chemical and poison-related books were found in Trepal’s new home, including a pamphlet written by Trepal called “Chemistry for the Complete Idiot, Practical Guide to all Chemistry” with pictures and index and a homemade journal described as by prosecutors as “a general poison guide.”
 
Trepal’s journal included photocopied pages from a book entitled Poison Detection in Human Organs. One of the photocopied pages included a discussion of thallium. The journal was tested for fingerprints and was found to have Trepal’s prints on it. Trepal’s wife’s prints were not found on the journal.
 
Trepal’s journal also contained photocopied pages from another book with a section entitled “Death by Poison Synopsis.” One page from the journal stated (incorrectly) that “Determining whether a person died as a result of natural illness or as a result of poisoning is one of the most difficult types of investigation both for the officer and for the medical expert.” The page described
 
the process by which one tries to determine if someone has been poisoned. The next page in the journal stated, among other things, “The presence of any one poison is so difficult to ascertain that it may be undetected unless the [medical] examiner has some idea as to the type of poison for which he is looking.”
 
Trepal was charged with seven counts of poisoning and one of murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death in Polk County on March 6, 1991. All subsequent appeals have been fruitless and at the age of 65 he has the dubious honor of being one of the oldest prisoners on Florida’s death row — one who has spent almost one-third of his life there.
 
Ironically, Trepal got his wish. After Peggy died, the Carr family moved out of state.