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.
Sometime 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.