Tag Archive for killer kids

“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.

The Hy Hat Club

Phil Kennamer

For those who have doubts about the fairness of the American justice system, the murder trial of Phil Kennamer in 1935 may provide a bit of assurance that sometimes, no matter who the defendant knows, justice can be served (that is if you do not mind a manslaughter conviction where murder may be appropriate).
 
Kennamer was the pampered son of a prominent federal judge from Tulsa, Okla., who was convicted of killing a friend, John Gorrell, shortly after Thanksgiving Day 1934 despite having a high-powered former state attorney general leading his defense and some of the country’s preeminent psychiatrists of the day testifying that he was insane at the time he shot Gorrell twice in the head.
 
Kennamer’s unusual dual defense of temporary insanity and self-defense failed to completely sway the jury of 12 of Oklahoma’s common folk who discarded the circumstantial evidence of murder in favor of a manslaughter charge. The judge still came down hard on Kennamer, sentencing him to 25 years in prison. After the state appellate court denied Kennamer’s appeal his supporters pleaded for a commutation from the governor, but those fell on deaf ears and the wavy-haired erudite society boy with heavy eyelids and over-sized ears ended up serving a good part of his sentence before being given a chance to redeem himself (John Gorrellbut we’ll get to that later).
 
Gorrell’s murder shined a light on an exclusive “club” within Tulsa’s well-heeled: The children of what we now call nouveau riche made wealthy by the nation’s ever-increasing hunger for oil. The Hy Hat Club, as the brats dubbed themselves, was a group of swells and younger post-debs who seemed to have it all and wanted more. By 21st century standards most of what the Hy Hatters did was tame, but for the early 1930s it was beyond scandalous.
 
Consider the club’s informal initiation ritual: Drink 10 glasses of beer, hop into a car, and drive around a corner at 60 mph. Once accepted, the Hy Hatter was invited to drink heavily, drive fast, and, according to a contemporary newspaper account, smoke “the stupefying marihuana weed and other things yet more sinister.”
 
One anonymous Hy Hatter explained the youthful ennui this way to an International News Service reporter:

The whole trouble in Tulsa society is this: Forty years ago these millionaires did not have a dime. They were workers in the oil fields and their wives were just ordinary girls — some of them waitresses and the like. Then comes the golden flood of oil and gold. They had millions all of a sudden. They showered money, money, money on their children. Too many expensive automobiles, too much time to do nothing.

In all fairness to the alarmist reporter, some of the Hy Hatters were involved in things more sinister (which also will be revealed later). The Register will defer to you about whether smoking the “stupefying marihuana weed” is sinister, but we can all stipulate that drinking and driving is perhaps not sinister, but is stupid and unacceptable behavior in any decade or among any group.
 
Young Kennamer was one of the more wild Hy Hatters and good friend of the group’s leader, Sidney Bora, who was described as “President of the Oil Town’s ‘Flaming Youth’ Organization.” Sidney would come to a tragic end of his own, but (you guessed it) we’ll get to that later.
 
Prior to coming to the attention of the Tulsa police for his involvement in Gorrell’s death, Kennamer wrecked three cars, emerging unscathed from two and with a gash to his forehead from the last, which he displayed with the pride of a German military school student sporting dueling scars. He had been trouble from the get-go, according to his family. The Oklahoma Court of Appeals summarized Kennamer’s resume thusly:

Judge Kennamer, father of the defendant, testified at length as to the conduct, actions, and declarations of his son Phil from the time of his birth up to the night of the tragedy. He stated that he had sent him to the New Mexico Military School in 1930; that he ran away from there the following spring; that in 1931 he sent him to the Southeastern Normal School, at Durant; the next year went to San Angelo, Tex.; that he disappeared from San Angelo; later he was located at New Orleans; that when he returned to Tulsa he entered high school, later quit high school, attended Cascia Hall three or four months; that he had a very emotional disposition and at times he was very unreasonable in his conversations and actions; that he had told him seriously that he wanted to join a revolution in some foreign country. He talked of joining the French Foreign Legion, saying it would be a good way to banish himself from decent society; that he secured various positions for his son, when he started out to make a living for himself, and he would work a few weeks and quit…

Kennamer, Gorrell, and probably Bora, were at the center of the things more sinister performed by the Hy Hatters, who, bored with drinking, getting high, and driving fast, began to turn to crime. At first the offenses were petty, like stealing and selling dope, but eventually the little imps began to tire of those. Most Hy Hatters were somewhere in that hazy area between high school and college and although they were children of privilege, pocket money was still hard to come by thanks to a mania for high-stakes gambling. The inner circle wanted money and they wanted to get it fast and as easily as possible — preferably without any outside work or heavy lifting. Their first thought was extortion. The Hy Hatters tried to get other rich but not-too-bright youths into compromising situations usually involving sex and then taking incriminating Kodaks, but while smoking pot and drinking bathtub gin was all right in Tulsa, old-time sexual mores still held sway in the flat lands of Oklahoma and there weren’t enough loose girls or boys to make that scheme profitable. Something else would have to be done.
 
The ’30s was the decade of the outlaw, and one of the more popular crimes for gangsters was kidnapping. Two high-profile snatches had been made right around the time things began to go bad for the Hy Hatters. The Barker-Karpis gang held Edward Bremer, son of a wealthy Minnesota Banker and brewery magnate, hostage until his family came up with $200,000 ransom, while closer to home, Machine Gun Kelly kidnapped oil wildcatter Charles Urschel from his home in Oklahoma City. Kelly’s crime ended up with him being captured and sent to Alcatraz, but for a while, it looked as if Creepy Karpis and Ma Barker had gotten away with theirs.
 
Allegedly Gorrell came up with the idea to kidnap one of Tulsa’s debutantes while he was in college in Kansas City. Unfortunately, the target he chose was the pretty young woman that Kennamer was infatuated with.
 
Virginia WilcoxBrazen-headed Virginia Wilcox was the 19-year-old daughter of Tulsa oil magnate Homer F. Wilcox. Virginia was one of those women who is easy to hate for all the wrong reasons. She had it put together: Not only was she wealthy, but she was confident, smart and beautiful. Virginia was not part of the Hy Hat crowd but she dated Phil Kennamer four or five times. She would later testify that she did not know John Gorrell at all.
 
There was no romance between Virginia and Phil Kennamer; in fact she had expressed her dislike for the wild son of the federal judge. At his trial when the defense put forward the notion when Gorrell announced that the target of the kidnapping plot was Virginia Wilcox, something snapped in Phil’s besotted head. He began to see himself as Virginia’s protector who had to slay the man who sought to harm her. The prosecution countered with testimony that Kennamer’s infatuation had turned into a love-hate obsession that eliminated his motive of protection.
 
“He said that he was very fond of Miss Wilcox and thought a lot of her at one time, and she didn’t care for his attention, that she disliked them and spurned them,” testified Hy Hatter Otto Kramer. “He felt very bitter towards it all, not only to her but to her family, and he expressed himself as going to get even sometime, if it took him to his last days.”
 
Regardless, when Gorrell put forward his plan, Kennamer was unwilling to let it move forward. Clearly his reticence was not because he was afraid:
 
“Kennamer said he knew a place … where they sell beer and sandwiches,” one of Gorrell’s friends, Ted Bath, said from the stand. “He knew that on Monday mornings, probably early in the morning, one or two o’clock, there would be a sum of money there, probably three or four hundred dollars, and suggested hat he and I and John should hijack this place and get that money.”
 
When Bath declined, Kennamer suggested the unsuccessful blackmail scheme.
 
“He suggested then that he would defray all of my expenses if I would make an effort to ingratiate myself with Virginia Wilcox as to be able to get her into a compromising situation, so that some pictures could be taken of her,” Bath testified. “I said I wouldn’t be interested.”
 
Kennamer was still unhappy with the kidnapping plan and tried to convince Gorrell to settle for a different form of extortion, which Gorrell apparently accepted — at least for the time being. Kennamer took a page from the crime manual of early 20th century Italian immigrants: the Black Hand scheme.
 
In a Black Hand scheme a blackmailer alleges to be part of a powerful crime organization and threatens harm to the victim unless money is given to buy off the extortionist. The name comes from the mythical “Black Hand” gang that spread terror among the new Italian immigrants. There was never such an organization and should not be confused with the Mafia, but it did give rise to the term “blackmail.”
 
Gorrell and Kennamer wrote a note demanding $20,000 from Homer Wilcox or one of his two children would be harmed. Kennamer was supposed to mail the note.
 
Ransom NoteSomewhere along the line Kennamer decided not to go through with the plot. His motivation remains unclear, but according to the defense he was either insane at the time or not insane and attempting to protect the woman he loved.
 
Kennamer made no secret of his new-found hatred for his former partner-in-crime. He flew to Kansas City where Gorrell was studying dentistry allegedly with the intention of killing him. His initial plot does indicate some unsoundness of mind. Floyd J. Huff, the prosecution’s star witness recounted a conversation he had with Kennamer:

Kennamer asked me if I knew why he came up to Kansas City, I told him I did not and asked him why, and he said, “I came up to kill Gorrell,” I looked at the boy and he said, “You do not believe me.” He told me his intention was to rent an aeroplane, that they were going to take a ride above the clouds and when they got up there he was going to hit Gorrell over the head and he was going to jump out in a parachute I guess, the only way he could have gone if he intended to live.

The plot failed when Kennamer and Gorrell — who was a licensed pilot — failed to rent a plane in Kansas City.
 
Things came to a head on Thanksgiving night 1934. Most of the Hy Hatters were hanging out at the Owl Tavern in Tulsa where 3.2 beer was legal. Kennamer came in around 9:30 p.m. or so and stupidly boasted to anyone in earshot that he was looking for Gorrell and wanted to kill him. He displayed his weapon of choice, a large hunting knife that was certainly able to do the job. His friends took him at his word and made an effort to stop him. Randall (Beebee) Morton recalled that Kennamer told him “It is eaither Gorrell’s life or my own.”
 
“I said, ‘Phil, maybe I had better take that knife, I may want to use it going hunting,’ and I just reached over and got it and put it in my overcoat pocket,” Morton testified. “He said, ‘Beebe, are you going to send me out with these bare hands to kill Gorrell.’ I said, ‘Yes, if that is the way you want to go, Phil,’ and he just walked out and left the tavern.”
 
Later that night Kennamer and Gorrell had it out. They were in Gorrell’s car arguing when Gorrell took out his revolver. Kennamer managed to take it away from him and shot his ex-friend twice in the head, killing him immediately.
 
Two days later, accompanied by his father the federal judge, Phil Kennamer surrendered to police and was charged with murder. His attorneys immediately pressed for psychiatric tests and some of the era’s great American psychiatrists examined him. In typical fashion the doctors hired by the defense found him insane, while those for the state disagreed.
 
Noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger was the lead doctor for Kennamer’s side.

I think he was irrational. I think he did not fully understand the consequences of his own acts. I do not think he was able to distinguish between right and wrong because of his mental illness at the time, and that his mental illness was of such a nature that he was incapable of grasping the ordinarily accepted standards, but rather substitute his own. His egotism is so great and his belief in his own omnipotence, his own greatness and his own perfection seem to me to have been so great that he had rather his own moral code, which to him seemed the proper one rather than that which the rest of society, including ourselves, ordinarily accepts. This mental illness has been classified in the modern books and by the profession generally as psychopathic personality.

Since Kennamer never denied killing Gorrell the defense used the backup strategy that Kennamer shot Gorrell in self defense, fearing for his life.
 
The brief trial was the talk of Tulsa and exposed the Hy Hat club to the light of day. In the end the jury rejected the self-defense and insanity arguments and found Kennamer guilty of manslaughter, apparently coming to the decision since Gorrell displayed the gun but Kennamer put himself in harm’s way.
 
The judge lowered the boom on Kennamer, sentencing him to 25 years in prison.
 
Kennamer disappeared into the prison system until 1938 when he was granted a six-month parole to spend time with his dying mother. Tongues wagged that the special treatment was the result of Kennamer’s pedigree, and they were probably right. However, when the appeals court upheld his conviction and the state Supreme Court decided not to take up the case, he was returned to jail.
 
Six years later Kennamer was given parole with the stipulation that he join the army to fight in World War II. He finally got the opportunity to jump out of airplanes, serving in Europe with the 13th Airborne, 460th Parachute Artillery Battalion. He died in France on Aug. 14, 1944.
 
As for Bora, the Hy Hat club president, he was found dead in his car shortly after Gorrell was killed (Kennamer was in jail at the time). The coroner ruled the case a suicide, but his family never accepted the decision. The club disbanded after the murder scandal.