Did Jeff Pelley really massacre his family?
For 32 years, most people have thought the sullen Lakeville, Ind., teenager killed his pastor father, stepmother and two little half-sisters in the grisly tragedy known as “The Prom Night Murders.”
But a just-released 20-episode podcast, Counterclock, digs deep into the homicides and suggests that Pelley’s father had a shady past in south Florida involving ties to drug cartels and killers that might have caught up with him in Indiana — and that his son might have been doomed by a flawed trial.
The bodies of the Rev. Robert Pelley, his wife Dawn, and Dawn’s daughters Janel and Jolene, ages 8 and 6 respectively, were found shot at close range with what was believed to be the family shotgun on the night of April 29, 1989. The gruesome discovery in their home was made the next morning — hours after the high school prom — by parishioners of nearby Olive Branch Church.
At first police thought Bob Pelley killed his family and turned the gun on himself.
But the case was never closed and cold-case detectives became increasingly suspicious of Jeff. He was finally arrested in 2002 at the age of 34, married with a child and working for IBM.
Prosecutors at the time claimed the then-17-year-old Jeff was angry that his father, as punishment for bad behavior, forbid him from driving to the dance and from going to after-prom activities. They said he committed the murders, then drove away in his 1984 gray Ford Mustang, picked up his date Darla, and went to the prom at the local Elks Lodge.
Pelley was convicted of four counts of murder in 2006 and sentenced to 160 years in prison. He is serving time at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Terre Haute, Ind.
But Jeff Pelley was convicted on purely circumstantial evidence. The murder weapon was never found, nor were there any shell casings found at the scene.
The most compelling evidence offered to the jury, according to the podcast, was witness testimony from neighbors and church members who said that Bob Pelley told them that the only way Jeff could attend the prom was if he drove him and that he wasn’t going to allow him to go to after-prom activities. The fact that Jeff drove himself to the prom and went to the post-prom indicated to them that he must have murdered his family to do so.
Pelley’s conviction was even briefly overturned on appeal in 2008 before being reinstated. He has always maintained his innocence and his lawyer, Frances Watson, who’s a professor at Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law and a wrongful conviction specialist, is going to court June 25 for a status conference to ask the judge to grant a new evidentiary hearing that Pelley hopes could lead to a new trial.
Watson has asked prosecutors for items of evidence that were taken from the crime scene in 1989 that Jeff’s trial attorney in 2006 was never given. Watson especially wants them to turn over Bob Pelley’s camera, which she believes contain photos taken them on prom night.
Watson told The Post there is other evidence never presented to the jury — a credible witness named Toni Beehler who went to police in 2003 after Jeff Pelley’s arrest and advised of a conversation she had had with Bob Pelley in which he said he was scared that he and his family would be killed as a result of his past actions in Florida.
The podcast host and producer, investigative reporter Delia D’Ambra, spent a year looking into the murders, including hours visiting people familiar with the case in Lakeville and poring over more than 6,000 documents.
D’Ambra is careful not to say outright whether she thinks Jeff Pelley is innocent or guilty but said she delved deep into Bob Pelley’s former life in Fort Myers, Fla., where he oversaw the computer processing component of the entire Landmark financial institution network, a notorious bank which at the time had been involved with cocaine trafficking from South America and money laundering.
“He worked at the central processing hub with these connected banking institutions and the feds called it a ‘candy factory,’” Watson told The Post.
D’Ambra found even more people who had intel about Bob Pelley’s dark side.
“There are witnesses who have come forward to say that Bob Pelley left Florida because he was afraid of people there related to activities going on at the bank,” D’Ambra told the Post. “He moved from Florida to Indiana very abruptly in 1986.”
“I think Pelley left to remove himself from the situation,” D’Ambra said. “I think he was fearful and knew something he shouldn’t have known.”
At the same time, Bob Pelley was friends with people from his Florida church (he was just a parishioner at the time) who had ties to a local real estate developer, Eric Dawson, who was murdered execution-style in 1988 in a still-unsolved case. Dawson did most of his business at Landmark Bank.
D’Ambra said she believes Jeff Pelley’s trial was “botched” because evidence and information involving Bob Pelley’s past was never investigated.
Pelley’s stepsister, Jessica, wrote a memoir in 2019 called “I Am Jessica” describing how she was bullied by Jeff after her widowed mother, Dawn, married Bob Pelley. Jessica was away at a sleepover the night her family was killed and indicates in her book that she thinks Jeff killed the family.
Jeff’s biological sister, Jacque, was also out of the house that night, but believes Jeff is innocent and maintains a website, Justice for Jeff, in which she says cops failed to even fingerprint the crime scene.
Says Watson, “At first read, one asks did he do it? But once you start turning over the rocks you find facts that distinctly point toward Jeff’s innocence. It’s a crazy story.”