Delia launches her investigation into the Pelley family murders by going back in time. Interviews with family members and close friends establish critical information that explains what led the family to Indiana in 1989.
Delia D’Ambra: This season of CounterClock we at audiochuck are doing something… a little different.
The story I’m investigating… is so big and so twisted that to wrap your head around it we think it’s important you hear the whole thing. All at once.
On top of that – time is of the essence.
This is the first case I’ve covered for CounterClock that is still actively going through the criminal justice system.
For the first time, we are releasing this new season… All at once, for you to binge.
This is season 3 episode 1 of CounterClock: establishing base – and this is exactly where you should be starting if you want to understand this confounding mystery.
For a long time, I thought that I would begin telling you this story at the place I started when it got my interest as an investigator…Olive Branch United Brethren Church…the end of April 1989 in rural Lakeville—middle of nowhere Indiana.
The parsonage next to the country church is where reverend Bob Pelley… his second wife, Dawn…teenage son , Jeff, and daughters Jacque, Jessica, Janel and Jolene lived in 1989.
The buildings are still there today…
32 years ago, the parsonage became the scene of one of the worst and most infamous family massacre in Indiana history.
But I’ve realized that in order to really tell you the story and prepare you for what my investigation has uncovered … I have to go back a little further than 1989.
Almost 20 years…To 1970.
That year, on September 11th, Robert “Bob” Pelley married his first wife, Ava Joy Armstrong.
The couple met in the late 60’s at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio…just north of Columbus.
Bob, was from Ohio. And had enrolled in some classes at Youngstown State University before meeting his wife…but eventually transferred to Mount Vernon Nazarene because he felt called to more religious studies.
Ava…who everyone called “Joy” …was from Kentucky. According to Joy’s parents, Mary and Jack Armstrong, Bob and Joy’s love blossomed quickly after they met and it didn’t take long before they went from dating to being engaged.
*SFX of wedding bells*
After their wedding…Bob and Joy moved into a trailer down the street from Joy’s parents— near the city of Florence, Kentucky.
Bob, despite completing an education in religious studies, took a job in Kentucky working with computers at a company called Square-d Manufacturing.
*SFX of factory sounds*
Now if you’ve ever been to Kentucky or Ohio, you know, that manufacturing is a big part of the economy and the middle-class workforce.
In the early 70’s, as computers and the technology industry as a whole was advancing, Bob developed a strong interest in computer programming.
So, his job in Florence at Square-d was perfect for him…even though it was far from any kind of ministry.
That, would come later.
*SFX of baby crying *
In December 1971, Bob and Joy welcomed their first child…a son. They named him Robert Jeffrey Pelley… After his father.
The only difference was that Bob’s middle name was Lee. So, to prevent any confusion with two Robert Pelley’s running around, Robert Junior went by “Jeff”.
By 1980, the couple’s second child had been born.
*SFX of sound of little girl laughing/playing*
A daughter named Jacque.
In April 1980, Bob and Joy moved the family from Kentucky, to Cape Coral, Florida…
*SFX of waves crashing*
At the time, Cape Coral was an up-and-coming residential city in the southwest part of the sunshine state–about halfway between Tampa and the affluent city of Naples.
Now, to just give you a little background on Cape Coral…it’s *very* different than Kentucky, as you might imagine.
Cape Coral was then, and still is, a tropical Floridian coastal city. It has balmy mid-70’s weather most of the year—and palm trees are everywhere.
I worked as a reporter in the city for four years. And I can honestly say the only negatives to the place are that summer thunderstorms are severe there.
*SFX of horns honking and cars idling*
And the traffic can be bad, but that’s about it. It truly is a beautiful place to live.
*SFX of construction sounds, waves and boat sounds*
It’s 80 percent single-family homes and condos all packed into a peninsula that’s bordered on one side by the Caloosahatchee River and the rest of the city is flanked by estuaries from the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, the cape is the largest city in southwest Florida with nearly 200-thousand residents.
Back in the early 80’s there were way fewer people, but it still had a buzz about it that made it a good place for a young family to settle down.
Deed records show that by 1983 Bob and Joy had bought a home and were settling in nicely. They had a pool, a nice neighborhood, and Bob was making a decent living.
The Pelley’s were committed members of the Fort Myers First Church of the Nazarene. That church was in the city of Fort Myers, about 20 minutes southeast of where they lived.
A person who immediately befriended the family was their pastor, Michael Ross.
Michael Ross: Bob and Joy were very active.
They’d have the teens over for a party after church or what- whatever.
Bob was in some type of leadership, maybe on the board or something…but I do know that they both were very well thought of and very active and, um, there was no problems with their leadership or anything. They were, they were very involved.
Delia D’Ambra: Throughout the early eighties Bob and Joy instilled their strong Christian faith in their two kids. There were rules, and expectations when it came to how Jeff and Jacque were to behave and honor the lord.
By 1984 Jeff was 13, a full-blown teenager, and Jacque was a little girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman.
Bob took on the role of disciplinarian, like a lot of fathers do. Especially when it came to Jeff.
Here’s Pastor Ross again to explain.
Michael Ross: I never saw anything out of Jeff personally that was anything beyond a normal teenage boy. You know.
Any teenage boys went and do stupid things. Uh, Jeff overdid it a couple times. His expression of anger were sometimes extreme.
I observed Bob was harsh with the kids, very strict. He did not abuse them physically or anything, but he, he could come down pretty hard.
Delia D’Ambra: According to Jacque, Joy was more forgiving, particularly with Jeff.
She handled correction more softly… but when she needed to be, was still stern when it came to the expectations she had for her children.
The family was tight—but, mostly because of Bob’s personality, the entire family was restrained when it came to affection.
Jacque Pelley: I have all good memories of growing up with my mom and dad and Jeff. Our life was normal, comparatively to other people.
We were all close. Jeff may have been closer to mom. They had more of the same sense of humor, and I was probably closer to my dad who got his feelings hurt a little bit more than my mom ever did. Dad was big on, we were never allowed to cry. That’s the way he grew up and that was instilled in us. So, showing emotion around dad was a no-no, but I can’t say that we were ever overly emotional with my mom for the most part. I just remember having fun, all of us. During the week it was work in school, and on the weekend, you worked hard together as a family to clean the house, mow the yard or whatever, and then do something fun on the rest of the day, Saturday and church on Sunday, everything was pretty normal.
Delia D’Ambra: Jacque, and her whole family’s sense of normalcy was shattered in 1984 when Joy was diagnosed with skin cancer.
It was advanced and despite a short period of remission, eventually became terminal.
Jacque Pelley: My mom was big on, she did not want to fight it. She loved Jesus. She wanted to go to heaven and meet her savior and she didn’t do chemo or radiation or any of that. I think when it came back, it did seem pretty quick.
Delia D’Ambra: Pastor ross remembers being super sad when he heard about Joy’s diagnosis.
Michael Ross: I got very close to them, especially after Joy, I’ll never forget her coming to me after service she and Bob and she showed me a place on her arm and it was melanoma…but it had advanced to a point that there was no hope.
Delia D’Ambra: By January 1985, it was clear that Joy wasn’t going to win her fight with cancer.
Bob had changed jobs by that point and was now working as a data center supervisor for Landmark Bank in Fort Myers. The job paid well and that helped him afford Joy’s mounting medical bills.
*SFX of hospital sounds*
By the beginning of February 1985, Bob admitted his sick wife into the full-time care of cape coral hospital, because her health was rapidly declining.
Michael Ross: She was comatose basically so it was one of those turn off the machine things. At what point do you do that…but it was irreversible. She was, last I saw her she didn’t know who was there. Didn’t know anybody was there. She was in a coma basically.
Delia D’Ambra: On February 24th, 1985, Joy Pelley died.
Bob made the decision to remove his wife from life support and let her rest in peace.
Michael Ross: He had to make a decision of how long to sustain her because she was dying, and she was not eating and you know, and that story. And I stuck with him through that. Helped him through it. Guided him. Her family did not particularly agree with his decision, but it was his decision and he caught some flak for it.
Delia D’Ambra: Bob became a widower—with two young kids…and according to pastor ross, he spent most of the family’s money on end-of-life care for joy.
The only people Bob had left were his kids, his in-laws in Kentucky, his family living hundreds of miles away in Ohio, and his church community in Fort Myers.
Pastor Ross says that in the wake of Joy’s death, Bob leaned on his faith and the spiritual family he and joy had grown to know at the church.
Pastor Ross says when it came to paying for Joy’s funeral, Bob had a lot of anxiety.
Michael Ross: I remember he came to me after Joy had died and he said, “I, I don’t have any money. And the only casket I can afford is a cardboard that’s décor,” you know, it looks, they try and make it look like it’s… And I said, “Bob, don’t worry about that. If that’s, that’s what it is, it’s, you know, no one’s gonna think less of you or… ” But when the funeral, when she was brought in, she was in a s- a steel (laughs), I mean, uh, he, she wasn’t in the cardboard one. She was in a, one that was a little more, uh, routine or acceptable. So where he got the money for that, I don’t know.
Delia D’Ambra: Bob had a pretty good paying job at Landmark Bank data center. Did he not?
Michael Ross: Yes
Delia D’Ambra: When he came to you and said, “Financially things are tough right now,” did that surprise you considering-
Michael Ross: Yes.
Delia D’Ambra: You knew what he was doing for a living?
Michael Ross: Yeah, it surprised me.
Delia D’Ambra: Did you ask him-
Michael Ross: No.
Delia D’Ambra: What’s going on?
Michael Ross: No. I just remember saying, “Bob, it doesn’t matter.” You know, “No one’s gonna… ” It, d- an iss… I didn’t say this, but, you know, it’s, it’s gonna be buried in the ground anyhow. Uh, but I tried to minimize his guilt or embarrassment. Uh, but I was surprised that he’d somehow gotten the money for a, a, a nicer casket and where he… Maybe he had it the whole time, didn’t wanna spend it. I don’t know. But I never did explore with him why and what was behind all of that.
Delia D’Ambra: Pastor ross assumed that most likely someone within the congregation had helped Bob pay for Joy’s funeral expenses.
It was the only explanation. Bob was not the kind of guy to make money appear out of thin air. Someone giving the grieving father of two money to pay for his dead wife’s funeral didn’t surprise Pastor Ross. He knew many people in his congregation loved the Pelley family.
Plus, church members recognized that Bob had to continue to care for Jeff and Jacque on his own.
What no one in Florida knew though, was that someone else had also just died.
Hundreds of miles away, back in Ohio.
And that death would change the Pelley family’s future, forever.
Fifty-three days before Joy Pelley died…a man named Edward John Huber died in Lucas County, Ohio in a garage shed in the backyard of his home.
His wife and three young daughters were just steps away inside the house.
*SFX of car idling and mechanic working*
According to coroner records from Toledo, Edward died while working on a car inside of the garage.
It was January 2nd and the weather was cold.
When Edward failed to come back inside the house after a few hours, his wife, Dawn, went outside and discovered him lying unconscious underneath the vehicle he was fixing.
His official manner of death is listed as accidental.
The coroner ruled that the death was a result of 90 percent acute carbon monoxide poisoning with contributing factors of acute alcohol intoxication.
So essentially, he inhaled exhaust and had likely been drinking.
Edward was just 27-years old. His wife, 28-year-old Dawn, and their daughters 5-year-old Jessica, 4-year-old Janel, and 2-year-old Jolene were left on their own.
Jessica, now in her thirties, remembers the painful news of her dad’s death like it was yesterday.
Jessi Toronjo: I do remember seeing him and thinking he was asleep, and then later coming to find out obviously that wasn’t the case. I’ve heard stories, but I don’t really remember how my mom was. I just remember her yelling at me to get my sisters upstairs, that’s really the only I remember from that day.
Delia D’Ambra: Across Toledo word of Edward’s tragic death made its way to Jessica’s extended family members. Including her cousin, Jamie Collins.
Jamie Collins: Jessica’s dad was my uncle, Eddie.
He died when Jessi was five years old, he was found beneath the car in the family’s garage after church one day. They think he had been working on the car and then didn’t realize he wasn’t getting enough ventilation in there and it was noted as carbon monoxide poisoning.
Delia D’Ambra: The circumstances around Edward’s death struck many people in the Huber family as abrupt and strange.
Edward had a long history of working on cars as a mechanic. He tinkered all of the time in his garage.
It seemed odd that he would close the garage door while working inside because he of all people knew fumes could build up.
This left a lot of family members speculating that maybe he’d shut the door intentionally…to take his own life.
And that’s the rumor most people came to conclude was likely the truth.
It had become common knowledge that Edward and Dawn’s marriage was having problems, and Edward had even told some relatives he planned to leave the family.
Jamie Collins: Honestly, it was a really, really painful thing for our family. My grandmother had already lost one daughter who was hit on a bicycle when she was younger. So, this was her second loss of a child. And he was the only boy in the family of this huge family. So it would be devastating no matter what to lose a sibling, but to lose the only son and the only brother, I just think it’s a different kind of deeper loss, I guess. So not to say no one ever talked about him or remembered him because they did. And you would occasionally hear his name, but there wasn’t the sit down at the table to talk about exactly what happened or what do we think. Those kinds of conversations just didn’t really happen.
Delia D’Ambra: Jessica has never believed her dad took his own life…
Jessi Toronjo: Nobody really talked to me about it when I was younger obviously. When I got older some people thought it was suicide, some people thought it wasn’t, you know, but I just … I don’t think my dad would’ve killed himself, honestly. You know. I found out he was going to leave my mom and take us girls. So, not saying that anything really did happen, but there’s just speculation out there that it just was different than what it was.
Delia D’Ambra: Whatever the real truth is behind Edward’s death, Jessica continues to only keep the good memories of him alive in her heart.
Jessi Toronjo: The relationship with my dad was very good. He took me hunting, fishing. One of my favorite memories, it always makes me want to cry, but it was going to Big Boy like every Sunday, and I’d get waffles with cherries and whipped cream, and that memory really stuck with me. So, we had a really good relationship.
He was one person that really got me. He was weird like I am, he loved to sing like I do, just kind of out there. Very bubbly, and talkative, and like a bright light, and after he passed, I just didn’t have that anymore. And it’s hard to find someone like that, you know, that’s just like you.
Delia D’Ambra: After Edward died, Jessica’s mom Dawn started over trying to take care of her daughters and support herself.
She had minimal income and three mouths to feed. She relied on her family and had a small support system of friends and church community in Ohio.
Just a few months after her husband’s death, Dawn visited her best friend Katie in Portage, Ohio…that’s just south of Toledo.
During their visit, Katie introduced one of her uncles to Dawn. He was a widower, visiting from Florida, named Bob Pelley.
He was there to pick up his two kids—Jeff and Jacque who’d been with family for several days.
Here’s Jacque’s memory of that moment.
Jacque Pelley: Jeff and I had actually met Dawn before my dad ever did, and we had gone to spend some time with my dad’s cousin, Katie. Maybe it was his niece, my cousin, something like that. Anyway, she was Dawn’s best friend and went to church with Dawn.
We went to church with her on Sunday, and I actually met Dawn in the ladies’ bathroom at the church. That’s the first time I ever met her, and we sat behind them, her and the girls during Sunday morning service. At some point, I don’t know if it was that day or later that week or how soon it was after that, we went to, it’s called Portage, and it’s … My dad’s family had a cabin there, and every summer they went for like “family camp” kind of thing. My dad came there to meet us, to pick us up, to take us home, and Dawn and her girls were there, and that’s the first time that he met her. They spent some time together that afternoon at Portage before we headed back home.
*SFX of lake sounds and boats*
Delia D’Ambra: Those few hours walking and talking by the lake in portage brought Bob and Dawn together.
They parted ways that day. Dawn stayed in Ohio and Bob returned to Florida, but they kept in touch.
Within a few short months, their romance had grown into something more serious.
Jacque Pelley: He flew her out for my birthday in September. It was just her, the girls weren’t with her. I vaguely remember him talking to us about getting married. I don’t remember there being a lot of discussion. Nobody was upset. In fact, he wanted to go ahead and get married sooner than later, and that meant that Jeff and I didn’t get to go to the wedding because we had school, and Jeff was the one that was like, “Go for it. It doesn’t matter.”…you know.
Delia D’Ambra: On November 8th, 1985 Bob Pelley married Dawn Hayes Huber in a small church ceremony in Ohio. Ten months after Edward Huber had died, and only eight months after Joy Pelley had passed away from cancer.
Bob was six years older than Dawn.
Jeff and Jacque didn’t even attend their father’s wedding to his second wife.
It happened that quickly.
Jessica and her sisters were at the wedding, wearing little lace dresses and smiling for a photo. That picture is on our website CounterClock podcast.com.
Unlike Jacque, Jessica expressed outwardly that she did not like this new life-change.
Jessi Toronjo: I was very angry. I didn’t want this man in my life, I didn’t want new siblings, I was still grieving my dad. So, I never got a chance to do that, because here were these people, and I had to uproot and move to them. So, I lost everything pretty much at that point that I knew. So, it was tough.
Delia D’Ambra: Outside of the fact that her new home in Florida came with a swimming pool and there would be no more midwest winters. Jessica says she disliked everything else about moving and her mother’s remarriage.
For years she’s struggled with being angry towards Dawn but after all this time, realizes why her mother did what she did.
Jessi Toronjo: I think she was just trying to survive. It took me a long time being mad at her to finally realize that. Obviously, after I had my children and they started growing up, and yeah, those thoughts do go through your head, what would you do? As a mom, you’re going to do whatever you can to protect your children, to make sure that they a have a life, and I think that’s the way that she did it, the only way she knew how. So…
Delia D’Ambra: To remarry.
Jessi Toronjo: Yeah. Yep, and get some help, and … Because yeah, I don’t … I mean, especially back in those days, it’s not like today where women can get a job anywhere. Back then there were certain things that you could do, and I think she just needed some support herself.
Delia D’Ambra: Jacque says she understands why Dawn and Bob felt the need to rush their marriage. They each needed what the other could offer—companionship and support.
Jacque Pelley: I think they got married quick. I think it worked out for both of them as far as … My dad was a single parent. I can’t speak for Dawn. I don’t know what her life was like. I can’t really speak for my dad either, but he was single parenting, and I’d have to get up at like 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning and get dropped off at the school in Cape Coral while he and Jeff went to Fort Myers, and I was a latchkey kid. I came home all by myself, so I think it helped him. For Dawn, I can’t imagine. She had three kids by herself and just trying to work.
Delia D’Ambra: And her husband had passed away.
Jacque Pelley: Yeah.
Pastor Michael Ross, one of Bob’s closest friends, understood the couple’s reason too…but still, he felt from the get-go that Bob and Dawn’s union was too swift.
Michael Ross: I was a little skeptical. He was still on the rebound so to speak, hadn’t…
Delia D’Ambra: How long after Joy’s death did he say he’d met someone?
Michael Ross: I don’t know but it wasn’t long….but they ended up getting married.
I remember she moved down to Fort Myers basically Cape Coral with him but not long after that he came and said that he felt like he was called to pastor and in fact he had a church that had offered him a position.
Delia D’Ambra: And that’s where our story about this case…and my investigation really begins.
From the moment in 1986 that Bob Pelley, a newly remarried man, announced that he was called to the ministry…
Michael Ross: We gave him a Bible and sent him off.
Delia D’Ambra: It’s from this point that my investigation moves forward….
Looking to find out if yet another job change for Bob– taking his blended family from Florida to Indiana…
Jacque Pelley: We moved on their first anniversary. It was November 8th of ’86.
Delia D’Ambra: Is what set off a sequence of events that many claim fanned flames of resentment?
Michael Ross: Their relationship was strained.
He did not appreciate Dawn.
Delia D’Ambra: What exactly led to four Pelley family members being murdered…and a mystery that would baffle law enforcement for years?
In episode two, I’m taking you into the next phase of my investigation. To the scene of the crime that rocked Lakeville, Indiana.
And you can listen, right now.