Episode 10: Trial Phase Part 1

The trial of the State of Indiana vs. Jeff Pelley begins in South Bend. Jeff’s lead defense attorney recalls important moments and delays that defined the high-profile proceedings. He explains to Delia the defense’s strategy that was pushed to the brink.

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Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is episode 10: Trial Phase Part 1

*SFX of courtroom & gavel*

It was 2006 when Jeff Pelley walked into a Saint Joseph County superior courtroom to stand trial for the murders of his father, stepmother, and two stepsisters.

He was 35 years old.

Four years had passed since his initial arrest while getting off a flight at LAX in California.

When he was initially put in cuffs, Jacque, his sister, and Kim, his wife, scrambled to find him a criminal defense attorney.

Jacque Pelley: We surfed the internet and I think she’s the one that found Alan and sent me a link to the web page for Chase Law Firm or whatever it was at the time. We were just both kind of like, “Okay, I guess this is it,” because there wasn’t that much to choose from. This is 2002. The internet, again, was a whole lot different then than it is right now on who had web pages and all that, but that’s how we found Alan.”

Delia D’Ambra: The women paid a ten thousand dollar retainer and hired Alan Baum, an attorney from Studio City.

Because California authorities were the ones to detain and arrest Jeff, he needed a lawyer who was licensed in that state at his arraignment.

Initially, Alan was just going to be the lawyer who’d help Jeff until Indiana extradited him, but after meeting Jeff, Alan signed on to represent him all the way.

I interviewed Alan over the phone in late 2020.

Delia D’Ambra: Did you have any knowledge about the quadruple family murder from 1989 before meeting Jeff in Los Angeles?

Alan Baum: No. I had not heard of the case at all.

Delia D’Ambra: That surprised me because Jeff’s arrest made national headlines.

The first thing Alan did was attempt to get Jeff bond, but that didn’t happen.

Not surprising, Jeff was facing four counts of first-degree murder and appeared to have the financial means to be a flight risk if he wanted to.

An Indiana judge denied his release and the saga dragged on into one of the most bizarre sequence of events for such a large murder case.

Between 2003 and 2006 there were several motions and delays on both sides, an election of a new prosecutor, a departure of that prosecutor, another election of a prosecutor, and a massive delay prompted by the state.

Prosecutors were chastised for delaying the trial in order to get family counseling records for the Pelley family.

The state believed things Jeff had said during a few visits to a family counselor about his relationship with Bob and dawn would paint him in an incriminating light, but that ended up not being the case.

When the state finally got the records, after nearly two years of delaying Jeff’s trial, they never used them.

Several times Alan attempted to get Jeff’s case thrown on the grounds that his right to a speedy trial had been violated…

Alan Baum: Under the rules, you can stop your time waivers and say to the court, “Okay, we’ve waived time in the past so that we could get ready for trial. We are now ready for trial. Start the clock running on our new speedy trial calculation.”

Delia D’Ambra: Mm-hmm.

Alan Baum: And that’s what happened here. At some point, we said, “No more delays, we want a speedy trial,” and the clock started running. What happened after that was back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.

Delia D’Ambra: In the end, Alan’s arguments about speedy trial, failed.

The one victory he did land was getting Jeff out on bond for almost all of 2005.

By July 2006 though, Jeff was back in court and it was trial time.

The man leading the prosecution was attorney Frank Schafer.

He now works for the United States attorney’s office in south bend but for a year, hasn’t responded to my interview requests.

Frank went for the jugular right out of the gate during his opening argument.

He described in detail the gruesome crime scene, the victims’ catastrophic injuries and carefully narrated every detail of Jeff’s touchy relationship with Bob and dawn as a teenager.

Frank admitted to jurors that there was little to no forensic evidence tying Jeff to the crime.

He also knew jurors were wondering why 13 years had passed with no arrest, but those two things weren’t what really mattered, he said.

It was the timeline of the case that would prove Jeff was the only person capable of committing the murders.

On the other side was Alan who attacked the state’s lack of physical evidence, accused police of tunnel vision, and argued Doctor Rick Hoover should have noted time of death.

He also wanted jurors to consider why police had never investigated any other suspects.

Alan Baum: There were so many questions that could have been answered. Had there been a proper police investigation right from the beginning, I guess the first thing is some effort to determine the time of death.

The police had a pretty good idea of the timeframe and had there been an effort made to determine the time of death, it was extremely relevant, that piece of information.

No effort was made to do the simplest things that could have shed light on the time of death. Things just in physically examining the bodies, which it was established, it was common knowledge among the professionals as to what to look for to try to get some sense of time of death. And Dr. Hoover didn’t do any of those things.

Delia D’Ambra: Alan promised jurors he’d prove there were alternate suspects responsible for the crime.

I’ve read all 11-hundred pages of trial transcript for this case, and there’s no way I can go through all of it in this episode, the next episode, or even ten more episodes…

It’s just too huge, but I’ll hit the highlights for you in this episode and the next.

A lot of people I’ve already talked about testified at Jeff’s trial.

New nuggets of information came from Jeff’s two surviving sisters, Jacque and Jessica.

Under oath, Jessica maintained that she saw the family’s 20-gauge shotgun hanging in Bob and Dawn’s bedroom before she left for her sleepover.

Jacque on the other hand testified that the 20-gauge wasn’t in the parsonage on April 28th of 1989. Bob had removed it along with several other firearms, long before the murders.

She said he did this because in Spring of 1988 Jeff had threatened to take his own life. After that incident, dawn demanded the guns leave the house.

According to documents, this claim that Bob had removed firearms from the parsonage wasn’t news to investigators. Jeff and Jacque had told police about it in 1989.

Here’s Jeff in his May 1st interrogation.

Jeff Pelley: We used to have other weapons, but my dad got rid of them and he had a shotgun but for a long time he had it hanging beneath the bow in his bedroom. But then it wasn’t there anymore and I’m not sure if he kept it in the house or what he did. I’m not sure. Usually, he had a lock on it. A trigger guard type thing but I’m not sure what he did with it.

I’m not sure if he gave the shotgun to somebody else to keep also or not. I haven’t seen it in a while.

I have a 22 pistol that was a, a friend of the family’s and his father died. It was his father’s gun. When his father died, it was given to him and he didn’t want anything to do with it. So, he gave it to my dad and my dad gave it to my mom and when my mom died, it became mine.

We had an incident last year where I tried to commit suicide and my dad sold all the guns that were in the house and he kept that one and he gave it to somebody, I don’t know who it was.

It’s an H&R, nine-shot revolver. He gave it to somebody else to keep for me and that when dad decided I was ready, that he would give it back to me. But he didn’t want it in the house. He didn’t tell me who had it or anything but he gave that to somebody else to keep.

Delia D’Ambra: At trial and in our interview, Jacque recalled the same story.

She confirmed that a year before the murders, Jeff had threatened to take his own life with a .22 pistol that had once belonged to his mother, Joy.

Jacque Pelley: Jeff had come upstairs and he asked me when I had a chance to come down and talk to him. He didn’t seem like it was urgent in any way.

I went downstairs with him and he started handing me money. I don’t even remember who all it was for, but it was like, “Give this to dad and Dawn, I owe them this 20 bucks or whatever.” I’m winging it here because I don’t recall the details on that.

And so, I started looking around then and saw the .22 sitting on the desk. I picked up the .22, but as soon as I picked it up, I was like, well, now what am I going to do with it? Because I’m smart enough to know, I can’t throw it into the other room because it could go off. So, what do you do? And so, he took the .22 out of my hand and set it back on the desk. We were just talking, we weren’t yelling or anything. I’m just still in awe that dad and Dawn heard us upstairs because we were not raising our voices at all…and dad was in the bathroom and Dawn came downstairs and she … I told her what was going on, and so she just booked it, and she was running up the stairs and I was on her heels and dad came running down, and then dad took the gun, and that’s the night all the guns went out of the house.

Delia D’Ambra: I tracked down the man who Bob gave the family’s guns to, his name is Thomas Keb.

Thomas and I have talked on the phone a few times, but his health is declining and he didn’t want to do a recorded interview.

He was never called as a witness at Jeff’s trial, and when I heard his incredible story. I think i=I know why…

*SFX of microphone feedback & tape recorder*

Delia D’Ambra: In 2002, cold case investigator Craig Whitfield interviewed Thomas Keb and in 2003 Jeff’s defense attorney Alan Baum took a deposition from him.

In both interviews Thomas stated that several months before the murders Bob asked him to come to the parsonage and take away a bunch of guns.

According to Thomas, Bob told him that the family was having issues and for everyone’s safety the guns needed to go.

Thomas said Bob put a bag containing a shotgun, a rifle, and a pistol into the trunk of Thomas’ car…

*SFX of car trunk shutting & driving off*

…Then Thomas drove to his in-laws’ house at the end of Osborne Road and stored the bag in their basement.

*SFX of door closing*

Thomas kept the guns there even after news of the murders broke.

I’ve read every police report on file for this case, and not once did any Saint Joseph County police officer ever document that they interviewed Thomas in 1989 or searched his in-laws home for the sack of guns.

In 2003, Thomas was sure a shotgun was in the bag, but in 1989 he didn’t come forward with that information.

His memory over the years of what caliber shotgun he took from Bob or even how many guns exactly were in the bag, have varied.

What is unbelievable to me,  is that law enforcement appears to never have investigated his story.

Not John Botich, not Mark Senter, and not Craig Whitfield.

I mean, this seems pretty huge.

If the Pelley family’s 20-gauge shotgun was in the bag Thomas took months before the murders, then Jeff can’t be the murderer.

That point alone destroys the state’s entire case that Jeff had access to a 20-gauge shotgun inside the parsonage and used it in the murders.

The fact is though, we just don’t know for sure…and maybe never will.

I asked Craig Whitfield why he didn’t investigate Thomas’s story more when he interviewed him in 2002.

Delia D’Ambra: It was established that Bob gave firearms to Thomas Keb before the murders, several firearms.

Craig Whitfield: Mhm

Delia D’Ambra: It was never investigated where that bag of firearms went to and Thomas Keb was never called to testify at trial. So, a question that a lot of jurors had, which is the one you presented, “If we find the family .20-gauge, is that going to be the murder weapon? Let’s go to where the 20-gauge could have been potentially given, which was a sack of guns to Thomas Keb, but that just ended there. And that’s frustrating…

Craig Whitfield: Yeah. I see your point.

Delia D’Ambra: And the fact that Thomas Keb says, “I was never called to testify.” I’ve talked to him on the phone. It’s just one of those things that’s like, “Crap. Maybe we didn’t go check the thing of guns,” but I mean, if Jeff’s guilty, then that .20-gauge wasn’t in that sack of guns, that .20-gauge is between here and the Lakeville AMCO. So, it’s just those things that get me…but um…

Craig Whitfield: No, yeah. I like your attention to detail for sure. I mean, I think that that’s a question that I would like to see answered.

Delia D’Ambra: By the very person that took guns from Bob Pelley before his murder.

Craig Whitfield: Mhm.

Delia D’Ambra: I’m glad that Craig finally saw my logic. It’s not every day that you can stump a seasoned police investigator and convince them to see the obvious.

In the end, at trial, Alan Baum didn’t use Thomas in Jeff’s defense. Instead, he avoided his story entirely.

Why? Because Alan didn’t want jurors to hear the reason why the guns ended up with Thomas in the first place, which was because Jeff threatened to take his own life.

You see, Alan figured that reason would paint Jeff as appearing unhinged.

If Alan had put Thomas on the stand, the state would have hammered the fact that Bob was worried enough about Jeff’s mental state to get rid of the guns in the first place.

That characterization would not bode well for Jeff, and Alan knew it.

Of course, the prosecutor didn’t want to call Thomas to the stand either. Because they’d be forced to explain why police didn’t do their job and look into his story in 1989.

Also, the state knew that if Thomas even hinted to the idea that the 20-gauge could have been in the bag at his in-laws, then the prosecution’s case against Jeff would fall apart due to reasonable doubt.

Thomas Keb was essentially a liability for both sides…and therefore he was never invited to the party.

One thing jurors did get to see was Jeff’s may 1st 1989 videotaped interview with John Botich.

The prosecution believed the tape portrayed Jeff as seeming cavalier when he talked about his family’s deaths, but Alan feels the tape wasn’t incriminating at all.

Alan Baum: The personality that he reflected in that interview was just kind of typical for the sort of a teenager that he was, he was a little bit surly and not very articulate. So, and he had just been told of this massacre of his family, the emotions must’ve been just all over the place. So, I don’t know that you can really judge credibility based upon his demeanor. I think that it was just a combination of sort of the sort of personality that he had coupled with dealing with this horrifying news and being sitting in a police station being questioned.

Delia D’Ambra: During the first few days of trial, the prosecutors introduced several witnesses who spoke about how Jeff and Bob didn’t get along, how Jeff was banned from using his car, how Bob had canceled the car insurance on the mustang, and Jeff drove it anyway.

Which by the way, according to Indiana law, that wasn’t illegal to do in 1989.

One witness who Alan says turned out to be particularly strong for the defense, though she didn’t believe Jeff was innocent, was Jessi Pelley.

She testified on the stand that she knew before leaving for her sleepover on Friday, April 28th that Jeff was going to be allowed to go to Great America.

She said she remembered her mom told her that information.

Alan believed that was proof that Jeff had smoothed over things with Bob and he was going to be allowed to drive himself to prom and after-prom activities.

Alan felt certain that what Jessi had said eroded what the state claimed was Jeff’s motive for the murders.

Alan Baum: Jesse who told the police where to find Jeff. And that was in Great America and how would she have known that Jeff was going to go to Great America after prom and bowling and so forth unless it had been discussed at home?

We know that it was known that he was going to go to Great America. So how does that, how is that not reasonable doubt? How in the hell is that not reasonable doubt?

Delia D’Ambra: Another big moment at trial came when the state claimed evidence, like Jeff’s blue jeans and the wet wash clothes in the tub indicated he’d cleaned up before rushing off to prom.

But, Alan had an ace up his sleeve to counter that last point.

Or at least, he thought he did…

Alan Baum: The most dramatic and most relevant piece of evidence that we introduced was the washcloth evidence.

Delia D’Ambra: That’s coming up next on Episode 11Trial Phase – Part Two.

Listen right now.