Episode 13: Check the Bank

Delia revisits the history of an enormous financial scandal with Bob Pelley’s former employer, Landmark bank. The CounterClock investigation reveals never-before-heard testimony from a woman who told authorities that Bob was afraid of people from his past in Florida.

Episode Photos

Episode Source Material

  • “Landmark Bank, C&S Agree To Merge Plan” by Pati Davis for The Fort Myers News-Press on February 23, 1985 via Newspapers.com
  • “No Bond for Extradited Colombians” by the Associated Press, published in the Fort Myers News-Press on January 8, 1985 via Newspapers.com
  • “Four Accused Drug Traffickers Extradited” by the Associated Press, published in the Fort Myers News-Press on January 7, 1985 via Newspapers.com
  • “Jury Pushes Probe of Bank Ties To Drug Cash” by the Associated Press, published in the Fort Myers News-Press on February 13, 1981 via Newspapers.com
  • “Authorities Say ‘Paper Trails’ Trace Laundering Activity” by Stephen C. Smith for the Associated Press, published in the Fort Myers News-Press on June 21, 1981 via Newspapers.com
  • “Robber Bankers Get Light Sentence In Plea Bargain” by the Associated Press, published in the Fort Myers News-Press on August 2, 1984 via Newspapers.com
  • “Extradited Colombian Sentenced In Bank Money Laundering Case” by The Miami Herald on November 24, 1985 via Newspapers.com

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 13: Check the Bank.

In the mid-1980’s, before being gunned down in the parsonage in Lakeville and before becoming a minister, Bob Pelley was somewhat of a computer whiz.

I told you in the first episode this season that Bob once worked for a large financial institution in Florida called Landmark Bank.

According to property records, the core data processing center for Landmark was located in Fort Myers, about a 20-minute drive from where the Pelley family lived in Cape Coral.

Bob was the facility’s lead supervisor and oversaw thousands of banking transactions, investments, and transfers.

*SFX of computing sounds*

He also monitored all computer connectivity between Landmark’s statewide branches.

*SFX of money bill counter*

Every day he was privy to a lot of sensitive and confidential information involving millions and millions of dollars.

Jacque Pelley has distinct memories of her dad’s old job.

Jacque Pelley: I know it wasn’t a place that you go in and conduct transactions at a bank. It was like where they sent all the checks and all of that to be processed and it was out in the woods somewhere. My dad used to take people out there when they’d come visit us to be like, “Hey, look, this is where I work.” They would have helicopter drops at night where they’d just drop stuff through a shoot on the roof. That’s what he did.

Delia D’Ambra: I can’t find any pay stubs or tax records showing how much Bob earned at his job, but everyone I’ve interviewed tells me he made good money.

Enough to pay the bills and live comfortably.

He used his computer processing skills to earn side income too.

Most notably consulting for his good friend, Phil Hawley.

Bob and Phil had become close while attending First Church of the Nazarene, where pastor Michael Ross worked.

Jacque Pelley: My dad was super close with Pastor Ross and Phil Hawley.

I know that Phil’s family was always in church. When I was a kid, I just remember them being there.

Delia D’Ambra: At the Nazarene Church.

Jacque Pelley: Yes. I assume that they met at the church. I don’t know where else they would have met. I know that my dad did some work for Phil on the side.

On Saturdays, my dad would go over there and help with, I think the wiring for computers and stuff but also help with the construction. I remember being over there, Jeff and I as kids on Saturdays and stuff, helping with that.

Delia D’Ambra: At the Fort Myers Credit Bureau?

Jacque Pelley: Yes.

Delia D’Ambra: As far as everyone knew, Bob’s job at Landmark Bank and his consulting on the side were going well as 1986 came to a close.

And when I say everyone, I mean everyone, except pastor Michael Ross.

In our interview last year, pastor Ross revealed a secret, he’s kept quiet about for over three decades.

In fact, he was so apprehensive to discuss it with me on the record that there were a lot of moments like this during our conversation…

Michael Ross: Could you turn it off just for a second?

Delia D’Ambra: Yeah, absolutely.

Delia D’Ambra: When we were back on the record, pastor Ross eventually told me that Bob was a tormented man…

Tormented by something he’d uncovered at Landmark Bank…

Criminal financial fraud.

Michael Ross: Bob came to me and told me that he had discovered this improper handling of funds and was not sure what to do about it. And we discussed it and, uh, very shortly after that he decided he wanted to go to Indiana to live.

Delia D’Ambra: Do you think that he was scared?

Michael Ross: Yes. Uh, I know he was. Uh, and he was hoping to get away

He made it clear that he was concerned about who was involved locally. And, uh, and it was, uh, a lot of money that had been abused or misused or swindled or something. Uh, and, but I remember Bob was very scared for himself and for the kids.

Delia D’Ambra: So, according to Pastor Ross, Bob confided in him instead of blowing the whistle to his employer.

Bob was forced into a tight spot, because the people committing the fraud, allegedly were his close friends.

Michael Ross: If it was work, just work, he tells, blows the whistle and that’s… But, it involved people he knew, or that I knew, or we knew or… And I, I think, I assumed rightly so that it was church people.

He knew these people or this person.

Delia D’Ambra: Pastor Ross believes this is the reason the Pelley family abruptly moved to Indiana after dawn and Bob got married.

Pastor Ross told me that Bob wasn’t even an ordained minister when he took the job at Olive Branch United Brethren church.

Just so I have a little bit of clarity here, so when Bob says, “Hey, I think I want to become a minister. I’m going to go work at this church in Lakeville,” when he did that, was he actually an ordained minister?

Michael Ross: No.

Delia D’Ambra: Or was he still in the process?

Michael Ross: No. I don’t think he… He wasn’t even in the process.

Delia D’Ambra: So how do you think he got that job?

Michael Ross: I don’t know. I real… Maybe someone in that church could tell you. But…

Delia D’Ambra: But that’s not pretty traditional though as it goes with pastors going from church to church? Like normally you would verify if they’re an ordained minister?

Michael Ross: Yeah, that’s the strange part of this. He wasn’t trained. It was sudden. It was out of our tradition.

Delia D’Ambra: It was, it was rapid. It was strange and unnatural.

Back in 1989, Jacque Pelley didn’t know any of this about her father.

All she remembers is that in the two and half years they lived in Lakeville before the murders, Bob had become paranoid.

Jacque Pelley: He had three different instances that he felt someone had been in the church. There was one occasion, I remember he said he went through and in the kitchen, there was water in the stainless steel sink and he felt like somebody had just recently been in there.

*SFX of child playing piano*

I remember an occasion that he was sitting behind me in the rocking chair while I was playing the piano and he was just weeping. *cries*…For a guy that raises you not to cry, that’s huge.

I would ride my bike and he would run and we’d just go down the road or whatever and he talked all the time about if something happened to him what happens to us, who we would go live with, and what was supposed to happen. As a kid, I don’t know, as a kid, I think in one sense it gave me a little bit of comfort because we’d lost my mom, but as an adult looking back, these are not normal conversations that you’re having with a kid. This just isn’t right.

Delia D’Ambra: So in retrospect, your dad did display signs of worry or signs of emotion that were kind of unexplained?

Jacque Pelley: Yeah. Absolutely.

Delia D’Ambra: Fran Watson, Jeff Pelley’s current post-conviction attorney, has interviewed Pastor Ross a few times.

She knows the same information that he told me.

Outside of her though, I’m the only other person he’s spoken openly with regarding Bob’s revelation back in 1986.

It took a lot for me to convince Pastor Ross to share what he knows.

In the end, he agreed to be recorded for the show because he thinks it’s time people know what was in Bob’s past, the fraud in Florida, and everything in between.

Fran has spent the better part of the last five years investigating this information.

She thinks Landmark Bank is vitally important to understanding what Bob uncovered both on a local level and international level.

Frances Watson: There was a whole lot of bad that was going on at that bank that never came to the light of day.

Bob worked in the central processing core of that institution that had those subsidiaries that used all those names and even transferred names, which did what? Allowed them to be less transparent. Allowed this money to flow through. Do you see? So there isn’t any doubt that there were numbers of institutions under one parent company, one banking parent company and they had different names, but they processed all the money right, through the central processing place where Bob Pelley was the computer man.

There was all this fraud going on through the very portal where he was the computer man.

Delia D’Ambra: I didn’t want to just take Fran’s word for it, so I did some investigating of my own.

According to federal court documents and some great articles, I dug up from the Fort Myers news press…

1984 is really when things started going sideways for Landmark Bank.

That year, Landmark became Florida’s fifth-largest bank, by 1985 it had three-point-eight billion dollars in assets and almost 2,000 employees, one of which was Bob Pelley.

Trouble was brewing beneath the bank’s successful facade though.

Throughout the 80’s the FBI, IRS and DEA had been monitoring the bank’s records, transactions, and employees.

In an investigation known as “operation greenback,” the government began indicting bank employees, local clients as well as drug traffickers from Colombia, South America for using the bank branches to launder money

The epicenter of a lot of the fraud was happening at Landmark’s main branch in Fort Lauderdale.

Two men who worked there ended up pleading guilty to four different schemes that included creating fake loans worth millions of dollars, issuing cashier’s checks to non-existent people, and producing fake property appraisals to boost the value of real estate for profit.

Now, you’re probably wondering why you should care about Fort Lauderdale…we’re focused on Fort Myers and Bob Pelley.

Well, the core processing center that all of the fraud was funneled through was in Fort Myers and would have passed in front of the eyes of Bob Pelley.

There’s no way of knowing if Bob knew the depth or magnitude of all of this financial fraud, but it’s clear based on what he told Pastor Ross that he at least knew about some of it.

In the wake of the government’s flurry of indictments, Landmark sort of imploded, and by 1986 a company from Georgia called Citizens and Southern, or C&S, bought it and renamed it.

Fran isn’t sure Bob’s story to Pastor Ross was entirely accurate.

She believes he didn’t just stumble upon the fraud, she thinks he knew about it all along, and even in a small way may have been complicit.

Frances Watson: It was an institution that allowed illegal activity in many forms. You know the way the money was passed through. His job allowed him, he was a central person and so he had access to that knowledge, you know he would have been one of the people looking the other way.

Delia D’Ambra: She doesn’t think the Pelleys’ move to Indiana was Bob running away from confronting someone of a crime, he was running away or perhaps being sent away… To save himself.

And reinvent his identity, job, and family.

Frances Watson: Bob Pelley left Florida because he knew he had his hands in some stuff at the bank that he shouldn’t know about or wished he didn’t know about.

I think Mr. Pelley had a past in Florida he wished he didn’t have. I think when he leaves Florida, it’s to get away from that.

So, I think what he thinks is out of sight, out of mind. Maybe if I just get out of here, do you see, and I move far enough away and I don’t go into banking and I just stay away from these people I’ll put this all behind me.

Like, why do I feel so certain? Toni Beehler. *laughs*

Delia D’Ambra: Toni Beehler, a woman whose story blows this case wide open.

In 2006 Alan Baum, Jeff’s defense attorney at trial, wanted desperately to use some Florida facts about Bob as a way to point to alternate suspects.

But Alan didn’t know the half of what I just explained for you.

He didn’t know everything Pastor Ross has told me and Fran…

He didn’t dig too far into Landmark Bank’s history and Bob’s exposure to the fraud…

Alan just wanted to use the idea of Bob’s murky past in Florida as a way to create reasonable doubt.

The trial judge saw Alan’s approach as weak, muddying the waters, and not well-formed.

Alan Baum: We tried to introduce some evidence of some controversy in Florida that might have led to bad feelings and revenge and the murders. Yes, surely, it’s speculation, but that sort of some other dude did it evidence is allowed if it’s got enough credibility for the judge to let it in…and of course, our judge wouldn’t let us introduce that evidence. He thought it was too speculative.

Delia D’Ambra: So, the court banned any mention of the Florida facts during trial.

A huge win for the prosecution, as you can imagine.

Even if Alan could have gotten Bob’s past in front of jurors, he knows he would have had to tread carefully, considering Bob was no longer alive to defend himself, and at the time Jeff, Alan’s client, was Bob’s accused murderer.

Alan Baum: The last thing that I want to do in this trial is to cast aspersions on the victims.

I had no intention of going there in the trial unless it was in connection with some misconduct in Florida, where I would have had to sort of apologize to the jury for bringing this up. That is for talking ill of one of the victims…but ladies and gentlemen, if the murders occurred because of some events going back to his working at a bank in Florida or whatever evidence a judge would have allowed me to bring in, so be it, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got to be fair here to my client.

If what happened in Florida was the motive for these murders, at least Bob’s murder and then, of course, killing the other three is merely a pragmatic decision not to leave any witnesses. Bob was the target. If it was in connection with something to do with Florida.

Delia D’Ambra: Like I said, Alan’s argument to include Florida facts in 2006 was denied, mostly because he didn’t push it hard enough…. But there’s also another reason.

He didn’t have information the prosecutors had in their playbook.

He didn’t have Toni Beehler.

Man: This has been recorded with your knowledge. Is that correct?

Toni Beehler: Yes.

Man: And with your consent. Is that correct?

Toni Beehler: Yes.

Delia D’Ambra: The woman’s voice you hear answering yes, is Toni.

The man asking questions is private investigator Gary Dunn.

In 2007, on behalf of the Pelley family, Gary interviewed Toni in a recorded deposition.

Her story is incredible.

*SFX of birds chirping & lawnmower*

Toni says in February or March of 1989 she was a saleswoman for a company called United Church Directories.

*SFX of bells tolling & camera clicking*

Delia D’Ambra: She and a photographer visited churches and offered to take pictures of members as part of a package deal.

In Spring of ’89, Olive Branch United Brethren in Lakeville was one of her newest clients.

On the day she and her photographer showed up to take family pictures, Bob pulled her aside.

Toni Beehler: Reverend Pelley called me aside and did not want the church directories made because he had a life before the ministry. He wasn’t a minister. He had a previous life and as much as I can remember what he said, because I was a little bit surprised about it, he was in finance and he wasn’t in Indiana.

There were people, he didn’t say who, but people were looking for him and if they found him, they would kill him, his wife, his children, and a cat and a dog, they would wipe them out. That was their goal…and I distinctly told him that I asked if he killed people for a living and he said no, he moved their money, and for that, he wasn’t doing it and he was hiding out as a minister at a country church in Lakeville, Indiana.

Matter of fact. He was matter of fact, he was looking at me through his glasses, standing there with his hand on the Bible and he wanted me to know that this was the most sincere thing he’d ever said. He wanted me to know, and I was standing there going, “I don’t want to hear this. Why is he telling me this? If he wants out of the directory, I won’t print the directory.” and like in any sales position that you’re in, you don’t have the final call. I went ahead and told my people, my manager, I didn’t want to do the directory, and I had to do the directory anyway.

Delia D’Ambra: Toni explained to Gary that she’d come forward with her story in 2003, after news of Jeff’s arrest in 2002 hit headlines.

She felt like law enforcement needed to know what she knew.

What’s interesting is that according to Saint Joseph county records, in May of 2003, an investigator from the metro homicide division named timothy decker interviewed Toni, for a total of 23 minutes.

Toni remembers their conversation well.

Toni Beehler: We were sitting in a small room and it was relatively dark in there. He was on the other side of the desk. I was sitting in the chair. I’m a middle-aged mom and I really had the distinct feeling that he didn’t believe me. He thought I was just some wacko mother who probably drank too much or watched too many soap operas.

Detective: Did you tell this detective that Pelley said that if people found out where he was located, that they would kill him and his family?

Toni Beehler: Right.

Detective: And I think you also indicated that Pelley said that no one would know who did it?

Toni Beehler: That’s right.

Gary Dunn: And did you tell that detective that?

Toni Beehler: I did.

Gary Dunn: Okay, what was his reaction?

Toni Beehler: He just sat there and looked at me like, ‘Why are you telling me?’ I was like, I very seldom tell anybody that my father was in the police department, but I told him that. I go, ‘It’s very important for a citizen who has the information that I have to tell the police.’ He was like, ‘So?’ I said, ‘So I was there, and Reverend Pelley had told me in the church, with my hand on the Bible, that he wasn’t a minister.

Detective: How long did this interview last Toni?

Toni Beehler: Maybe about 25 minutes, maybe. Total time I was there was less than a half an hour and he just, he said to me, ‘Well, is there anything else you want to share?’ And I said no. And he said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll get back with you.’ And I never heard from him afterward.

Delia D’Ambra: During the years that Alan was putting together Jeff’s defense and receiving discovery from the prosecution, he never heard a word about Toni Beehler.

A memo prosecutors filed in 2003 states their staff sent Toni’s interview to Alan, but the document is not dated and the items never made it to Alan’s office.

Fran Watson alleges the state’s failure to give Alan Toni’s videotaped 2003 interview and coinciding report was a huge error.

Frances Watson: The state claimed, I can show it to you, that they filed the Toni Beehler memo, right, they claim they filed it and mailed it sort of in a document that’s of record but the actual document never made it to Baum. How do we know it? Well, we have what he received in these nice organized folders and it’s not in there.

Delia D’Ambra: To date, Fran is still trying to obtain Toni’s 2003 videotaped interview from the Saint Joseph County prosecutor’s office.

Toni is living proof that Bob Pelley was fearful of much worse people that his 17-year-old son, Jeff.

Frances Watson: That’s a pretty serious statement for a small-town minister to make. To this woman, he barely knows.

Delia D’Ambra: I circled back with Alan Baum about whether or not he knew about Toni Beehler before going to trial.

Is that a transcript that you ever received?

Alan Baum: No.

Delia D’Ambra: And if you had, what would you have done with it?

Alan Baum: Are you kidding? I would have offered it as evidence. I would have interviewed her again to confirm the report that led me to her and presented her as a witness.

Delia D’Ambra: If the prosecutor knew that they had this interview that was done in 2002 or 2003, and yet they decided to exclude it from the discovery that they sent you, does that constitute…

Alan Baum: No. Now you’re, now you’re talking Brady and of course, that is a clear Brady violation.

If that can be shown in this post-conviction arena, then that should get him a new trial right there.

Delia D’Ambra: By the time 2007 rolled around Toni had heard nothing from police, and Jeff was serving time in prison.
In her interview with Gary Dunn, Toni explained she didn’t come forward to protect Jeff,  or even claim he was innocent.

She just wanted someone to know what a burden the information she knew was for her…

Toni Beehler: I’m carrying something so large, and I know that there’s a kid that probably didn’t kill his parents

I’m worried about the people who may have been hunting for Reverend Pelley, if they find this out about me and they find me…

Delia D’Ambra: Toni’s fear is palpable in that 2007 recording.

To this day she’s still as adamant as ever about her story.

Because Fran will call her as a witness for Jeff’s future post-conviction proceedings, Toni has hired a lawyer and declined to do an interview with me.

Does that make her story less credible to me? —No.

Does it make me want to vet her even more? — Yes.

One thing I know for sure is that her story is not information jurors deciding Jeff’s fate got to hear.

It’s a puzzle piece that up until now has been excluded from a very large, complicated narrative.

A narrative, that leads back to southwest Florida…

As I’ve been investigating more into Bob’s past, I’ve uncovered another murder…

A man in Fort Myers who had deep connections to what Bob was caught up in and ran in the same Fort Myers crowd.

Frances Watson: It’s almost beyond belief in some way but sure enough if you turn over enough rocks…it’s there. It’s there.

Delia D’Ambra: Something else strange that’s pointed me in this direction was a bizarre conversation I had with Steve Diller,  the man who sold Bob a 20-gauge shotgun in 1987.

When I spoke with Steve on the phone last year, he went on and on about the 1987 transaction he had with Bob and the fact that he saw Bob in his gun store on the morning on Saturday, April 29th.

I expected Steve to stop there, but he didn’t.

Instead, he ended our phone call by telling me, he wasn’t sure Jeff was guilty.

He paused for a long time then told me that what I was looking for, the truth, was in Florida.

I asked him to explain, but he responded by saying I was a smart girl and would figure it out.

Then he hung up and has never answered since.

*SFX of phone dial tone*

Michael Ross: I think it’s human nature that we like the spectacular. The mysterious.

Some things are very plain. That it’s not a mystery…but there’s more to it. I’m convinced more to this.

Delia D’Ambra: Me too, which is why I’ve kept going.

Looking closely at a Florida family that connects so much together.

You can listen to the next episode, Fines and Grace, right now.