Episode 18: Factually Based?

Delia discovers new information buried in the Pelley’s phone records could be critical. Jeff’s attorney makes a bold claim she plans to argue in court and Delia brings on a crime scene assessment expert to weigh in on the facts of the case.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 18: Factually Based?

Throughout my investigation into Bob Pelley’s murder and Eric Dawson’s murder, I’ve uncovered information that proves the men had four things in common.

One, in the 1980s Bob worked as a supervisor in the core computer processing center for corrupt financial conglomerate, Landmark Bank, which became Citizens and Southern Bank.

Two, during the years Bob worked at the bank, Eric Dawson ran a majority of his business’s transactions through the same institution.

Three, both men were murdered in cold blood, less than seven months apart.

And four, in 1988 and 1989 both men had close personal friendships and business relationships with Phil Hawley.

In January 2021, I called Phil to ask him about his long-time connection to Bob.

Phil spoke with me for about 20 minutes.

He told me that he’d known Bob for years but said Bob was quote — “too trusting of people and never locked his doors” — end quote.

Phil adamantly believes Jeff Pelley is innocent and said that in his opinion the evidence in the Pelley murders doesn’t point to Jeff.

I asked him why he didn’t attend the Pelleys’ funeral in Indiana in 1989 and he said, he just didn’t.

He told me one reason Martin, his youngest son who was a teenager at the time, may have been in Chicago the weekend the Pelleys were killed was probably because they had business interests there.

I’ve been unable to tie any of the Hawley businesses to Chicago but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

We’re talking about 30 + years of records, a family that filed for bankruptcy multiple times and held 17 business names in Florida alone.

Finding a paper trail for every one of their business interests from decades ago across multiple states is next to impossible, even for me.

While we talked, Phil also revealed that on several occasions, before Bob and Dawn were killed, some of his sons drove to Lakeville to visit the Pelleys.

That, I can prove happened at least once.

During my interviews with Jacque Pelley, she and I went through boxes of old photos.

One picture stood out.

*SFX of birds chirping*

The image is from Spring of 1988 and it shows Jolene Pelley sitting in a red wagon on the porch of the church parsonage reading children’s books with a little boy.

That little boy is Nathan Hawley, one of Phil Hawley’s grandsons who’s since passed away.

So, the fact that Nathan was photographed on the porch proves the Hawleys maintained a close friendship with the Pelleys and knew where they lived in Indiana.

Phil told me that he regularly stayed in touch with Bob and they called each other about once a week.

I decided to look into the Pelleys’ phone records to find out if Phil and Bob had been communicating regularly in the months before the murders.

I mean after all, at that time there would have been a lot happening in the two men’s lives that would have been important topics of conversation.

In March of 1989, 17-year-old Jeff had planned a spring break trip to Fort Myers to spend a week or so with the Hawleys.

He said as much during his May 1st, 1989 police interview.

Jeff Pelley: I used to live in Cape Coral. We were staying out in Fort Myers and I decided to go drive around the Cape looking at the house you know and looking to see what all they’d done. Driving by the high school and everything like that.

Delia D’Ambra: According to Jacque Pelley, Bob knew about Jeff’s planned trip and that he would be staying with Phil’s family.

Jacque herself went on a Disney World trip to Florida with some of her friends that same week.

But something I think would have been of even more importance during Bob and Phil’s supposed weekly phone calls in spring of ‘89, other than Jeff and Jacque’s spring break plans, would have been the fact that Phil and three of his sons were in the middle of being criminally investigated.


I mean, if Phil and Bob were so tight back then, as Phil tells me, I would think at some point the topic of Eric Dawson’s murder and Lee County authorities raiding Phil’s business and home may have been something Bob and Phil would have at least spoken about.

I didn’t get the chance to ask Phil more about this…

The second time I called him, he said he wasn’t feeling well. Two days later, when I called him a third time he said he didn’t want to mess with it and for me to just let it go

I’ve also reached out to Danny, David, Paul, Pierre, and Martin Hawley about my investigation for this show.

Some of them spoke with me but declined a recorded interview, others I’m still waiting for a call back to get their side of things if they want to do an interview.

So, with nothing coming in from the Hawleys, I decided to go back to what I originally wanted to know, the last time Phil and Bob spoke on the phone before Bob’s murder.

I went through the Pelleys’ phone records page by page.

The only document that still exists is one of the Pelleys’ phone bills, buried about 700 pages down in the trial discovery.

The statement only shows calls during the billing cycle from April 20th through early May of 1989, this includes the time frame of the murders.

When I looked through the records, I uncovered that in fact, someone using the Pelley’s line had placed calls to Phil Hawley’s home in Fort Myers during that time.

But they weren’t placed when the Pelley’s were alive, they were placed after Bob, Dawn, Jolene, and Janel were already dead.

According to the Pelleys’ last phone bill, on May 2nd, 1989, two days after the murders, someone used the Pelley’s number to call Phil Hawley…twice in the same day.

And just so you know, the phone number for the Pelleys went to both their home phone and an office line next door inside the church.

On May 2nd, at 12:30pm a phone call to Phil lasted for three minutes.

At 3:40pm another phone call to Phil lasted for four minutes.

As I was investigating this case, I figured out what Phil’s home phone number was back in 1989. Thanks to his forgery arrest.

You see, when Tom Kontinos arrested Phil in Lee County in July 1989, the jail filled out a booking sheet. Listed on that sheet were Phil’s home address and phone number. The phone number he put down is what shows up on the Pelleys’ phone records.

When I initially made this connection, I called Frances Watson, Jeff’s post-conviction attorney….

*Phone rings*

Frances Watson:  Hello Fran Watson.

Delia D’Ambra: Hey Frances, it’s Delia. Do you have a second?

Frances Watson: Oh yeah! Hey Delia! Sure.

Delia D’Ambra: I wanted to know if she was aware someone made these phone calls.

I didn’t know if that had been something.

Frances Watson: Wow

Delia D’Ambra: …that you guys knew

Frances Watson: I didn’t.

Delia D’Ambra: Fran has spent a lot of time evaluating the Pelleys’ phone bill, but she’d never pulled the public records in Florida that I did.

She could never positively identify who the two Florida phone calls had gone to

Well, now we both know…

To be fair though, it makes sense that someone would call the Hawleys to let them know about the murders.

I mean, after all, they were good friends of the Pelleys.

But, who? That was still alive on May 2nd, 1989 in Indiana would have even known to call them?

The only person I can think of is Jeff.

On May 2nd, everyone in Lakeville was gearing up for the Pelleys’ funeral the next day.

So, the logical thought is that Jeff called to break the bad news and see if the Hawleys wanted to fly up for the funeral.

When I spoke with Phil, that first time he told me he believes it was Jeff who called to inform him.

Phil told me that when he spoke with Jeff, he told him to make sure police tested him for gunpowder residue and to not let the cops pressure him into incriminating himself.

But the strange thing is, I’ve asked Jacque and Fran to confirm with Jeff if he remembers making these two calls to Phil and Jeff says he unsure.

He told Jacque he doesn’t think he was the one who informed Phil about the murders. He thinks Phil knew about the murders when everyone in Florida else found out sometime on Sunday or Monday.

Jeff told Fran, it’s possible he did tell Phil, he just can’t remember.

The question I can’t get out of my mind, is if it’s a scenario where Jeff didn’t make the calls to Phil, then who the heck did?

The answer is something Fran is still trying to sort out with Jeff, to figure out if maybe he’s misremembering.

The reason Fran absolutely needs to know is because in her post-conviction relief petition. She suggests that the Hawley family is somehow connected to the Pelley murders.

Yes, I know, it’s an incredibly bold accusation.

One that, if true, helps her.

But if it’s not true, it’s harmful to the Hawley family.

She says Jeff and his wife Kim, who is Phil Hawley’s niece, are on board with the defense argument.

In parts of Fran’s 70 + page amended petition, she claims there aren’t just “alternate suspects” responsible for killing Bob, Dawn, Janel, and Jolene…

She goes as far as arguing that Bob’s death was a result of something, he discovered going on at Landmark Bank and members of the Hawley family were involved somehow.

Frances Watson: I always find the timeline that the search of the Hawley home the first week of April and Mr. Pelley dies, Mr. Pelley and his family died the last week of April…and I don’t see that as a coincidence at all. I think that Phil Hawley knew the game was afoot.

You know how many degrees of separation here? There’s none! You know, Pelley is tight with Hawley, Hawley is tight with Dawson. It’s all through the Pelley bank…right? And it’s all fraud!

Delia D’Ambra: I remembered back to what Toni Beehler had said though, that Bob was running from someone in Florida from his past and was afraid of them.

If you believe that story, then the Hawley family can’t be who Bob was supposedly trying to get away from because there is proof that they were still friends after the Pelleys moved to Indiana.

Still, Fran plans to present witnesses and evidence at a hearing likely this year to attempt to prove her theory.

At this point in my investigation, with what I know about the history in 1989, Jeff’s conviction, and Fran’s claim regarding the Hawley family, I decided it was time a professional crime scene investigator weigh in on the case.

Someone who could examine the Pelley murders and break down what the evidence points to.

Not what one side wants it to point to, but what the evidence actually points to.

My expert’s name is Patrick Zirpoli and he’s a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who now consults on homicide investigations acRoss the country.

He has decades of experience evaluating and working homicides.

Patrick had zero knowledge about this case when I asked him to come on board.

Prior to me emailing him, he hadn’t watched any tv programs, seen any crime scene photos or read any police reports about either the Pelley murders or Eric Dawson’s murder.

He was a fresh set of eyes.

Patrick spent a few weeks reviewing the case material for the first time and we met at the audiochuck headquarters to discuss his findings.

In our interview, he explained some interesting observations.

Patrick Zirpoli: The crime is a very pre-planned period. This is a high emotional crime, no matter who commits this crime. Whether it’s an outside offender or someone from within the household who commits this crime, there’s a lot of emotion at that period in time. So, there’s a lot of pre-thought put into this crime because you’re taking the shotgun shells from the crime scene…and you already planned that in your mind that you’re going to. So, that emotion of that crime occurring isn’t taking you away from picking up that evidence. So, I think in their mind, the plan here was to eliminate everyone in that house that was… At the end of the day, it’s a very power assertive crime that the offender’s life is going to be better if all of those people aren’t there anymore.

To a level, it’s very organized. To a level, the crime itself was committed is a very organized crime, but also there’s a lot of evidence there that tells you that the person who committed this crime has to have some type of intimate knowledge of that family and intimate knowledge of insides of that house. One of the very telling things is where Bob Pelley is in the hallway and he’s deceased, but he’s shot from within the house. He’s not shot from outside the house. So, whoever shoots him is actually down the hallway where the bedrooms are versus coming in the back door or coming in through the kitchen. So that tells you a lot about your offender. That tells you that the offender is associated somehow with that family, whether it be a family member or be a close friend, that they’re able to get into that house that far to be able to then shoot him.

Delia D’Ambra: According to Patrick the order of the Pelley murders went like this…

Patrick Zirpoli: The sequence is that Bob is shot first, mom is in the basement with the kids, probably then cowering and protecting them. That’s why you have that multiple injuries to her in her digits and when she puts her hand up to kind of block the shot and then the children are shot afterward, and then the offender just leaves and takes everything with them.

Delia D’Ambra: He says the fact that the murder weapon and shell casings have never been found is important to understanding the offender’s state of mind.

Patrick Zirpoli: The shotgun being missing and the casings, and the shell casings for the shotgun, after the shooting, being taken away from the house, again, are very telling because that goes back to A, that offender doesn’t want them to connect it back to other shotgun shells that may be in a house or their fingerprints being on those shotgun shells.”

Delia D’Ambra: Patrick’s assessment is that all of the evidence indicates the Pelley’s shotgun was the murder weapon.

He says because it disappeared after the crime, that indicates it is of significant importance and the shooter knew it would be too incriminating to leave behind.

Patrick Zirpoli: I think is the 20-gauge shotgun that was in the fav, if it wasn’t, there was no reason to get rid of it. If that’s not the murder weapon, there was no reason to then go back in that bedroom, over that body to get that gun, to dispose of the gun, if that’s not the gun, why would you do that? So, I think that’s definitely the firearm that was used here.

If it was me, I would’ve just walked back upstairs, dropped the shotgun by the father, and walked away. Because when you look at their initial reaction, everyone thought it was a murder-suicide. Everyone went in there…and again, this is that thing that always happens to everybody. They’re told by everybody, this is a murder-suicide until they realize there was no gun on scene, then it wasn’t a murder-suicide anymore. If the offender would have just walked upstairs and dropped that shotgun in the hallway and walked out the front door, we wouldn’t be here today.

Delia D’Ambra: Despite there being two kinds of shotgun shell wadding found on both floors of the parsonage, Patrick is sure only one person murdered the Pelleys.

Patrick Zirpoli: It’s hard enough to find one person who’s going to do something like this, but then to find a second person who’s going to buy into it, especially when you kill two little kids is something completely different. And I always say, especially … just think about it. It takes you an hour to figure out where you’re going to have lunch if two people are discussing, “Where are we going to go have lunch today?” To then get someone to buy into something like this, a second offender, I don’t think that’s … those shells make that difference that show it’s two separate guns or two separate shells were used on either floor. I just think it’s a mixture of what they had.

Delia D’Ambra: So you think it’s a single offender, single shooter?

Patrick Zirpoli: I do. I think it’s a single offender, yeah.

Delia D’Ambra: Patrick emphasized that the single offender had to act quickly but was still operating with a heightened sense of rage.

Patrick Zirpoli: In your right state of mind are you going to go and kill a six- and eight-year-old? That’s the biggest question. You have to get yourself almost seeing red to that level of anger and that hatred towards them to be able to pull that trigger.

If Jeff is the offender here, killing the children has to happen. Period. If it’s a close relative of the family, killing the children has to happen. If it’s an outside offender, who’s just pissed off at Bob Pelley, killing the children is not going to happen…and I think one of the biggest things here, because you get an outside offender come from wherever, the wandering psychopath, he’s not going to be worried about these two little kids identifying him. This is somebody who is afraid of being identified by these children or afraid of something he may have done.

Who do those children threaten? They don’t threaten anyone. The only thing they threaten is a person that they know to say, hey, this is the person who did this.

Delia D’Ambra: After reviewing all of the reports regarding whether or not Jeff’s blue jeans were washed, Patrick confirmed the state’s theory that his clothing was washed just doesn’t add up.

Patrick Zirpoli: They took a piece of evidence and tried to make it fit a theory of what had happened there, and then now it turns out that that piece of evidence really doesn’t pan out.

Delia D’Ambra: The blue jeans.

Patrick Zirpoli: The blue jeans. You know what I’m saying? And you can’t have it both ways and you can’t now come around and give a different theory, because it doesn’t work that way.

I think all of the evidence is together in one spot. I don’t think it’s hither and dither down the road.

Delia D’Ambra: And you think it points to Jeff Pelley?

Patrick Zirpoli: I do.

Delia D’Ambra: So, there it was.

A neutral homicide expert’s opinion…Jeff Pelley likely murdered his family.

Patrick Zirpoli: The investigation has problems, but the conclusion was right.

Delia D’Ambra: But that’s not his final verdict…

In Patrick’s opinion, there’s also evidence that indicates someone else close to the Pelleys could have committed the crime.

He faults law enforcement in 1989 and in 2002 for leaving so much reasonable doubt around the investigation, enough to where asking the question, could someone else be guilty, is completely fair.

Patrick doesn’t support Fran Watson’s claim about the Hawleys…but he does understand why she’s making it.

Patrick Zirpoli: Those individuals there also fit in that, in those parameters. Jeff fits in there, but they also fit in there too.

I mean if this was presented on a fair plane to me right now, this is the case, those individuals are presented at the same time Jeff Pelley is presented to me, I would give them the equal amount of attention, if not a little bit more attention than I would Jeff if it happened today.

Delia D’Ambra: One person who says he knows from personal experience that the Hawley family could be capable of violence, is Pastor Michael Ross.

He knew both Bob Pelley and Phil Hawley very well while they attended his church in Fort Myers.

At Phil and his sons’ 1992 sentencing in Lee County, Pastor Ross told me he was asked to be a character witness for the family, but wouldn’t take the stand.

Michael Ross: I had a good rapport with that family until they wanted me to testify of the character of one of ‘em and I refused. And, uh, then I became the enemy. Then I actually had to carry a gun and my life was threatened. Um, they’re, they were capable of doing the worst and Bob knew that.

I don’t have any evidence or suggestion that anyone in Fort Myers was involved with Bob’s death. I do know that this family was cruel…there’s a word…not psycho…when you maneuver someone…it’s a disorder…

Delia D’Ambra: Sociopath?

Michael Ross: Yes…some of them were masters at it.

Delia D’Ambra: To be fair, I can’t get the other side of the story.

Because members of the Hawley family haven’t agreed to interview with me. I can’t provide you with what they think about being accused in Jeff’s post-conviction relief petition.

I imagine they don’t like it.

I wouldn’t either.

But the document has been filed. It’s in the court record in Indiana.

Me reporting on it doesn’t mean I believe it’s true, and honestly, neither should you. At least not without weighing all the evidence first.

What I do know is true are the four facts I told you about at the start of this episode.

That Eric Dawson and Bob Pelley had four specific things in common.

Association with Phil Hawley, ties to Landmark Bank, they lived in southwest Florida, and both died horrible deaths.

Those things could all be completely independent of one another…

But they also might not be.

What I needed to do was keep digging further into Bob Pelley’s background to find out if there’s something else that I was missing.

And of course, there was.

A missing person.

That’s coming up next on Episode 19: Name and Face. Listen right now.