Delia investigates whether or not a fictitious identity manufactured in South Florida in the late 1970’s could tether Bob and Phil’s history more than previously thought.
Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 19: Name and Face.
The further I’ve looked into Bob Pelley’s background, the more I’ve wondered about his life in the late 1970s and early ’80s when he was a young man and Jeff was a young boy.
How far back did Bob’s relationship with people in Florida go, and was he the person everyone thought he was?
And that’s when I ran into an incredibly significant lead.
*SFX of large splash of water & police sirens*
Around four o’clock in the morning on Saturday, February 28th, 1976, a car was sinking fast, filling quickly with the water of San Carlos Bay near Sanibel Island, Florida.
Within minutes, the red 1967 Mercury convertible was partially submerged in about five feet of water.
Now, I know from having lived in southwest Florida for years, that cars going into bodies of water is actually way more common than you’d think.
A lot of stories I used to report on involved intoxicated drives missing a turn and launching into a canal or unfortunately people wanting to take their own lives driving over a seawall, and even sometimes a person would intentionally sink their car for insurance money.
But in 1976, the Mercury in San Carlos bay was unique because it wasn’t any of those things.
It was a brand-new mystery that Sanibel Island police had never encountered.
*SFX of tow truck beeping*
According to reporting by the Fort Myers News Press and Sanibel police records, when crews towed the car out, no one was inside.
That seemed strange. The car’s registration came back to a man named Harry William Stewart from Fort Myers.
Police knew the car didn’t just roll off the Sanibel causeway. It had been launched roughly 50 feet into the bay.
Someone had to have been behind the wheel when it crashed and it wasn’t reported as a stolen car, so police thought most likely the person who’d been driving it was the owner.
Sanibel police launched an extensive search to find whoever was driving the Mercury. But after days of diving and scouring the coastlines of Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel, a body never turned up.
So, Sanibel police were left trying to figure out who Harry’s family and friends were to hopefully get more information that could help the investigation.
But they were sort of beat to the punch.
The sunken car with no body in it became a headline news story right away.
According to Jim Mcgee’s reporting for the news-press, Harry’s landlord called the day after the car was found.
That landlord’s name? Phil Hawley.
In 1976, Phil called the Sanibel police and claimed to be renting an apartment to a 28-year-old man named Harry William Stewart.
According to police, Phil was the only person who ever inquired about Harry. No family members or any other friends ever called about him.
Phil explained that he’d known Harry for three years and they’d done business together.
*SFX of keys going into lock & door opening*
A few weeks after the car sunk Phil let Sanibel police check out Harry’s supposed apartment in Fort Myers.
According to detective’s reports, when officers went inside there was little to no furniture, rat feces and filth everywhere, no toiletries, one change of clothes that were tattered and completely unwearable, and a stack of unopened bills on the kitchen counter that were postmarked a year old.
When officers asked Phil to show them the lease paperwork for the unit, Phil produced it.
Oddly, Phil had signed it but Harry had not.
Police couldn’t find Harry’s signature on any of the mail or documents police retrieved from his alleged apartment.
The case of the missing man whose car ended up in San Carlos Bay went cold.
Until a year later…
According to Jim Mcgee’s reporting, insurance claim investigators visited Sanibel in 1977 to try and prove Harry William Stewart was in fact dead.
It had been a year since his car sank and he was presumed dead.
The claim investigators had been receiving calls from the beneficiary of three life insurance policies for Harry that equaled 86-thousand dollars.
That beneficiary? Phil Hawley.
The Sanibel police confirmed to the news-press that Phil was attempting to collect on the insurance money for Harry’s death.
The insurance investigators began looking into the claim. Wondering why a person’s landlord would the beneficiary of their life insurance.
What they found, was an FBI investigation months in the making and a missing person whose true identity was mystifying.
Insurance company investigators in 1977 didn’t know it, but a few months after Harry William Stewart’s car sank off the Sanibel causeway, the feds had started looking for him too.
In June 1976, four months after the Mercury registered to Harry went for a swim in San Carlos Bay, a tall dark-haired white man using his name and date of birth applied for a passport in Miami.
The feds flagged the application because they cross-checked the name Harry William Stewart and his date of birth with the Bureau of Vital Records and discovered that the information belonged to a baby, who was dead.
At the time, the FBI didn’t know that a Harry William Stewart was supposedly missing from Fort Myers.
Agents simply recognized that the name and information on the passport was fake.
That discovery of fraud allowed them to get an arrest warrant for the man whose photo was taken for the passport.
Fast forward a year later and the feds just can’t seem to find this man posing as Harry William Stewart…
At the same time, insurance investigators in Sanibel realized they too were having problems verifying the validity of their sunken car victim.
The feds and the insurance companies both realized they were most likely looking for an identity that didn’t exist.
The one thing that continued to puzzle them though was who was the real man who’d smiled for the passport photo? Who was the real man Phil Hawley claimed to rent an apartment to and was the beneficiary of?
Who was the name behind the face?
According to the Fort Myers News Press’s article, to try and get some answers the insurance investigators looked closely at the life insurance policies made out to the fake man.
Two of the policies had been taken out via mail with no ability to trace them but the third was prepared by an agent in Cape Coral, Florida.
That agent was a close colleague and business associate of Phil Hawley.
When investigators asked the agent if he remembered preparing the life insurance policy for Harry William Stewart, neither he nor Phil could recall.
Phil never provided an explanation to the newspaper about the suspicious matter and the investigation seemed to die there.
As 1977 came to a close, it was obvious to federal authorities and the insurance companies the name of Harry William Stewart being used by a grown adult man, had never existed.
A baby with that name had existed but then died.
Someone stole the baby’s name and used that information in February of 1976.
They’d registered a car to it, put it as a tenant on an apartment lease, and even drew up life insurance policies for it.
The identity was made to appear as deceased after the car sank in Fort Myers, which allowed Phil Hawley to attempt to claim life insurance.
The identity was later revived in June of 1976 by a man trying to obtain a passport in Miami, there was no doubt about that the real person was photographed during the application process and signed the 2-page legal document.
The Fort Myers News Press obtained a copy of that photo from the passport and published it in an article in March of 1978.
I dug it out of the archive and what’s incredibly interesting is the man in the image appears to have the same hair color, facial features, and jawline of none other than Bob Pelley.
Even Jacque Pelley says the photo is uncanny…
Delia D’Ambra: What do you think about that passport photo?
Jacque Pelley: I don’t know what to make of, it kind of resembles my dad.
Delia D’Ambra: Now, I know what you’re thinking.
There’s no way the phony passport photo could be Bob Pelley.
That would be too far-fetched. Right?
Well, bear with me for just a second…
Fran Watson obtained a copy of the original passport application from the FBI via FOIA request and sent it to me.
A copy is on our website, so go take a look.
Frances Watson: The passport says that the purpose of it is a six-week vacation to Venezuela, Brazil, and the Caribbean Island. Now, I ask you, who in 1976 goes on a six-week vacation to South America…and what for?
The occupation is said to be a journalist.
Delia D’Ambra: When we look at the photo, you know, Jacque says, I think that looks like my dad.
So, when we look at it, what is your take?
Frances Watson: Well, I certainly see a resemblance. More than a resemblance between the passport photo which would have been 1976 and Mr. Pelley. I see it, particularly in the eyes. In the hair. In the chin. The chin is sort of what is convincing, most convincing to me. The shape of the head. In a lot of Mr. Pelley’s pictures, he’s not smiling. The man in the passport photo has a big smile and that can change image, right? If you just look at the chin on the two photos you’ll shake your head ‘Yes!’ and if you look at the placement of the eyes you’ll shake your head ‘Yes!’ and then if you look at the way the hair…I’ve seen a picture of Mr. Pelley where his hair is parting right in the middle, just at the same exact spot as it is in the passport photo.
I think what the passport photo shows is that Bob Pelley was tied into what I call the Hawley badness as early as 1976.
Delia D’Ambra: Now, again, that’s Fran’s opinion. It’s what her legal argument in defense of Jeff is built on.
But here is what I can prove based on information my investigation has revealed.
When Phil Hawley spoke at Jeff’s sentencing in 2006, he claimed he’d known Bob Pelley since Jeff was 5 years old, which would have been 1976 because Jeff was born in 1971.
So, Phil admits to knowing Bob Pelley the very same year that the Harry William Stewart identity was used on a bogus passport application.
Based on Florida Sunbiz records I pulled, I know for a fact that in May of 1976 Phil created a company called American Bureau of Citizenship, which just so happened to aid in passport and visa application services.
That business was one month old when the man claiming to be Harry William Stewart applied for a passport in Miami.
My investigation also revealed that the signature on the Harry William Stewart passport closely matches Bob Pelley’s signature.
I know this because I pulled land records for Bob Pelley when he bought a home in Cape Coral in 1983. He signed his name on the deed.
I compared his signature from that deed to the signature for Harry William Stewart on the passport and they’re an incredibly close match.
Now, I’m not a handwriting expert but if you don’t believe me, take a look at the two signatures for yourself on our website and tell me what you think.
Pay close attention to the way Bob loops his lowercase l’s and you’ll see what I mean.
I should also mention another interesting piece of information I found out that definitely ties Phil Hawley to the stolen identity of Harry William Stewart well before the sunken car and fake passport incident.
I uncovered that in September of 1975 the registered agent for Caribbean Industries Inc., one of Phil Hawley’s corporations, was none other than Harry William Stewart.
Which means, in 1975 a fictitious person was running one of Phil Hawley’s businesses.
How that’s even possible, I have no idea.
My whole point in even bringing any of this up is to show you what so many investigators over the years have been unable to see.
Based on credible evidence, documents, and circumstances, it’s more than conceivable that Bob Pelley knew Phil Hawley as early as 1976 and that Phil Hawley knew the identity of Harry William Stewart was bogus as early as 1975.
The extent to which Phil used or repurposed the stolen name has never been known to local law enforcement or the FBI.
I can tell you though that it appears he never did get the insurance money for the three policies he was a beneficiary of.
What Fran Watson wants to know in her defense for Jeff is if Bob and Phil were involved in illegal activity together back in the ’70s that later followed Bob and maybe even contributed to his murder.
I can’t answer that question, and honestly, that’s not what I’m here to do.
I’m here to find facts and figure out what the evidence reveals about the life of Bob Pelley.
Fran’s job is to argue if the information relates to the Pelley murders.
Her biggest hurdle is finding physical proof that supports her claim about the Hawleys.
I can look at fake passports and raise eyebrows at Phil’s sketchy business history all day long. But the fact remains, there is nothing concrete that ties any member of the Hawley family to the Pelley murders.
And because there is so much evidence that Indiana police in 1989 didn’t investigate, it’s hard to know which way is up.
For example, I want to know what happened to the film inside Bob’s 35 mm camera that police seized as evidence. And what about the locket with the photos of a woman and a man inside it and a key that was found in a barrel outside of the parsonage?
Those items are literally documented in the police’s evidence log.
Could there have been film in the camera that provides more clues about the crime?
Knowing the identity of the people in the locket’s pictures also seems pretty important all these years later, when alternate theories like Fran’s are being seriously entertained.
According to the Saint Joseph County police file and the trial discovery, none of that evidence was ever investigated.
No one, including Jeff’s first defense attorney Alan Baum, questioned what happened to those items.
Fran tells me that the prosecutor’s office told her that the film from Bob’s camera was developed back in 89’ but police said the images were blurry. So they destroyed the film.
She also says the locket and keys are missing from evidence boxes.
I have to believe that’s the truth because when I interviewed Craig Whitfield, who re-investigated the Pelley case in 2002, he told me that he never saw those pieces of evidence either.
Delia D’Ambra: As you go through this inventory, did you have questions about, well, what’s on the roll of film? What is that locket? It has a picture of a white male and a white female. Any questions for you that you wanted to pursue further? But it doesn’t look like those items came into play at trial or in the charges.
Craig Whitfield: No, and I can’t even speak to that. I don’t remember that piece of the case, honestly.
Delia D’Ambra: In your discussions with John, did any of that stuff ever come up? Bob’s camera, the film?
Craig Whitfield: Not that I can recall, but I would about bet that they had whatever film was on there exposed so they could see what was on it.
Delia D’Ambra: Because that would be important.
Craig Whitfield: I would hope that they did that.
Delia D’Ambra: Because there’s a lot of emphases put on, there was no pictures of Jeff in his tuxedo until he was already at prom. So, pictures and proof is, in the minds of the investigators in ’89, we need to see images throughout that evening to determine sequence of events…but this camera that’s found at the parsonage, there’s no pictures from it in evidence or in the case file, and there’s no explanation of what happened to that…and so, I just don’t know if that struck you as odd, or it was just something that couldn’t be pursued.
Craig Whitfield: Well, it couldn’t be pursued. I don’t remember there being any film.
Delia D’Ambra: On top of all the questions I have about the camera film, locket, and key, I also want to know why police didn’t follow up on a report they took from Ed Hayes, Dawn’s father.
Back on May 16th, 1989, detectives from Saint Joseph County drove to Michigan and interviewed ed for the second or third time.
According to the police report, during that interview Ed told the investigators that after the murders he’d gone into the parsonage and found the family’s checkbook.
He noticed that in the days leading up to Saturday, April 29th three checks had been issued from the book.
One was for $65 and written in the memo line was “prom things for Jeff.”
The second check was for $45 and written in the memo line was “weekend spending money for Jacque.”
The third entry was a check written to cash for $120.
Ed told the police that the checks for Jacque and Jeff were in Dawn’s handwriting, but the third check wasn’t in Dawn’s handwriting.
Ed said the third check was suspicious because he’d found out later that if the check had been cashed, it would have overdrawn the family’s account and bounced.
He had no idea if the handwriting on the third check was Bob’s or not. All he knew was that Dawn didn’t write it and the police needed to investigate if someone had tried to cash it.
There is zero follow-up to this report in the case file.
I find Ed’s information about the checkbook incredibly interesting though.
I have Jeff’s tux shop receipt, his rental cost around $65, so the check for his stuff adds up.
Then there’s the check for Jacque’s weekend trip, that $45 makes sense too considering she’d need to eat for two days and it took Bob a tank of gas to drop her off and drive back to Lakeville.
It’s the third check, not in Dawn’s handwriting that will always bother me.
Who wrote that check? —and why? How did the police not think it was important?
Detectives never mention in any of their reports that they did a forensic examination of the Pelleys’ banking records. Nowadays that is like standard procedure, or at least it should be.
As I’ve dwelt on all of these unanswered questions. There’s one that tops them all.
What happened to the Pelley’s .22 revolver after it left the parsonage in spring in 1988?
Remember, after Jeff threatened to take his own life, a year before the murders, both he and Jacque stated Bob took it out of the parsonage and gave it to somebody.
Not to Thomas Keb, but to somebody else for safekeeping.
Here’s Jeff explaining it in his May 1st, 1989 interview:
Jeff Pelley: 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: There’s a police report from Bob’s sister that also states the gun went to somebody for safe keeping in spring of 1988, but somehow shortly before Bob died he was in possession of it again.
It’s then that he gave it to his sister.
So where, or rather to whom, did the .22 go from April of 1988 until Bob suddenly had it again and asked his sister to keep it?
The question is one Fran Watson has never realized could be important.
Frances Watson: I’m thankful that you’re a good journalist and a good investigative journalist and that you’ve recognized that in the spring of 1988 the gun, a .22 revolver that had belonged to that family was given to someone…”
Delia D’Ambra: No one has ever investigated how relevant the missing .22 might be to this story’s big picture…
That’s coming up in Picking up Pace, the season finale of CounterClock. Listen, right now.