Eyewitnesses and police investigators who discovered the Pelley murders remember the horrific scene inside the Pelley home.
Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 2: Crime and Case.
*SFX of church choir, cars and people*
Delia D’Ambra: On April 30th, 1989, around nine o’clock in the morning families and staff of Olive Branch United Brethren Church in Lakeville, Indiana started arriving to the sanctuary.
*SFX of birds chirping*
The small country church at 22750 Osborne Road shared a gravel parking lot with a matching white house-, the pastor’s parsonage.
The home, just steps from the sanctuary, is where 39-year-old Bob Pelley, his 33-year-old wife Dawn, and their five kids lived.
There was 17-year-old Jeff, 13-year-old Jacque, 9-year-old Jessica, 8-year-old Janel, and 6-year-old Jolene.
In the last episode, I took you guys through how exactly the Pelley family ended up in Indiana. If you haven’t listened to that it’s important to start this season for the beginning, at episode one.
In November 1986 Bob had accepted a pastoring job in Lakeville. Leaving behind sunny Florida and a lucrative job at Landmark Bank’s data processing center in Fort Myers.
The change of scenery and income for the family was definitely stark.
According to records, as a pastor, Bob made a meager salary somewhere in the ballpark of 13-hundred dollars a month.
His job in Fort Myers paid nearly double that plus benefits and bonuses.
The family’s living conditions took a step down after the move as well. Long gone was their Cape Coral house with a pool, open floor plan and garage.
The parsonage was surrounded by cornfields and bogs. The floor plan was dated, simple and cramped. Three of the youngest Pelley girls had to share one room and all five kids shared one bathroom.
The only thing that wasn’t cramped were the pews in the sanctuary.
The rural church Bob was now the leader of wasn’t highly attended. The congregation was maybe 40 to 50 members on a good Sunday.
Both buildings on the Olive Branch United Brethren Church’s property still stand today…and they look a lot like they did in 1989.
The main sanctuary building butts up next to neighboring homes and is walled in from the back by a large cornfield.
The entire deal, Osborne Road, the church, and the house combined, screams quintessential country midwest.
Cornfields, church and a quiet neighborhood.
There’s not a palm tree or sandy beach in sight.
On April 30th, 1989 a man named Dave Hathaway was in charge of making sure parishioners filed into the church on time and the service started at 9:30 sharp.
Dave recently passed away, in his mid-90’s, so I couldn’t interview him for the show, but I’ve read through all of his documented statements to police and investigators over the years.
His account of April 30th, 1989 is critical to understanding the first few hours of the crime scene and police investigation.
Dave was the Sunday school superintendent for the church in 89’ and was Pastor Bob’s right-hand man.
*SFX of car parking on gravel*
On Sunday mornings Dave had a habit of arriving earlier than the rest of the congregation and staff.
He liked to be one of the first people to greet Bob., who also had a habit of arriving to the sanctuary by 9:00am
Dave had a military background and had served in several wars. So his strict routine when it came to being on time for church was just part of his personality.
On April 30th though, he broke his routine and arrived at church ten minutes later than usual…around 9:10am.
He’d been running late and that bothered him.
By 9:15…9:20…something else was bothering him too.
Pastor Bob and the rest of the Pelley family were nowhere to be found.
Dave hadn’t run into Bob at all…and the family’s usually lively three youngest girls were missing from the mix of people filing into the church.
Dave knew it was strange that Pastor Bob wasn’t in the sanctuary yet. He always was inside the church by 9:00am.
Right as Dave noticed their absence, other staff members recognized something was up too.
Reality set in. Church was minutes away from starting and their pastor was a no show.
Right around this time, an 11-year-old girl named Stephanie Fagan who was friends with the Pelley girls was at the back door of the church parsonage.
She’d ran over from the church around 9:15 to see Jessica, Janel, and Jolene before service started.
According to her statements to police, this was something Stephanie always did on Sundays.
But when she got to the back door that normally would let her into the family’s garage…it was locked. She thought that was weird and tried the door handle on a sliding glass door on the back of the parsonage, but that didn’t open either.
Figuring the Pelleys were back over in the church and she’d just missed them somehow, Stephanie darted back to the sanctuary.
According to Dave Hathaway’s statements to police, he and Stephanie’s father, a man named Henry Fagan, talked about what was going on and figured that maybe the Pelleys had just slept in.
By 9:30, Dave decided to ask a young man in the congregation to lead the service while he tried to figure out what was going on with Pastor Bob.
*SFX of shoes walking & knocking on door*
Dave walked over to the parsonage by himself and knocked several times on the back and front doors…but no one answered.
He walked around the outside for about five minutes and looked in the windows but couldn’t see anything. All of the blinds were pulled down and the curtains were shut.
*SFX church hymn singing music*
Dave returned to the church and sat in the back row…But something just didn’t feel right to him.
With every passing minute and hymnal sung, he grew more anxious about the missing pastor…and finally, after a few more minutes, decided to get another staff member to help check out the parsonage a second time.
By 9:45Dave and a man who worked for the church, named Wilmot Tisdale, decided they would try and use a spare key for the church to get into the parsonage.
Because Dave did a lot of caretaking for the church, especially in the winter when he had to deliver fuel and take care of the furnaces inside, he had a spare key. He believed his key also would fit the locks on the parsonage’s doors.
*SFX of car driving off*
Dave drove home to his house nearby on Osborne Road to get it and within a few minutes was back at the parsonage.
*SFX of key jingling*
When Dave and Wilmot tried the key in the back door leading to the garage and the home’s front door…it didn’t work.
While they were troubleshooting, a woman who worked at the church named Lydia Easterday, walked over and offered them another key.
According to her statements to police, Lydia’s key came from her husband who was a staff member of the church.
That key didn’t budge the parsonage’s back door, but when Dave walked around to the front door and pushed it in that lock… It worked.
*SFX of lock clicking open & door opening*
At that point, it was about five minutes after 10:00am. Dave, anxious but calm, walked into the parsonage through the front door.
He’d left Wilmot and Lydia on the backside of the house at the still-locked sliding glass door. He told them once he was inside, he’d walk through and let them in the sliding door.
But Dave made it only a few steps into the house before he knew something was horribly wrong…
According to Dave Hathaway’s police interview transcripts, the first thing he saw when he walked into the front hallway of the parsonage was Bob’s thick eyeglasses laying on the carpet.
To better understand the layout of the home and the scene Dave walked into go to our website, counterclockpodcast.com and a diagram of the parsonage is there. There are also a few photos of the church and house that will make visualizing this part of the episode much easier.
Where Dave entered the house was through the front door on the first floor. When he got inside, he was standing in a short hallway with the living room immediately to his right and an open doorway to the dining room and kitchen directly in front of him.
Bob’s glasses were lying at the foot of that doorway.
Dave took a few steps towards the glasses and by the time he was standing over them, he looked to his left down a hallway that led to bedrooms and saw Bob lying down face-up in a pool of blood.
Bob’s head was closest to Dave and his feet were towards the far end of the hallway.
According to Dave, the doors to the three bedrooms off of that hallway were all open.
It was approximately ten minutes after ten o’clock when Dave discovered Bob.
He says he took one or two small steps toward his body…saw blood all over the walls and that part of bob’s face was missing and realized he was dead. Dave said he then went through the dining room and kitchen to the back door of the house to let Wilmot and Lydia inside.
He told both of them that Bob was dead and that they needed to call 911.
*SFX of dialing rotary phone*
Wilmot picked up the Pelley’s home phone in the kitchen and dialed 911 for help.
The dispatcher who picked up routed the information to Saint Joseph County Police Department. That department is now called Saint Joseph County Sheriff’s Office, but in 1989 it was a police force.
While Wilmot was on the phone with 911, Lydia was standing next to him and Dave had moved away through the kitchen and towards a back door that led into the garage.
As he was walking, Dave peered down the stairs leading to the basement and saw two feet wearing white socks sprawled at the bottom of it.
He says it was too dim in the basement to make out anything else, but just from the little bit he saw, his heart sank. Not having run into any of the Pelley kids, or Dawn, he knew in his heart they were probably down there… dead.
Before he could go any further down the stairs, Wilmot called him back toward the kitchen.
Bob’s dead body being just a room away got Wilmot so rattled that he couldn’t coherently tell the 911 operator the address of the parsonage. So, Dave got on the line and relayed the correct information.
*SFX of ambulance siren wail*
Within a few minutes, three paramedics arrived and Dave let them in through the back door. Saint Joseph County police were still on the way.
So just to recap here…because I know this is a lot of information to take in.
There are three exterior doors to the Pelley home. One is the front door, the second is a sliding glass door on the backside of the house that lets you into the dining room slash kitchen, and the third door is just off the kitchen that leads into the garage. There’s also an exterior door from the garage to the outside of the house. A picture of that from 1989 is on our website too.
According to police reports and witnesses, all of the doors were locked prior to Dave entering the home.
Once paramedics got to the scene, Dave told them not to touch anything because quote— “he felt there had been a murder” —end quote.
After that, everyone cleared the house. Including Dave, Wilmot, and Lydia.
Before he left though Dave says he never actually saw if any of the EMT’s touched anything or not. He saw them go check on Bob in the upstairs hallway and go down into the basement and turn a light on, but he never saw them touch anyone or move anything.
I’ll get into it more in the next episode, but that detail I just emphasized about the paramedics turning a light on in the basement will be important as we get further into this.
By 10:30am Saint Joseph County police officers arrived on scene.
According to reports, the only people who physically had entered the crime scene before the cops got there were Dave, Wilmot, Lydia, and the three paramedics.
It didn’t take police long to confirm that Dawn and Janel and Jolene were dead in the basement.
It was obvious at that point that Bob was dead from two gunshot wounds. One to his chest and another to the right side of his face.
Dawn and the girls died from gunshot wounds to the head.
I’ll get more into their injuries and autopsies in the next episode.
*SFX of police radio chatter*
But after the first responding officer gathered the basic information about how many victims they were dealing with and the likely cause of death, he radioed for a detective.
Shortly before 11:00am, Saint Joseph County Police Detective John Botich arrived at the parsonage.
John Botich: I was building a home in Lakeville, matter of fact, maybe, probably three miles from the parsonage itself. I had just pulled up in the drive to do work and I get a phone call from our departments, Saint Joe County Police Department that says you know we’ve got a homicide on Osborne Road. It’s a church, Olive Branch church. You need to get there. And I drove right to there.
There were several police officers there from our department and there were church members there. Of course, they were getting ready to have church, so they were all there and I waited for a couple of our detectives to show up and technicians and they had basically told me what one of the gentlemen at the church found.
Delia D’Ambra: John quickly began assessing what looked like a quadruple family massacre.
John Botich: I went in with a technician first just to do a walkthrough before they did anything to collect any evidence.
We saw something, or I saw something that day that nobody should ever have to see.
Bob was upstairs in the hallway. He looked like he had been shot twice. His glasses were off of his head there on the floor beside him.
Dawn Pelley was on her knees, had a girl in each arm trying to protect them ..um…and it was a pretty devastating sight.
Delia D’Ambra: In addition to the four slaughtered Pelley family members, the next thing John noticed was what wasn’t in the home.
John Botich: We went through the rest of the house. Nothing was in disarray. There wasn’t any ransacking. No furniture overturned. I mean, basically it looked like a normal home.”
Delia D’Ambra: Normal with the exception of one glaring thing…There were three Pelley children still unaccounted for.
There to help figure out where those three were, was Indiana State Police Trooper, Mark Senter.
Mark is retired from law enforcement and is the current mayor of Plymouth, Indiana, a small town ten minutes south of Lakeville.
He and John worked the Pelley murder case together and still talk about it often.
Mark joined John at the crime scene at 11:00am that Sunday. And he wasn’t just walking into any other murder scene, Mark was walking into the house of a man he knew.
Mark Senter: Bob was a member of the Lakeville Lions Club as was I and uh, and for awhile we were actually meeting at the church. So, that’s how I got to know Bob. Bob was fairly new in town…
Just a normal guy. I mean, obviously a pastor is a part of the community a larger part of the community and he was a leader of not only his church but parts of the, he was in the Lions Club he was a part of the community in that regard…and so, I really didn’t have anything negative about him or just a guy, just a guy who is, was, trying to do his best for the community.
Delia D’Ambra: After talking with several people from church, Mark and John learned that 9-year-old Jessica had been staying at a friend’s house for the weekend and was due to be dropped off at the parsonage any minute.
Here’s how Jessica remembers arriving to the chaotic scene in front of her home.
Jessi Toronjo: My friend’s mom was taking me home for church on Sunday morning, and we were pulling in front of the house, and getting ready to pull into the driveway.
I just remember seeing the yellow caution tape, and I thought something had happened to my dog.
We pulled in, she stopped the van, a police officer came to her window, asked her to get out, she did. She went to the front of the van, and I could see him talking, and she was just sobbing. I was a kid, you don’t see a lot of adults do that, they try to do it behind closed doors, or try to hide it from you, and she didn’t, so I just didn’t know what was happening, and then that’s when she came, opened the door, put me in the front seat, and said, “Your whole family’s gone.”
Delia D’Ambra: Like Jessica, Jacque too was also located safe and sound.
She’d been about an hour and a half away from Lakeville at Huntington College most of the weekend visiting friends from a church camp. A bishop from Olive Branch United Brethren drove and picked her up that Sunday afternoon.
Jacque Pelley: He came to the dorm room that I was staying at and told me. I don’t remember his exact words, but I do remember that the way that he worded it made me think my sisters were still alive…
Delia D’Ambra: That’s hard…
Jacque Pelley: The way he worded it, I just thought they’d been kidnapped or something. I had to have said something because he did clarify it then, but I didn’t know on the car ride home that they were dead. I don’t even know that I knew which of the three girls it was though, because I don’t remember knowing that Jessica was going to be gone for the weekend.
Delia D’Ambra: The last Pelley child John and Mark need to track down was 17-year-old Jeff.
From their brief interviews with church members, they learned he’d gone to his senior prom the night before. But beyond that, he and his 1984 Ford Mustang were unaccounted for.
That is until they spoke with Jessica.
And what she told them…
Jacque Pelley: She told them Jeff was at Great America…
Delia D’Ambra: Took the investigation in the direction of a prime suspect.
John Botich: In his mind…he never would get caught.
Delia D’Ambra: But first, police needed to focus on the evidence and bodies inside the parsonage.
Listen to episode three, Evidence Race, right now.