Episode 20: Picking Up Pace

Delia realizes the potential significance of the Pelley’s .22 revolver much to the surprise of Jeff’s defense attorney. The investigation into Eric Dawson’s murder takes a surprising turn and puts Delia in the same room with investigators. Listeners can help push the case forward in a special finale call out.



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Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 20: Picking up Pace.

If you’re just tuning into season 3 for the first time, this is our finale episode.

This season we dropped all 20 episodes at once for you to binge but it’s important that you listen in order, starting at episode one.

For those of you who have made it all the way through season 3, this is the culmination of a very large story that includes my investigation into five murder victims across two states.

This is not a story that ties up with a pretty bow but as you listen to this last episode, you’ll see why telling it was so important.

*SFX receipt printing & cash register*

When you purchase a gun from a store or a private seller, there’s supposed to be a record of the transaction.

U.S. law requires you to fill out a federal firearms form.

In the 1980s, Bob Pelley didn’t have one of those forms for a .22 revolver someone gave to him and his first wife, Joy.

According to Jeff and Jacque, one day their dad just suddenly had a .22 revolver.

He told the kids a vague story that a close friend gave the gun to him.

Throughout most of her childhood, Jacque remembers her dad kept the gun wrapped in a green cloth under a bed in the master bedroom.

*SFX of gunshots*

Jeff and Jacque say while living in Florida, their family would go out target shooting with the .22.

Bob promised to Jeff that when he turned 18 he would get the .22 as a sort of heirloom.

But in April of 1988, plans changed.

Like I told you in a previous episode, in Spring of 1988 Jeff threatened to take his own life.

So, concerned for Jeff’s safety, Bob removed the .22 from the Pelley home and gave it to an anonymous person for safekeeping.

According to police reports and eyewitness testimony, at some point between Fall of 1988 and Spring of 1989, Bob also gave a sack of guns to Thomas Keb but according to multiple interview transcripts, the .22 revolver was not in that bundle. It was already gone from the parsonage.

Somehow, according to both Jacque and Jeff, by January of 1989, Bob had possession of the .22 again.

I know this because Jacque told detectives that in January of 1989, her dad told the kids that he had the .22… But it quote— “just wasn’t in the house”—end quote.

What’s super interesting is that I found a report that states Bob gave the .22 to his sister in Ohio not long before he died.

So, if you believe all of these accounts…

That means the .22 disappeared from the parsonage in Spring of 1988. Then it was back in Bob’s possession eight months later.

Sometime between January of 1989 and right before he was killed, Bob gave it to his sister.

My question is, where was the .22 from Spring of 1988 until January of 1989?

And not only that, when Bob told his kids in January 1989 that “he had the gun but it just wasn’t in the house,” where was it?

The reason I think the whereabouts of the Pelley’s .22 are important is because I know based on information from the Lee County sheriff’s office that Eric Dawson was murdered with a .22 revolver in September of 1988.

Now, there are a lot of .22 revolvers out there in the world, thousands, and I’m not saying the Pelley’s gun is the murder weapon that killed Eric, but you see why I ask the question, right?

In light of the close proximity of all of the characters in this story, I think the Pelleys’ .22 is worth law enforcement looking into.

If there’s a universe where the Pelley’s .22 was the gun used to murder Eric and Bob got it back from someone after that crime, he essentially was in possession of a smoking gun. He just may not have known it… or maybe he did?

It’s possible Bob could have realized in January of 1989 that the gun was a murder weapon.

I think that could explain why he made sure it was out of the parsonage in case Eric’s killer came looking for it.

It could also explain Bob’s strange behavior leading up to the family murders, like when Jacque said he grew paranoid, cried openly and expressed concern of what the kids should do if something happened to him.

I’ll admit, this is just me speculating. But when you look at the timeline of the .22’s movement in and out of the parsonage between 1988 and 1989, it kind of makes sense.

Honestly, the Lee County sheriff’s office has nothing to lose if they were to test the Pelleys’ .22 against evidence in Eric’s case.

Eric’s case is unsolved and according to Tom Kontinos, detectives recovered the bullet that killed him. So it seems to me, like that testing the .22 is worth a shot to me.

Up until I started investigating this case, the Pelley’s .22 was unaccounted for.

According to reports and my interview with family members, after the gun went to Bob’s sister. It left her possession and its whereabouts just sort of got lost with time.

I can now officially tell you that after investigating this case, I’ve located that firearm.

I’m not going to say publicly where the gun is now, just in case it is of significant importance, but what I will say is that according to etching on the side, it’s a Harrington and Richardson .22 LR 929 revolver.

Based on letters at the beginning of the serial number, the gun was made in 1979.

I brought all of this information to Fran Watson and she was so intrigued by the observation that she assigned her law students at Mckinney Law School to research and investigate the .22 more.

Frances Watson: We will absolutely take steps to determine whether the Pelley family’s heirloom .22, so to speak, the gun that had been the biological mother of Jeff and Jacque, Mr. Pelley’s first wife…if that has any potential to be the murder weapon of Eric Dawson. It’s interesting that Dawson was killed with a .22 and clearly, the police never found the murder weapon in that crime.”

Delia D’Ambra: Fran told me if the gun is somehow connected to Eric Dawson’s murder, it’s not something she ever considered.

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.

You know…maybe Mr. Pelley was concerned that he had a murder weapon and he could somehow be linked to a murder…

Mr. Pelley was a liability as a witness. Maybe they came up here to get that gun.

Delia D’Ambra: If law enforcement in Florida were to look into the .22 in relation to Eric’s case, that would mean everything to the Dawson family.

Jason has been waiting 33 years for answers about who killed his dad.

Jason Dawson: Because of the length of time everybody said ‘You know what, you’re wasting your time buddy’ and that was probably the most frustrating to hear…people who could do something about it, but didn’t want to do something about it.

I don’t think the Lee County Sheriff has been on the up and up for any of the information that has been uttered in their offices to me or to anybody involved in the case. When reporters would go they would just say ‘we can’t speak on an active case.’

Delia D’Ambra: And I’m no exception.

The response the sheriff’s office gave me was that no one would do an interview with me about Eric’s case.

Starting from the day Eric’s body was found in 1988, the Lee County sheriff’s office has claimed a public records exemption on all of the documents related to the homicide.

To this day, nothing is in public records but the sheriff’s office can only claim the public record exemption if they are actually working the case.

Several months ago, I decided to figure out just how active the sheriff’s office’s investigation was.

Not surprising there was no investigation happening at all.

Ten pages deep on the Lee County sheriff’s office’s unsolved murders website there wasn’t a single mention or image of Eric Dawson.

Crime Stoppers of Southwest Florida didn’t even have a profile for Eric in their gallery, which by the way is home to hundreds of unsolved southwest Florida crimes going back decades.

There had been zero recent activity on the case…

That is unacceptable in my book.

In January of this year, I pressed all of the entities involved to do something.

I called the state attorney’s office in Fort Myers every day for weeks to put me in touch with their homicide investigation unit.

The state attorney in Florida is essentially a district attorney who oversees multiple counties.

I wanted to put pressure on the Lee County sheriff’s office to reopen Eric’s case.

After all of my efforts, I finally got a response…

State attorney’s office investigators wanted to meet in person at their headquarters in downtown Fort Myers.

*SFX of phone buzzing*

In early January 2021, my phone buzzed.

On the other end was a violent crimes investigator for the state attorney’s office in Lee County, Florida.

He’d received my many messages about the Eric Dawson case and invited me to the 20th judicial circuit office building in Fort Myers.

He wanted to hear what I had to say and become familiar with my investigation into the Eric Dawson case.

Prior to my call, he said he was minorly familiar with Eric’s case.

He emphasized that to his knowledge no one at the Lee County sheriff’s office was currently assigned to the case.

I told him I found that interesting because the sheriff’s office is claiming a public records exemption on investigative documents.

He reiterated that no one from his office or the sheriff’s office was currently assigned to the case.

When I showed up to our meeting, I brought Tom Kontinos along with me.

For an hour and a half, Tom and I filled him in and I recommended this investigator’s box the state attorney, who holds more power, pressure the sheriff’s office into really investigating the case and potential suspects.

I also brought up the Pelley’s .22 revolver being something that could be forensically tested.

A few weeks after that meeting, the investigator told me that until the Lee County sheriff’s office recommends Eric’s case for the state attorney’s office to review. His hands are tied.

So, I’m asking you, listeners, to write, call, or email the Lee County sheriff’s office in Florida to reopen Eric Dawson’s case and work jointly with the state attorney’s office to find his killer.

Contact information for sheriff Carmine Marceno’s staff is on our website counterclockpodcast.com  under the season three tab and we will also link directly to it in the show notes.

The traction that this podcast is getting has really prompted Crime Stoppers of Southwest Florida to get involved in drumming up new leads in Eric’s case.

Their director, Trish Routte, sat down with me for an interview after reviewing what little information the sheriff’s office would release to her.

Trish Routte: We need to start talking about this case again, we need to remind people that this case is still open. People that lived here back in 1988 when this happened will absolutely remember that time, that timeframe. But since 1988, re-, really, nobody has talked about this case. And that’s a problem.”

Delia D’Ambra: Trish is discouraged that the Dawson family has had to live so many years without justice.

Trish Routte: They shouldn’t have to go five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years or more and not know who took their loved one.

It was horrifying what happened to him and the manner that it happened, it was such a brutal homicide. Um, for that family to have to live with that without any answers is, is awful. And no family should ever have to do that.

Delia D’Ambra: Trish is my kindred spirit, she’s an aggressive advocate for unsolved homicides.

In her years of running Crime Stoppers in Southwest Florida and helping obtain leads that contribute to solving cases, Eric’s case is one that gives her great concern.

She says it’s apparent to her that whoever is responsible, likely has been able to silence many people who could identify them.

Trish Routte: If the person or persons responsible were from that financial realm, um, how many other people have they enforced their displeasure with, in this fashion? Um, yes, right now we’re, we’re dealing with Eric’s homicide, but are we dealing with other homicides in other areas that have similar circumstances?

Anybody that has the capacity to kill someone in such a, uh, an articulate manner as this person or persons did, they have the capacity to do that to other individuals as well. So, it’d be curious once this case is finally solved and I hope that it will someday, I believe that it will someday, are there other homicides that can be related to some of the peripheral things around Eric’s case? You know, this is not just a case where it’s a local thing. There are, there are tentacles that go outside of Southwest Florida…and there are people that are, I, I believe that are probably in the know that are not even in our community, that hopefully if they, they hear this podcast they’ll know that it’s time to step up and do what needs to be done.

Delia D’Ambra: Eric Dawson is now one of the first profiles you see on the Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers website.

audiochuck even has a billboard up in Lee County waiting for the right person to see it and come forward.

As I wrap up this third season of CounterClock, I don’t have as many solid answers as I’d like to.

I personally don’t feel I know one way or the other whether Jeff Pelley is innocent or guilty.

I’ve found proof that he had an unfair trial, but that’s not enough for me to take a side.

Recently I learned that for years Phil Hawley has been writing Jeff letters in prison. A fact Jeff’s own defense attorney Fran Watson told me she wasn’t aware of.

I don’t know if Jeff wrote Phil back, but just the fact that they were in contact, I think could mean a lot of things.

Fran has been representing Jeff since 2009. Jeff knows how Fran feels regarding the Hawleys.

According to Jacque, Phil’s letters to Jeff trickled and then stopped altogether when Phil learned that Fran named the Hawley family in her post-conviction relief filing.

I wish both Jeff and Phil would talk with me, so I can ask them about those letters and about a lot of other things.

Mostly, I want to know the depths of the Pelleys’ relationship with the Hawley family and what Jeff really knows about his father’s life before he became a pastor.

Jeff is going to face a lot of questions, probably more intense questions than I would ever ask him If and when Fran has him testify at a future his post-conviction hearing, or in the event he were to get a new trial someday.

On April 16th, 2021 Jeff and Fran had their first pre-trial conference with a saint joseph county judge and current county prosecutors.

This was the first time Fran could get on the docket after months and months of delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

All of the parties spoke remotely on a conference call, including Jeff who phoned in from prison.

The meeting was to iron out two very important things.

One, finally get an answer from Saint Joseph County about where missing pieces of evidence are in the case.

Fran has specifically requested access to Toni Beehler’s recorded 2003 interview tape that the state claims it has, as well as figure out where the missing keys from the Pelley’s outdoor trash can are, the locket with a man and woman’s photos inside of it and the film from Bob’s 35-millimeter camera.

Her motion requests that the state say where those items are and turn them over to the defense.

If it’s a situation where the state destroyed that missing evidence, Saint Joseph County has to produce proof of how and when those items were destroyed.

Right after the conference wrapped up Fran called me.

*Phone ringing*

Delia D’Ambra: Hello?

Fran Watson: Hello Delia. This is Fran Watson from Indiana.

Delia D’Ambra: Hey Fran. Yeah, so, how did the hearing go today?

Fran Watson: We had a status conference today with the judge that’s presiding over the Pelley case and it went well from our perspective. The state is to answer the complaint that’s pending within 30 days and the court has set a first status conference on June 25th at 1:30 to determine whether the state is able to produce the items of discovery that we have requested.

Delia D’Ambra: So, that’s pretty critical because you’re going to be able to you know have a better idea of how you’re going to approach a potential evidentiary hearing in the future if that’s granted based on what you can learn from that discovery motion being answered or not. Like, where that stuff is and all that?

Fran Watson: Exactly. That’s a…it’s good. We’re in agreement with the idea that we’ll be able to know those things before we get hearing dates.

We certainly work year-round on these cases and we’re happy to have a date in sight so that we can move forward.

Delia D’Ambra: Are you receiving any additional help now in the clinic on the Pelley case particularly?

Fran Watson: I have wonderful students each semester that invest in this case and which makes me glad for the client, proud of the students. I also now have a co-counsel. A volunteer Scott Montross and he will…he’s entered an appearance and will serve as co-counsel.

Delia D’Ambra: Was this a conference that your client, Jeff, was present? And to hear him on it was he..could you infer anything about how he’s feeling? I mean a lot of time has passed since the PCR filing…did you get a sense if Jeff is optimistic?

Fran Watson: I do believe Mr. Pelley is pleased and satisfied to know this is moving forward and that we will get answers one way or another as to whether these items exist. As you know, we are most interested in the cassette and audio interview of the Toni Beehler is available and if not, why not?

Of the list…um…I would say that’s the one that we are most interested in having an answer to.

Delia D’Ambra: I know I’ll continue to stay in touch with Fran as Jeff’s post-conviction process continues.

If the judge in Indiana grants an evidentiary hearing after, I’ll be sure to be there and update you all.

After a year of working on this story, I’m left, just like you, wondering.

Wondering where we’d be today if police in saint joseph county had done a better investigation in 1989.

Wondering if Bob Pelley was a man with more secrets than anyone ever knew.

And wondering if the Pelley family murders were really the result of an enraged teenage boy or the work of a hired hitman who’s gone unnamed and unknown for 32 years…

All I know is that there’s evidence that points to both of those things.

In the end, there are five people dead, who should have lived.

Dawn, Janel, and Jolene were brutally slain for no reason in a heartless crime that will forever haunt their only surviving family member, Jessica.

Jessi Toronjo: The survivor’s guilt is I wish I would’ve been there because maybe I could’ve done something to save them. I mean, obviously, as an adult I know that wouldn’t have happened, but when I was a child that was in my head, that if I would’ve been there this wouldn’t have happened. I could’ve done something, I could’ve hidden us, or something.

Delia D’Ambra: What would you want Janel, Jolene, and your mom to have experienced with you?

Jessi Toronjo: My wedding, my children. Just the hard times, I would’ve loved to just pick up the phone and be able to call them and ask them advice, or vice versa. I would love to have memories to talk about with them, “Do you remember us doing this?”, or … and I don’t have any of that…

Delia D’Ambra: Jessica now goes by the name Jessi, a new identity she’s given herself to cope with her dark past.

The events of April 1989 destroyed her life. If you want to learn more about her story you should read her memoir, “I am Jessica.”

Jacque Pelley’s life was also ripped apart by the 1989 massacre.

She may have never understood her father, Bob, or been close with Dawn and the girls, but she still wishes they were all still around.

Jacque Pelley: He would have been a part of everything. I think all of them, we missed out on birthdays and births and Christmas and backyard barbecues. There’s nothing normal about what we’ve been through. I think they would have been in all of it.

Delia D’Ambra: The only family member she has left is Jeff, a four-time convicted murderer, who turns 50 this year and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Then there’s Jason Dawson, whose dad, for all his alleged scheming and swindling, was still his hero and a person Jason wishes he could share his life with.

If your dad was still alive today, what would you want him to know? What do you wish he could have been a part of?

Jason Dawson: I mean everything. Doesn’t every son want their father to be a part of their life and you know going to their games growing up and you know see his son get married, his son have children? You know, just to have a good life and to be proud and to know that his son became a member of society and has been contributing and has always tried to do the right thing. May not have worked out that way but you know I think overall just think he’d be proud of where I am today and where our family is.

Delia D’Ambra: Thank you all for listening to season 3 of CounterClock.

I’ve worked hard to deliver this detailed and confusing investigation to you as best as I can.

Trust me, it’s not been easy and I know there are still probably a ton of things you want to know.

So, because this story is so big and there are so many characters involved, I wanted to give you guys the chance to write in with your questions.

I want you to email me your questions about the case to counterclock@audiochuck.com.

I’ll look over your messages and in a few weeks Ashley Flowers and I will be back with a bonus Q&A episode to try our best to answer them.

Also, remember that Jeff Pelley is currently in the process of getting an evidentiary hearing. Fran Watson expects a date to be set sometime this year.

So, keep your Google alerts on for any updates on that.

I’ll be taking a hiatus from CounterClock for a few months, but don’t worry I’ll be back with a future season.

CounterClock is an audiochuck original podcast.

The show’s executive producer is Ashley Flowers.

All of the research, writing, and reporting is done by me, your host, Delia D’Ambra.