Episode 4: Motive and Haste

The Pelley’s nextdoor neighbors remember critical details about the timeline leading up to the massacre and Delia learns the depths of alleged resentment between Jeff and Bob.

Episode Photos

Episode Source Material

  • “Church Mourns Pelley Slayings” by Thomas P. Wyman and “Police divers search pond near home of slain pastor” by Bruce Von Deylen South Bend Tribune May 2, 1989 Article via Newspapers.com

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 4: Retrace.

If you’re new to the series, make sure to start at episode 1 of this season.

*SFX of raceway*

On April 30th, 198, an hour and a half away from Lakeville, Indiana, the Pelleys’ next-door neighbors, Sheila and Harold Saunders were doing what they always did on Sundays.

*SFX of pit crew*

Working in the racing pit at Kalamazoo Speedway.

*SFX of raceway*

On weekends, the couple would leave their home on Osborne Road and go across the Indiana border into Michigan.

In 1989 Harold, who goes by the name Irish, was employed by Hoosier Tire.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: They announced over the PA, “Irish Saunders, you have an emergency phone call.” They red flagged the race so I can go across the track to get on the phone. Of course, we had no cell phones back then, it was all landlines, right?…And it was a Joyce Newton, that her and her husband owned Hoosier Tire, and (8:25) she told me, she says, “Irish, your family’s okay. Sheila’s family’s okay. But your next door neighbors were murdered… and you need to get home right now.” (8:33) So I hung up the phone, got in the van, told Sheila, “Sheila, we got to get home. The next door neighbor has been murdered.

Delia D’Ambra: That’s pretty scary.

Sheila Saunders: And at that point in time you don’t know who, how many or anything.

Delia D’Ambra: That information left Sheila and Irish in shock.

The couple spent their drive back from Kalamazoo spiraling about the murders.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Good God. This happens in little Lakeville, Indiana. If it could have been a big metropolis city, you can say this, but here it is, and it’s not only that it’s next door to us. So, on the way home there you’re thinking, how did this happen? Who did it? What was the motivation for doing this?

Delia D’Ambra: They were gripped by a really frightening thought.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Had to be a sick person to do something like that. Killing an adult is one thing, but two little girls on top of it, that’s-

Sheila Saunders: And the way they done it.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: The way they did it. Shotgun. It just had to be a really sick individual to do something like that and had some major, major, major mental issues, in my opinion

*SFX of cars driving*

Delia D’Ambra: When the couple got back to Osborne Road and pulled into their driveway, they barely recognized their street.

*SFX of police siren blip*

It was swarmed with police cars and news vans.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: It was really weird the way everything was. Everything was all caution taped up when we got back home here, right? It was all marked off. There was a lot of county, I remember, not so many state, but I saw a lot of county police cars so I can remember that, and county officers walking around the house.

Sheila Saunders: But never had asked us anything, really.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Never really said much.

Sheila Saunders: No.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Never came…

Delia D’Ambra: Did they every want to come over and search your property?

Harold “Irish” Saunders: No.

Sheila Saunders: Somebody said something about the tree line. They were up here in the tree line looking for a gun or something.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: But never came in and said, “Hey, can we check your whatever?” No, never.

Delia D’Ambra: That seemed weird to me.

Police at the Pelley crime scene not searching the direct next door neighbor’s property feels like a huge oversight.

I mean, the Saunders’s backyard is one route a suspect could have approached the parsonage.

Sheila and Irish told me why Saint Joseph County Police Officers decided they didn’t need to search their house and yard…

That reason was Jeff.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: They came in the front room here and they said, “Listen, what happened over there, you had nothing to worry about.”” And I’m like, “Nothing?” He says, “Nothing.” And that was all they said. I never asked anymore. So, who did it? Never asked that, but they just said, “You have nothing to worry about.”

Delia D’Ambra: And this was within 24 hours of the homicide?

Sheila Saunders: Yeah.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Of the homicide. Yeah. Yeah.

Delia D’Ambra: By the afternoon of April 30th, John Botich, Mark Senter, and the rest of the police officers working the case had developed a theory.

They believed that 17-year-old Jeff Pelley was their prime suspect.

They believed he alone had murdered his family on the evening of Saturday, April 29th. Then left the parsonage in his Ford Mustang to attend LaVille High School’s prom and after-prom activities.

All-day Sunday, he was nowhere to be found and his car was gone from the parsonage.

After speaking with friends and neighbors like Sheila and Irish, John Botich learned that Jeff, his father Bob and stepmother Dawn had a long history of mounting disagreements.

John Botich: There’s a lot of things we found out with the blended family um Bob…Jeff was very close with his original mother. I think she passed away when he was like 13 years old. He was really, really close to her. When Bob and Dawn got married they blended the family together and Bob kind of pushed from what we understand that this is your mother, you will call her mother. Jeff had nothing to do with that. There’s no, that’s not my mother, I’m not calling her mother, so there’s a lot of resentment there.

Delia D’Ambra: Mark Senter also conducted several witness interviews, .and he and John established that during the week leading up to Saturday Bob had banned Jeff from driving himself to prom and attending any prom activities other than the dance itself.

Those activities included dinner with friends beforehand, a bowling alley party afterward, and a road trip to Six Flags Great America Theme Park on Sunday afternoon.

According to police reports and witness interviews, Jeff was only allowed to go to the prom dance and back. And he’d be driven both ways by Bob.

Mark Senter: Everyone that we talked to even on Saturday afternoon said Bob promised he would not be going to, he, he’ll take them to the prom, but Jeff will not be going himself…and they’re going to the prom only and back home. That’s it. No pre-prom dinner. No after prom and especially nothing on Sunday at Great America.

*SFX of car revving*

Delia D’Ambra: This fact fit when John and Mark interviewed Sheila and Irish.

Retracing the couple’s memories, police discovered that Bob and Jeff had disagreed the morning of Saturday, April 29th, yet again about prom.

According to Sheila, at some point during the previous weeks, Jeff had come over to their house and asked to borrow her trans am sports car for prom.

Sheila and Irish told Jeff, sure, but they wanted him to clear it with his dad first.

Well, by Saturday morning April 29th, Bob came over and made it clear to the Saunders that Jeff’s request was not approved.

Sheila Saunders: In the morning, Rob had came over and he says, “Hey, Sheila,” he says, “Jeff is not going to use your car for the prom.” He said, “He’s not going to use nobody’s car. I’ve taken a part off of his car. He’s never going to be able to fix it.” And he said, “The only way he’s going to go is by family members of us or Darla’s.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, hours before prom, Bob told Sheila that he’d dismantled a part of Jeff’s Mustang so his son couldn’t take it to prom.

According to Sheila, Bob was punishing Jeff for some recent bad behavior.

The only way that Jeff was going to get to go to the dance was if Bob and Dawn dropped him and his girlfriend, Darla, off and brought them home.

Police investigators knew this information wasn’t enough yet to support their theory about Jeff being the triggerman for the quadruple murder, but they were working on it.

But in their gut, motive seemed obvious to them. Jeff wanted his way and he killed his family to get it.

John Botich: Jeff had to make his move because the prom was going to happen that night…and he had to get his stuff together and he had to be gone. You know, so he could go to the prom, the after prom…

He already had this planned. I’m going. This is what I’m going to do. I think he already had the shotgun in his bedroom and dad stopped him and things escalated from there.

This theory made sense to Sheila, and after she thought about it, it wasn’t a huge surprise.

Sheila Saunders: He got his way. When the car was gone in the morning, you just think, “That’s very unusual. Why would his car be gone?” Rob already said that he wasn’t going to be using the car.

Delia D’Ambra: Sheila in particular had observed and learned a lot about Jeff and the rest of the Pelley family in the three years they’d lived next door.

Even though the saunders didn’t attend Olive Branch Church, Bob had actually married Sheila and Irish in their backyard the year before the murders.

She often saw Feff, the oldest, coming and going from the parsonage.

Sheila Saunders: I think being that he was the only boy there, he didn’t do a lot of things with the girls. He had a job at McDonald’s, so of course he had friends. So, he wasn’t out like you seen the girls, but like I had said, the one time when I had seen him mowing, he had a big boom box strapped onto the front of the mower, put one of the girls, giving them rides on the mower. And it’s like, man, that’s weird. I said, “Jeff never does anything with these girls…And this was a month before this had happened, and two weeks later, their girls are out there playing on the monkey bars, well he goes out there and he’s picking up the girls and hanging around on the monkey bars, which is very unusual because, as I said, he had nothing to do with these girls.

Delia D’Ambra: In the months before the murder, Sheila says she’d look over and see Jeff staring out the window of his bedroom.

She wasn’t sure if he was angry or just lonely.

Sheila Saunders: Jeff was like the outcast of the family.

Jeff was just different in his own ways. I mean, when I’d see him sit in the window at midnight, one o’clock, looking out the window, it was like, what the heck is this all about? So, is there something wrong with his mind? But I don’t know, it’s just one of those thoughts, you just think, ‘He’s probably…’ Because, like I said, with the prom going on or whatever, the Mustang is gone, so Jeff’s, he’s got to be alive.

Delia D’Ambra: Irish struggled to accept, without question, the theory police had about Jeff.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: They all seemed to get along really well when they were outside…And I don’t know what happens behind doors, but when they were outside, they all seemed to get along. Never was any type of yelling, any type of screaming, any type of punishment for any of the kids. None of that stuff that we saw.

They just looked like the normal, average American family.

Delia D’Ambra: It was hard for Irish to really buy into the scenario that a 17-year-old boy could heartlessly slaughter four of his family members… Leave no evidence of the crime behind…and do it *just* to attend prom.

As I’ve dug through police reports on this case and chronologically lined everything up, I realized that Sheila and Irish were some of the first people outside of the police force to know that jeff was a suspect.

Having knowledge of that so early on, made the couple think long and hard about their most recent interactions with members of the Pelley family.

And the longer they thought, the more they remembered a lot of valuable information…

One important thing Sheila and Irish saunders remember from the weekend the Pelleys were murdered was the conversation they had with Bob on Saturday morning about Jeff not being allowed to use their car for prom.

After that, Sheila and Irish didn’t see Bob again until 12:30 in the afternoon that same day.

They spotted him briefly while they were getting ready to leave for Kalamazoo.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: I remember Bob going by and I waved, and he was in his Escort, Ford Escort. And he went by and that’s the last time I saw him.

Delia D’Ambra: By Saturday night, Sheila and Harold had returned home from their first day of racing in Michigan.

They wanted to get some sleep, then turn right around Sunday morning and make the drive back to Kalamazoo.

Saturday night Sheila noticed something odd.

Sheila Saunders: I got home, what, 9:15, go into the bathroom, and our bathroom, you can just look right out and see their house now. And I looked and it was like the basement light was on. I’m like, “Wow, that’s weird.” So Irish got home at 9:30. I says, “See that?”, I said, “Their basement light’s on.” I said, “That’s unusual.” I said, “Those girls are usually in bed by eight o’clock or so. He said, ‘Well, maybe they got to stay up a little later.’ Well, we had went to bed and I got up about two o’clock and go to the bathroom. And I looked, it’s like, “Wow, that light’s still on.” I said, “Huh? Wonder what’s going on?” Well, then in the morning when we got up, I looked, and said, “Huh. Look at that. That Mustang is gone.” I was like, “Wow, he must got his way then.

Delia D’Ambra: During our interview, I had the Saunders show me exactly in their house where Sheila was standing when she saw the light from the Pelleys’ basement.

The couple still lives on Osborne Road, next door to the parsonage.

Your vantage point of the Pelley parsonage and their backyard, and really even the woods beyond, is really clear right here.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Oh, absolutely.

Sheila Saunders: Oh, yeah.

Delia D’Ambra: Their guest bathroom is exactly the way it was back in 1989.

Sheila Saunders: On the Southside of the house, so there’s a basement window there.

Of course that was the first thing that I seen at 9:15. I thought myself, then Irish got home at 9:30, and I said, “Man, you see that? Their basement light is on there.” He said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah,”, I said, “They must have let those girls stay up, so that’s unusual.”

Delia D’Ambra: Because you see sliver of that window, so light on is going to be a little beacon in that corner.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: And it was a regular bulb that was down there, but they have…

Sheila Saunders: The LED.

Harold “Irish” Saunders:… the LED lights in there and it’s really bright when they have it on now.

Sheila Saunders: But then, I got up at 2:00 o’clock then also, and I had seen it on still then. I said, “Geez, they must be sleeping upstairs or something.”, because they must have left that light on.

I was like, “That’s really pretty weird.” And I thought, “Well, maybe the girls got to stay upstairs or something.”, and he just left the light on, because the light in the basement, it was never on past eight o’clock.

Delia D’Ambra: The second odd thing Sheila and Irish remember from that weekend happened early Sunday morning. A few hours before Dave Hathaway discovered the Pelleys’ bodies, the Saunders actually called over to the parsonage around 7:30am.

*SFX of phone ringing*

They wanted the Pelleys to let their dog out while they were gone for the day.

Sheila Saunders: We were getting ready to go to the race up in Kalamazoo and I had told Irish, ‘Go ahead and give them a call, have them let the dog out.’, which we had done this quite often. Never answered. I said, “Well, you obviously got the wrong number. Call him again.” And so, he called him, “Nope, no answer.”

Harold “Irish” Saunders: I just figured that they were up, they were gone. They walked over across the parking lot to the church. They’re over in the church. They didn’t answer the phone because they didn’t hear the phone ring, because the phone, if I’m not mistaken, I think the phone…

Sheila Saunders: It goes to both of them.

Harold “Irish” Saunders:…went both to the church and to the house. So, it was they didn’t answer the phone, but maybe they were in part of the church that they didn’t hear the phone. Right?

Delia D’Ambra: So, the same phone line went to both locations?

Sheila Saunders: Yeah.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Mm-hmm

Sheila Saunders: Yes.

Harold “Irish” Saunders: I think it was to the front office.

The Pelleys not answering the phone at 7:30am, to me, indicates that they were already dead. That’s what police believe too.

Irish and Sheila didn’t know that though, and they never actually went over to check on the Pelleys in-person.

They glanced out their kitchen window and everything looked normal to them…except the fact that Jeff’s car was missing…and one other thing.

*SFX of dog barking*

Harold “Irish” Saunders: Major, their Alaskan Malamute that they had, there was a kennel that was out there, a fenced-in kennel, and what they would do every morning is they would put Major on a chain so he could come out of the kennel, play with the girls, whatever he had to do. But at night they’d always put him back in the kennel at night. Well, at this time on or about 7:30, I’d say, in the morning, on Sunday morning, Major’s out already. He’s chained. He’s on his chain. He’s out there. So that’s why she’s like, “Well, they got to be up.” So, looking over there, we see that the patio doors, it’s not open. The curtains are shut, which was very unusual but who knows? Something had happened, obviously, but it was very unusual that that was like that.

Delia D’Ambra: So, and it’s funny because people always say, “little red flags,” right? But I mean those things, at the time, didn’t even seem like a red flag?

Harold “Irish” Saunders: No.

Irish and Sheila say it would have been too dark on Saturday night to see if Major was in his kennel when they got home from work, and they don’t even really remember noting this specific detail.

They only noticed him on Sunday morning and assumed he’d been put on the leash early Sunday morning, but there is the possibility he was on the chain all night which like Harold said would have been unusual.

By Sunday afternoon, when Sheila and Irish were giving their statements about what they remembered from the past 24 hours, the police had a breakthrough.

Detective John Botich had located Jeff.

The teen was with his girlfriend and several other LaVille High School students inside Six Flags Great America Amusement Park in Gurnee, Illinois.

*SFX of theme park*

According to the police log, around five o’clock at night on Sunday, April 30th John Botich and Officer Jerry Rutkowski drove two and half hours to the theme park to question Jeff.

John Botich: I left the scene and went with another one of our officers Jerry Rutkowski to Gurnee, Illinois. We called Gurnee Illinois Police department told them what we had here, and we were looking for some high school kids that were on an after prom event…and they located the cars and located the people for us, so, they had them all together when we were there and Jerry and I did bring back Jeff’s girlfriend, Darla, and Jeff back here to South Bend. That’s when I ended up interviewing him with his grandparents.

Delia D’Ambra: I’ll dive into that interrogation…next…on CounterClock.

Jeff Pelley: I don’t know, I started feeling like something was wrong and I talked to Darla about it. I told her, I just felt like something was wrong inside…I just had this feeling that something was wrong.

You can listen to Episode Five, Retrace, right now.