Episode 5: Retrace

Original detectives on the case remember tracking down 17-year-old Jeff Pelley at a theme park in Illinois and Delia dissects the first videotaped interview authorities conducted with the teenager.

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Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 5: Motive and Haste

*SFX of amusement park*

At 2:30 in the afternoon on April 30th, 1989, 17-year-old Jeff Pelley, his girlfriend Darla Emmons, and about a dozen other LaVille High School Students were inside of Six Flags Great America Theme Park in Gurnee, Illinois.

*SFX of police radio *

What the teenagers didn’t know, was that officers from Gurnee Police Department were close by roaming every aisle of the amusement park’s parking lot trying to locate their cars.

In particular, they wanted to find Jeff’s 1984 two-door silver Ford Mustang.

According to reports I dug up from Gurnee Police Department from 1989, patrolmen found Jeff’s car on the row labeled “Daffy Duck” shortly after 2:30pm.

An hour later, two teens from Lakeville who’d been with Jeff and Darla inside the park were leaving in their own car and the officers stopped them. These two teens were Lynette Greer and Mark Berger.

Lynette and Mark will become pretty important witnesses in this case, but I’ll get more into why in the next episode.

For now, all you really need to know is that when they were stopped at Great America, police asked them where Jeff and Darla were.

Lynette and Mark told the officers that they weren’t sure but gave the cops a description of what Darla and Jeff were wearing.

Around 4:15, forty-five minutes after stopping and detaining Lynette and Mark, security guards and Gurnee police found Jeff and Darla in a gift shop.

*SFX of door dinging open*

The couple was with several other teens who’d attended prom together the night before.

Gurnee police took all of them to the police station for questioning, but kept Darla and Jeff in a security office at the theme park.

Saint Joseph County Police Detective John Botich specifically asked Gurnee police to detain Jeff and Darla in isolation and not interview them.

Authorities in Illinois were told to get statements from all of the other teens, but leave Jeff and Darla alone until John arrived.

John and his colleague Jerry Rutkowski also requested that Jeff and Darla’s vehicles be impounded and sealed off until they arrived.

Between 4:15 and 4:30pm, Jeff asked Gurnee police three separate times what was going on and if he was in some kind of trouble.

The officers didn’t speak to him and they definitely didn’t tell him that his father, stepmother, and two stepsisters had been murdered.

Just after 4:30, Gurnee officers finally decided to break the news to him though.

According to police reports, they told Jeff that only Bob and Dawn were murdered. They intentionally left out the fact that Janel and Jolene were dead too.

The Gurnee officer wrote in his report that he withheld that information because Saint Joseph County had not positively identified the little girls yet.

The report states that when Jeff heard the news of Bob and Dawn’s deaths he quietly sobbed in his seat and Darla tried to console him.

*SFX of car door opening and shutting*

A few minutes later Gurnee police transported Jeff and Darla from the amusement park’s security office to the actual police department.

During the car ride Jeff continued to ask Gurnee police officers what exactly had happened to his parents and how they were murdered.

They wouldn’t tell him anything.

Jeff continued to pepper them with questions and wanted to know how his sister Jacque would be notified. He told them that she would need someone to go get her at Huntington College and bring her back to Lakeville.

He also asked if Bob was really dead…

All questions I think maybe anyone would be asking if you’d just heard your parents were murdered.

When Jeff and Darla were finally at the Gurnee police station, he asked to call his maternal grandparents, Mary and Jack Armstrong. These were his biological mom Joy’s parents, but police told him no.

Hours went by and Jeff and Darla just sat in silence.

Around 8:30pm, John Botich and Jerry Rutkowski arrived from Indiana.

They immediately took some statements from a few other teens that had been in the amusement park group, then went to check out Jeff and Darla’s cars.

Police reports state that john and jerry went through both vehicles but did not find anything of any evidentiary value.

I emphasize that because it’s going to be very, very important a little later on in this case.

Around nine o’clock the detectives spoke separately with Darla and Jeff for two and a half hours.

By 11:30pm, John, Jerry, Jeff and Darla were leaving Illinois and headed back to Indiana.

At no point, the entire day and night, were Jeff or Darla ever in custody or under arrest.

They could have walked out of the Gurnee police station at any point, but according to reports they never asked to leave.

John and Jerry didn’t get back to Lakeville with Jeff and Darla until around two o’clock in the morning. So, technically the next day, May 1st.

At that point they allowed Darla to speak with her parents who told her to cooperate with police.  She was released shortly thereafter.

Jeff on the other hand, was not released.

By four o’clock in the morning, his grandparents, the Armstrongs, had arrived from Kentucky and signed guardian consent forms allowing John Botich to officially interview him.

John Botich: I just wanted to hear his story. Where he was, what he might have saw before he left.

When you have somebody that’s not of age, you have to have a parent or guardian there. We had grandparents there and they were good people. They would like to know what happened too. You know but if you were a suspect in a case and you got mom and dad on this side or grandma and grandpa on this side…I mean that’s, you mind as well have your baby blanket on you. Because, you know, you’re protected. That’s why the questions that I did ask him, I would, it was more of a fact finding thing for me. Just to see how he reacted and how he answered the questions.

And according to John, Jeff had a lot to explain…

*SFX sound of videotape recorder tape wheels*

Jeff Pelley: “Robert Jeffrey Pelley.”

John Botich: Okay…and your date of birth?

Jeff Pelley: 12, 10, 71.

Delia D’Ambra: Saint Joseph County Police Detective John Botich conducted the first and only videotaped law enforcement interview with Jeff Pelley.

John wanted to hear from Jeff himself about his relationship with Bob, Dawn and the rest of the blended Pelley family.

At this point authorities had finally informed Jeff that his stepsisters Janel and Jolene were the other two victims found inside the parsonage.

John used the interview as a way to figure out if Jeff had murdered his family.

At that point in time, Jeff was law enforcement’s prime suspect.

At the beginning of the hour and a half long conversation, John didn’t start with a direct line of questioning.

He asked Jeff simple stuff like, who he’d seen in the last 24 hours?, what he’d done Saturday all day and right before prom?…

Jeff Pelley: I went to work at five o’clock that morning.

I got off about 11. My dad picked me up about ten after, quarter after. He was running a little bit late.

Me and dad and Janel and Jolene ate lunch right about 12, 12:30. We ate together.

We ate lunch. Me and Janel and Jolene washed my car.

John Botich: That’s your two sister?

Jeff Pelley: Two stepsisters. My two youngest stepsisters…and then we came inside and ate lunch with dad and then dad left and he went visiting. He didn’t come back until almost 4 o’clock.”

I think he went to Johnny Howell’s and the Dillers. I’m not sure of his name.

I watched a baseball game on TV for a little bit between the Dodger and Cardinals.

Delia D’Ambra: That part, what Jeff just said, is true.

I checked.

From 12:30 until 3:45pm on Saturday, April 29th, 1989 the Saint Louis Cardinals did play the LA Dodgers and the Cardinals won.

Jeff also volunteered accurate information about where Dawn had been all day on Saturday.

Jeff Pelley: She had a girl scout meeting that day.

She left about 9:30 I believe.

Delia D’Ambra: According to Jeff, Dawn returned to the parsonage around 3:30, shortly before Bob did.

I have the log sheet from Dawn’s girl scout meeting  and can confirm that it took place in Plymouth, Indiana about a 20-minutes drive from the Pelleys’ home, and it started at 9:30am and ended around 2:45pm.

According to the sign in sheet, and several women who attended, everyone signed out around 2:45pm but Dawn and a few other women lingered to talk.

Witnesses stated dawn left around 3:00pm.

Which means she would have gotten home, not making any stops, around 3:20 or 3:30.

By 4:30pm it undisputed that Jeff, Bob, Dawn, Janel, and Jolene were all together at the parsonage.

This is confirmed by eyewitness statements police took from some of Jeff’s high school friends who showed up at the parsonage between 4:30 and five o’clock.

The group was wearing their prom dresses and tuxedos and came by to visit with their pastor and have Bob take their pictures.

Bob was an amateur photographer and owned a nice 35 millimeter camera. That’s the one I told you about that was eventually seized as evidence.

Here’s Jeff remembering it in 1989.

Jeff Pelley: Kim Oldenburg came over with David Shoemaker…because I used to date Kim Oldenburg and my dad and her were real good friends and my dad wanted to see her in her dress.

Her mom and her brother and her brother’s friend were with them and then Matt Miller stopped by while they were there. He was just there for one minute and he had to run back out because he forgot the flowers for his date, so he had to go back home. *laughs*

They left about quarter til, I suppose, I left 4 or 5 minutes after them. I put my tux in the car. I put my radio in the car and I left right after they did.

Delia D’Ambra: Jeff explained that he had plans on Saturday to meet his girlfriend Darla at Lynette Greer’s house across town to get ready and take photos there before the dance.

That’s why he packed his tuxedo in the car, instead of wearing it to Lynette’s.

Jeff Pelley: We were going to dinner at the Emporium. We had dinner reservations for 6:30.

I knew I’d need clothes for after prom and I was spending the night at a friend’s house so I knew I’d need clothes for that. So, I packed all that and got the car ready to go.

Delia D’Ambra: Jeff and Darla’s double date for prom was meeting at Lynette’s because the girls were getting their hair done there.

Interview transcripts with Darla and Lynette corroborate this.

Jeff claimed he left the parsonage between 4:50 and five o’clock.

On his way to Lynette’s, he stopped by a convenient store to fix something on his car…

Jeff Pelley: I had to stop along the way because I’d been fooling with the idle in the car. It wasn’t idling right.

The car was idling too high when I’d try to stop it just. It didn’t want to stop right.

Delia D’Ambra: John Botich used Jeff’s answer about his car problems as a springboard to push Jeff harder, on one very important point.

Why was Jeff even driving his Mustang to begin with?…

Wasn’t he grounded?

Why had he and his car been at Great America?…

John Botich: We had found out that Bob had told numerous people down there. Church people. Elders that, you know, he’s not going. He’s in trouble. He’s not going anywhere. He took the insurance off the car. He disabled the car somehow.

Delia D’Ambra: Jeff had an answer, Bob had simply changed his mind at the last minute.

Jeff Pelley: At first he kept saying no and then he finally agreed to let me go.

He told me Wednesday and Thursday that there was a good chance that he’d let me go and then he told me Friday for sure that I could.

John Botich: When did you let all your friends know that you could?

Jeff Pelley: I talked to Darla Wednesday night. Because usually when my dad is deciding something, as long as you keep up being good and stuff then he’ll go through with it. So I let her know that I’d probably be able to go that there was a really good chance that I could and we redid the dinner reservations and stuff.

Jeff saying that he talked to Darla a few days before prom, on Wednesday night, is accurate.

Phone records from the parsonage show that someone used the Pelley’s line to call Darla’s residence on Wednesday, April 26th and the conversation lasted for over an hour.

That seems like a high school lovesick teenager weeknight call to me.

But the problem for John Botich and other Saint Joseph County investigators was that it just seemed like Jeff had a convenient answer for everything.

They knew Bob and Jeff had been having a lot of disagreements prior to the murders.

A month before the murders, Bob had asked Mark Senter, the Indiana State Trooper helping John investigate the crime, for help straightening out Jeff’s bad behavior.

Mark Senter: Jeff was involved with, he broke into a home of a friend’s and stole some money and he used that money to go to Florida for spring break. You know, so, Bob called me and he said Mark I need a favor. My son’s done this and I need you to intervene in this and take this report and so I did.

We interviewed Jeff and Bob was interviewed in the pews of the sanctuary of the church, believe it or not. About the burglary. He admitted to it, I sent my case to the prosecutor’s office or went to juvenile probation and that was it. That was probably, I don’t know the exact date but I would say early March…mid, mid-March. So, six weeks before the actual murders.

Delia D’Ambra: Court records show that Jeff never faced any charges or penalties for that burglary because he confessed to it and the victim, a friend of Jeff’s named Jon Herczeg, worked out a deal with Jeff.

Jeff Pelley: After my dad turned me in and stuff I talked to John and I told him what had happened and everything and John said no problem. As long as you can get me my CD’s back I’m not worried about it and he told me, he even said if you even get half of them back, he said I’m not worried about it. John wasn’t making a big deal over it. He said he thought I was a true friend just because I admitted it to him and he forgave me and everything.

Delia D’Ambra: Jeff speaking openly in his interview with police about his thievery and juvenile delinquency wasn’t surprising.

Jacque Pelley, Jeff’s younger biological sister, as well as a few others in the Lakeville community knew about Jeff’s bad behaviors and that he’d stolen from Jon Herczeg.

She remembers that the week leading up to prom, Bob and Jeff were in the midst of working out an appropriate punishment.

Jacque Pelley: Dad would ground you, and he knew that he overreacted. He was the first one to say, “If I ground you for the rest of your life or whatever, wait until we both calm down, if you feel like it was unfair, then come back and we’ll negotiate until we get to something that we both agree on.” From whatever it was that Jeff got grounded until up to prom week, I knew they were negotiating. That’s just the way things worked in our house.

Delia D’Ambra: She says that nothing was escalating between father and son leading into prom weekend.

In fact, according to Jacque, Jeff was more independent than anyone knew.

Jacque Pelley: It’s frustrating, because everybody has this opinion of Jeff being rebellious and blah, blah, blah. Jeff was done with school. Jeff could have left and gone to Florida and stayed if he wanted to, or he could have moved to Kentucky with my grandparents or something. There was nothing keeping him there. He did not have to go to school every day, even for attendance. He was done. He was just waiting for graduation.

Delia D’Ambra: But Mark and John felt positive that Jeff and Bob’s relationship wasn’t on the mend.

They believed the 17-year-old was lying about everything.

They believed he was allowed to go to the prom dance, but nothing else.

They had a gut feeling that Jeff was the only person who had motive to want to see Bob, Dawn, and anyone else who got in his way, dead.

John believed Jeff’s motive was anger…

Anger towards his stepmother…

Jeff Pelley: I didn’t accept her. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her.

When they got married they wanted us to start calling Dawn ‘mom’ and stuff and it was really hard to accept.

Delia D’Ambra: Anger towards his father…

Jeff Pelley: My dad kind of went through a personality change when he remarried. He wasn’t the same father that I’d always grown up with.

Delia D’Ambra: And anger about being banned from driving himself and his girlfriend to prom.

John Botich: At one part I asked him, ‘Do you know what happened to your parents? Did you do it?’ ‘No, I did not.’

Jeff Pelley: No I didn’t. I…me and my father didn’t get along sometimes and sometimes I’d be really upset with him, but we always worked things out.

John Botich: Well, my dad and I did have some problems, but we always worked them out. Well, yeah, okay. That sounds good Jeff, but I know that’s not true.

Delia D’Ambra: The reason John Botich didn’t believe Jeff is because an overwhelming mountain of circumstantial evidence was building…

And interview after interview with witnesses, narrowed down a timeline that convinced the police Jeff…and only Jeff…

John Botich: He thought he was smarter than everybody.

Delia D’Ambra: Was behind the trigger that killed his family.

But I took a closer look this timeline…and uncovered…not everything lines up.

Listen to Episode Six, No Clues to Waste, right now….