Episode 6: No Clues to Waste

Indiana police try to find physical evidence linking Jeff to the murders. Delia examines their methods and uncovers documents that contradict one another.

Episode Photos

Episode Source Material

  • “Probe Continues into Ex-Cape Residents’ Deaths” by Devi Sen for the Fort Myers News Press May 2nd and June 7, 1989 via Newspapers.com

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 6, No Clues to Waste.

 *SFX of VHS tape going into player*

Jeff Pelley: I want to go into law, which is ironic after stealing and stuff. But that’s really what I like to do. I’d like to become a prosecuting attorney.

Delia D’Ambra: Telling words, straight from the mouth of 17-year-old Jeff Pelley back in 1989.

Jeff Pelley: Well, I want to go into law…

Delia D’Ambra: In his May 1st interview with Saint Joseph County police detectives, it was Jeff’s tone in his answers that rubbed investigators the wrong way.

Teenage Jeff was known to be sort of surly, or cavalier, I guess is the best way to describe it.

But then again, what teenage boy who’s independent, and has already graduated high school, isn’t?

Jeff was smart. He knew mere minutes into the interrogation that police were looking squarely at him for his family’s murders.

As John Botich and Mark Senter began building their timeline of his movements on Saturday, April 29th and Sunday, April 30th, they relied a lot on Jeff’s own words and what Jeff’s girlfriend Darla remembered.

After all, she’d been with him Saturday night and up until he moment he was brought back to Indiana early Monday morning.

Darla is someone I’ve tried to contact multiple times for an interview for this show, but she’s never returned my messages or requests.

So, my next best option is reading all of her depositions and statements in the decades since 1989.

And there are a lot.

According to her first statement to police, Darla vouched for Jeff’s whereabouts from 5:30pm on Saturday through Monday morning.

She said he acted normal the entire night at prom and was never unaccounted for. She also said that at the theme park he was never out of her sight.

The only thing that stuck out to her as odd was something Jeff said to her while they were inside Great America around 11:00am on Sunday.

Darla said that Jeff became sad while they were waiting in line for a ride.

She said he told her that he felt like something wasn’t right.

Here’s Jeff explaining the moment in his 1989 interview.

Jeff Pelley: I just had a feeling inside that something wasn’t right and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

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.

Delia D’Ambra: John Botich and Mark Senter had their own interpretation of what Jeff meant by that statement.

John Botich: I think it was 11 o’clock he’s acting really goofy and Darla says what’s the matter and he says ‘I really think something bad happened’…she goes ‘Like what?’… and he goes ‘Well, I don’t know but don’t worry about it. It’s okay’…I mean, because he knows…

Mark Senter: “This is at Great America.”

John Botich: “He knows that Bob didn’t show up for church and they found the bodies. That’s what he knows.”

Delia D’Ambra: Bottom line, John and Mark didn’t believe Jeff’s “I had a weird premonition feeling” ….

They believed he was smart enough to know it would be around 11:00am on Sunday that someone would finally discover his family’s bodies inside the parsonage.

Jeff’s weird feeling, in their eyes, was his guilt starting to set in.

Other circumstantial evidence John and Mark believed pointed to Jeff was the fact that the Pelley family had owned a 20-gauge shotgun.

That gun wasn’t in the parsonage after the murders.

Neither was 20-gauge ammunition.

Documents I read for this case, prove that Bob did buy a 20-gauge pump-action Mossberg model 500 shotgun in December 1987.

I tracked down the man who sold it to him, a guy named Steve Diller, and he spoke with me on the phone.

Steve didn’t want to be recorded but he told me that, yes, he sold Bob Pelley a 20-gauge Mossberg shotgun on December 23rd, 1987. Bob told Steve the gun was going to be a Christmas present for Jeff that year.

I have a copy of the federal firearms form Bob filled out to make the purchase.

At the time of the transaction Steve was dealing firearms from his home business.

He later opened up a shop in Lakeville called Lakeville guns and ammo.

Steve told me the only gun Bob ever bought from him was the 20-gauge.

Bob paid for the shotgun by trading in a .44 caliber handgun that he’d purchased from someone earlier that year, which would have been summer of 1987.

Steve told Bob that the shotgun was going to cost $200 but the .44 Bob was putting down as payment was valued much higher.

So, Steve took the .44 caliber and paid Bob $90 back as the difference.

A few months after buying the shotgun, Steve said Bob returned to his house and bought a trigger lock for the 20-gauge.

Fast forward to April 1989, Steve learned that the Pelleys were murdered with a 20-gauge shotgun. So, he called the Indiana State Police to tell them he’d sold a 20-gauge to Bob, and it might be the possible murder weapon they were looking for.

According to police and Steve Diller’s records and Jeff’s own testimony, the family’s 20-gauge had two barrels that could be interchanged on the end.

One barrel was for shooting bird shot ammo and the other was for shooting deer slugs.

But the location of this shotgun isn’t so cut and dry. You see whether or not that gun was in the Pelley home at the time of the murders, depends on who you talk to.

Jeff and Jacque told police their dad had removed the firearm from the home in spring of 1988, about a year before the murders.

Jeff Pelley: I’m not sure if he gave the shotgun to somebody else to keep also or not. I haven’t seen it in awhile.

John Botich: Do you know what type of shot gun it was?

Jeff Pelley: I think it was a Mossberg. 20-gauge.

I think it was a pump. Held like 5 shots or something.

It’s been quite awhile since he’s got it hanging up.

Delia D’Ambra: But Jessica Pelley doesn’t believe the shotgun was removed from the house prior to the murders.

She remembers the shotgun hanging on a rack in Bob and Dawn’s bedroom…on Friday, April 28th before she left for her weekend sleepover.

When was the last time, or that you remember seeing that gun on that gun rack?

Jessi Toronjo: The night that I left.

Delia D’Ambra: Friday night the 28th?

Jessi Toronjo: Yes, Friday night the 28th.

Delia D’Ambra: And you’re positive on that?

Jessi Toronjo: I’m positive.

Delia D’Ambra: Police believed Jessica’s word.

So, if it was there on the 28th, as Jessica said, then Jeff likely used it to shoot his family on the 29th, but quickly ditched it somewhere along with the spent shell casings.

That’s why it was not in the house on the 30th.

Supporting that theory was Doctor Rick Hoover’s amateur blood spatter interpretation.

Remember, like I mentioned in episode three, Hoover had determined that the blood spatter and position of Bob’s body in the upstairs hallway meant the shooter had to have been standing deep within the house.

They’d either come out of Jeff’s room or Bob and Dawn’s room with the shotgun raised when they shot Bob.

According to police. The only person who could have gotten that far into the home and had access to a shotgun was Jeff.

John Botich: During the investigation, we all believed that Bob confronted Jeff. His bedroom was right there and Bob’s bedroom was right there also, Bob and Dawn’s.

I believe Jeff came out…you know, there’s no other reason. He wanted to go to the prom. I know I’ve told people. Mark’s told people. Why do you think this happened? He wanted to go to the prom. That’s his only reason for doing it.

Delia D’Ambra: To try and prove this theory, investigators checked Jeff’s body for one very important clue…

*SFX of zipper unzipping & clothing folding/moving*

When police got Jeff alone on the morning of May 3rd… They wanted to check his body and shoulder for signs of bruising.

According to affidavits, Doctor Rick Hoover told police it was his opinion that whoever the shooter was would likely have bruising or marks on one of their shoulders if they’d fired a 20-gauge shotgun.

This would have come from the kick or recoil after firing so many times.

17-year-old Jeff was short, thin, and really for lack of a better word… “shrimpy”

Mark Senter and John Botich got a search warrant and stripped Jeff down to his underwear inside the parsonage.

The photos of this are awkward to look at but they’re important, because nowhere, and I mean nowhere on his tiny body and shoulders was there a single bruise.

Not even a red mark or anything.

Something that stood out to me was that police never tested Jeff’s hands for gunpowder residue, which seems like an obvious thing to do.

When I asked Mark and John why this hadn’t been done, they told me there had been too much time between when they believed Jeff committed the murders on Saturday evening. And when they examined him.

So, traces of gunpowder wouldn’t have remained on his hands and that’s why they didn’t even run the test.

Now as an investigator myself, I find that very strange but I can sort of see where they’re coming from.

I mean, in my mind, why not even try to do the test? Like instead of saying it probably won’t work, why not just try and see?

Either way, they didn’t test for gunpowder residue and their pursuit to nail Jeff for the crime based on bruising evidence was a complete bust.

Next, they evaluated a few items found at the crime scene.

One big red flag was a book investigators saw on Jeff’s bed when they processed the house.

It was a photo album titled “Our Baby’s First 7 Years” and it was laying out in the open in the middle of Jeff’s comforter.

There’s a picture of this on our website, if you want to check it out.

Police believed that Jeff had put the album on his bed prior to committing the murders.

They thought it indicated he had taken one last look at his life and memories from when his biological mother was still alive, then coldly annihilated his family in order to go to prom.

Because Jeff had appeared and acted normal to Darla and his friends at prom, police believed he’d likely taken a few minutes after shooting the victims to wash up and compose himself.

What most convinced them he’d washed up were three small, but very important items on investigator’s evidence list…

If you remember from episode three, among a lot of evidence items taken from the parsonage were three damp washcloths techs had found draped over the upstairs hallway bathtub.

*SFX of water droplets *

The rags were hanging on the side of the tub and the basin itself had one small water droplet in it.

Saint Joseph County Detective John Pavlekovich listed the washcloths in his evidence log and pointed them out in the VHS tape of the crime scene.

*SFX of VHS turning on*

Pelley Crime Scene video: There are various towels and washcloths throughout the bathroom area, however they all appear to be dry and stiff with the exception of the two washcloths on the edge of the tub. The one with stripes and the one to its immediate left which are fairly wet. There’s also water inside the tub area on the tan-colored mat.”

Delia D’Ambra: At no point during the videotape is there an image of bloody clothes or any clothing items that looked like they’d been washed.

The only reference police ever make to clothing evidence is in written reports.

Detectives working the case strongly believed just from the sheer volume of blood and brain matter in the crime scene, that whoever committed the murders would have been covered in biological debris.

Investigators were convinced that there had to be bloody or dirty clothes somewhere.

The first time Saint Joseph County police officers even bring up clothing evidence is on May 16, 1989, 17 days after the murders.

Detective Pavlekovich wrote a letter to the FBI.

He was requesting the feds use their lab to help test several items of suspect clothing for blood and brain matter.

In the letter, Pavlekovich mentioned that at some point clothing was collected from the Pelley’s washing machine in the basement. The clothing was believed to be Jeff’s and it appeared to have been through a wash cycle.

Pavlekovich didn’t provide the FBI with a date, time, or name of an officer who collected the clothing.

And I haven’t been able to find any visual confirmation of where or when they were recovered in the home. They don’t appear in any crime scene phots from the day and the washing machine is never filmed on the crime scene video walkthrough.

All he wrote was that the clothing had quote — “been recovered.”

The clothing that was removed from the washer was quote — “two white socks, and one black and pinkish striped shirt” –end quote.

Pavlekovich also told the FBI that a black Hawaiian print shirt was found in Jeff’s trunk when he was apprehended, and that would need to be tested too.

Now, that statement about the Hawaiian shirt contradicts two previous police reports made in the first days of this investigation.

If you remember…the Gurnee police department, and Saint Joseph County Detective John Botich wrote in their initial reports that nothing of evidentiary value was located in Jeff’s car trunk when they impounded it in Illinois.

I can’t explain the contradiction between what Pavlekovich told the FBI and what other Saint Joseph County and Gurnee police officers wrote in their reports, but the more I’ve investigated, I think I’ve figured it out.

For now, what’s important for you to know is that on May 1st 1989, Jeff told police during his interview what he wore all day Saturday while at home.

And it lined up with what Pavlekovich would eventually submit as clothing evidence.

Jeff told John Botich that on Saturday, April 29th he wore his dirty black McDonald’s uniform pants with pink sweatpants over them while outside washing his car after lunch.

Jeff Pelley: Pair of pink sweatpants…I had my McDonalds pants on because I had just gotten off of work. I had my black McDonald’s pants on and then I had a pair of pink sweatpants over that…and I had a flannel shirt over top of that.

Delia D’Ambra: Then by three o’clock Jeff said he’d showered and changed into another outfit.

Jeff Pelley: I had a pair of black pants on and a pink and grey shirt that, checkered type shirt…and I just loafed around the house for awhile in that…because it was comfortable and then when I went to go to Lynette house, I changed into a pair of blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.

Delia D’Ambra: So… Blue jeans and a black hawaiian shirt was Jeff’s third outfit for the day.

It’s what he said he wore out of the parsonage when he left to go meet Darla at Lynette Greer’s house.

So just to drive a point home here, if he wore the jeans out of the parsonage, then they couldn’t be with what police found in the washer.

Police believed that Jeff was lying though about his entire timeline for Saturday, April 29th.

They believed that he put his bloody clothes in the washer to destroy and hide evidence.

What’s interesting to me is that the same day Pavlekovich wrote his letter to the FBI, he also wrote up a report for his own department.

In that report, Pavlekovich stated that all articles of Jeff’s clothing had been turned over to him by Jerry Rutkowski, the lieutenant who’d accompanied John Botich to Great America to pick up Jeff.

Pavlekovich himself hadn’t personally collected any of Jeff’s clothing at the crime scene.

Because Pavlekovich specifically asked the FBI to test Jeff’s striped shirt and white socks for blood that tells me he believed that those articles of clothing were what Jeff had worn to murder his family and then placed in the washing machine.

Or else why send them for testing?

What I couldn’t figure out is what Pavlekovich’s theory was about where the black Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes had come from?

Who had seized them from Jeff and when?

I can’t find that information anywhere in police reports.

With all of this clothing evidence to chew on, police were convinced more than ever that Jeff had access to a 20-gauge shotgun, and that he’d showered and ran a load of his laundry on the evening of Saturday, April 29th.

This was grounds for suspicion, but not enough for an arrest warrant.

The prosecuting attorney at the time, a man named Michael Barnes, repeatedly denied detectives’ request to arrest Jeff.

Michael said there wasn’t enough evidence to show that Jeff was the shooter and he wouldn’t file the charges.

In the meantime, police kept on with their theory about Jeff.

They returned to the parsonage and sprayed luminol on the basement floor to look for traces of blood or biological material in or near the washing machine.

But the results were a bust…

John Botich: We had some technicians from the South Bend Police Department come down and spray luminal around. Well, of course there’s a lot of blood in the scene area. Which lit up. We sprayed it around the washing machine, lit up like a Christmas tree. Wow! That’s blood. Well, then we find out in our infamous wisdom that the soap used back then was, had phosphates in it and phosphates will react to luminol. So…

Mark Senter: Plus there’s iron in the water.

John Botich: There’s iron in the water so you know, you’re going to get them false positives.

Delia D’Ambra: Investigators moved on…unable to prove blood had ever been in the washing machine.

They decided their best approach to build a case against Jeff was by watching him.

Officers staked out Bob, Dawn, Janel and Jolene’s funeral service at Olive Branch United Brethren Church…

*SFX of photos snapping*

They photographed Jeff’s every move during the ceremony and at the graveside memorial.

I have a file folder full of these images but most of them are blurry or Jeff is too far away to even really see.

More than a hundred people attended both services, including the Pelley’s former pastor from Florida, Michael Ross and Jessica Pelley’s cousin, Jamie Collins…

Jamie Collins: It’s a small church, but it felt really big that day. It was packed to capacity. There were people literally everywhere. There were people standing around every edge of the room. It was filled to capacity. And everybody’s grieving, and crying, and wailing out. And so you’ve got the caskets at the front and the two little white ones were just heartbreaking. And then you’ve got the pictures on the easels of them.

I remember sitting behind Jeff and Jackie, and Jackie was upset and audibly crying at times and looked upset.

…but when I looked at Jeff, that’s not what I got…and it wasn’t just like being kind of emotionally removed or Maybe you’re in shock. It just felt off. And I think everyone who was around him that day felt that.

Delia D’Ambra: Jacque Pelley says Jeff grieved in his own way, in private. It wasn’t in his nature to cry in public.

But John Botich felt validated when none of the images that detectives took showed Jeff looking upset.

John was sure of it, Jeff was a cold calculated killer.

And he was going to prove it.

By using eyewitness statements and the 17-year-old’s personality against him.

I dive right into that, so listen to Episode 7, Time and Place, right now.