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.
Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 7: Time and Place.
*SFX of people walking around & church bells*
After Bob, Dawn, Janel, and Jolene’s funeral service it was obvious to everyone who attended Olive Branch United Brethren Church or lived in Lakeville, Indiana that 17-year-old Jeff Pelley was the prime suspect.
At that point, Saint Joseph County Police Detective John Botich and Indiana State Trooper Mark Senter had no physical evidence to prove that Jeff committed the murders.
So, they relied a lot on what people in the community told them about the teen…
Mostly where he was at certain times, conversations people said they’d had with Jeff after the murders and conversations they’d had with him or his family members before the murders.
One eyewitness who’d spoken with Jeff after the murders was Irish Saunders, the Pelley’s next-door neighbor.
Irish said he and his wife Sheila didn’t attend the funeral service but a few hours afterwards Irish bumped into Jeff in the Pelley’s back yard.
*SFX of dog Kennel opening*
Harold “Irish” Saunders: It was packed. The place was absolutely packed. Tons of people over there. I just remember the day, and I had this before, that day I looked over, well, I actually went over to feed Major, right, because we were taking care of Major because nobody was there to take care of him. Right?…so, and I remember Jeff jumping over the railing, running across the parking lot. I was there with the dog and he looks at me and he says, “You weren’t home Saturday, were you?” And I said, “No.” And about that time a detective came up, and then Jeff never said a single word. That was the last time Jeff ever talked to me was right there.”
I remember him saying, “They’re trying to pinpoint this on me, saying that I did it.
Delia D’Ambra: So, he said that before the cop came out.
Harold “Irish” Saunders: Yes, yes. He had said that. And what it should have said is. “Jeff, did you do it?” But I didn’t.
Delia D’Ambra: That’s one thing I’ve picked up on over and over again while reading through the thousands of pages of case reports and interviews in this investigation.
Rarely did anyone, and I mean anyone, actually ask Jeff to his face if he murdered his family.
Every eyewitness told police they’d avoided asking Jeff that question.
Which to me is kind of weird, right?
I mean, I think for a lot of people at the time they just didn’t want to think that a teenage boy could do something so violent. Or at least that’s the sentiment a lot of them expressed to police.
In the end, what people did or didn’t talk about with Jeff and his family before or after the murders became critical to the investigators’ case.
Mostly it came down the witness accounts painting a rough timeline of where Bob and Jeff were on Saturday, April 29th
From interviews with Sheila and Irish next door, the police knew Bob had driven away from the parsonage sometime before noon to go pick up Jeff from his job at McDonalds.
Steve Diller, the man who sold a 20-gauge shotgun to Bob in 1987 told police that Bob came into his gun store on Saturday around mid-morning alone. He was looking to buy a handgun he said for Dawn.
Steve told police Bob didn’t end up buying a gun and left the store
By 11:30am Jeff’s manager at McDonalds saw Bob pull into the restaurant and pick Jeff up.
Between one o’clock and 4:00pm Bob visited several parishioners of his church and they all accounted for him.
Just like Jeff said in his taped interview with John Botich …
Kim Oldenburg and her date, David, stopped by the parsonage to show pastor Bob and Dawn her prom dress and to have their picture taken.
*SFX of camera snapping pictures*
She said Bob took a few pictures on his 35-millimeter camera.
While that was happening, Kim noticed Jeff was there too, but he wasn’t dressed for prom yet.
While the group was inside, another boy from LaVille High School named Matt Miller stopped in.
*SFX of screen door opening*
Matt was planning to attend prom with Kim and David and another a young woman who lived on Osborne Road.
After spending a few minutes inside the parsonage Matt realized he’d left the corsage for his date at home about 15 minutes away. So, he left to get it.
Kim told police that as she and David were leaving the parsonage, Bob and Dawn told them they were planning to go to the home of a girl named Crystal Easterday between 5:30 and six to take her and her date’s picture.
Kim said she and David last saw the Pelley’s alive between 4:40pm and five o’clock, but no later than five.
Matt Miller’s statement to police reflects almost exactly what Kim said, but with a little more detail.
Matt told officers that when he arrived at the parsonage around 4:45 on Saturday Jeff greeted him in the garage and invited him inside.
Matt saw Kim and David inside with Bob, Dawn and the two youngest Pelley girls.
Matt said he stayed for five minutes, but then realized he’d forgotten his date’s corsage.
*SFX of car driving*
At 4:45 Matt left the parsonage and drove 15 to 20 minutes home to retrieve the flowers.
When he was driving back on Osborne Road around 5:15 or 5:20 he passed the parsonage and noticed Kim and David’s car was gone but Jeff’s Mustang was still parked by the house.
Matt continued on to his date’s house to meet his friends.
Thirty minutes later, at approximately 5:30, Kim, David, Matt and his date passed by the parsonage again and all of them stated that Jeff’s Mustang was gone at that point.
The next person police interviewed was a teenager named Crystal Easterday.
She was expecting Bob, Dawn and the girls to come to her house to take pictures of her in her prom dress at 5:30.
Crystal told detectives that Bob and Dawn never showed up.
Her and her date waited until 5:45, but the Pelley’s were complete no shows. So, Crystal and her date decided to drive over to the parsonage instead.
At 5:50 Crystal says she and her date knocked on the Pelleys’ garage door and the sliding glass door in the back of the house, but no one answered.
When they left, they noticed that both Bob and Dawn’s cars were parked at the house, but Jeff’s was gone.
The next person to account for Jeff and his car was his best friend, Kurt Schafer.
Kurt and Jeff were the same age and had been friends for about two years prior to the murders.
In 89’ Kurt lived two homes away from the parsonage.
I contacted him last year and he agreed to do an interview with me.
Kurt Schafer: Jeff and I became good friends. Either I was hanging out at his house or he was hanging out at mine for the longest time.
We spent a lot of time playing ping pong, hunting..
We did a lot together. I mean, we really spent a lot of time hanging out at each other’s house.
Delia D’Ambra: Police have interviewed Kurt three times since 1989.
Each time his story is the same.
Kurt and his cousin Ken saw Jeff driving his Mustang away from the parsonage on Mulberry Road, a neighboring road to Osborne Road.
That happened some time between four o’clock and five o’clock on Saturday, April 29th.
Kurt Schafer: We were going mushroom hunting. (laughs)
We were just heading to a spot where we pick them.
Delia D’Ambra: Because Jeff was accounted for by other people between four and four forty five, it’s safe to say that when Kurt saw him it was most likely between four forty-five and five o’clock.
Kurt says he knew it was Jeff’s car because of the Mustang’s sound and speed.
Kurt Schafer: Saw it drive by.
Delia D’Ambra: How did you know it was his?
Kurt Schafer: I just know, I knew his car. I saw, we saw his car.
Delia D’Ambra: Within minutes of Jeff zooming past Kurt and his cousin Ken…he’s spotted by another eyewitness.
A gas station clerk named Dennis Nicodemus.
*SFX of cash register dinging*
Delia D’Ambra: Dennis was a teenager who worked at the Lakeville lakeside Amoco station–a store six minutes away from the parsonage, in the direction of Lynette Greer’s house.
Dennis told police that at 5:17 pm on April 29th he checked his watch while at work. He did this because he was supposed to get off at five o’clock, but his replacement was late. So like any anxious teen, he was keeping a close eye on the clock.
Dennis said he saw Jeff pull into the gas station and start working underneath the hood of his Mustang around the time he checked his watch.
He described Jeff as wearing a black Hawaiian t-shirt and jeans.
Around 5:20pm, Jeff came into the store, told Dennis his car was idling too high and asked to use the store’s phone to call his girlfriend and tell her he was running late for prom.
Jeff and Darla had made plans to meet at Lynette’s at five thirty… So. When Jeff was working on his car at the gas station, he was still about 10 or 12 minutes away from her house.
He was going to be late, no doubt.
Dennis remembered Jeff placed the call, then went back outside and fiddled with his Mustang for a few more minutes.
While he was working Dennis’s coworker finally showed up and helped Jeff before clocking in for his shift.
By 5:37pm, Jeff had left the gas station and Dennis clocked out.
*SFX of punching out of work & door opening ding*
Delia D’Ambra: So just to recap, based on all of the witnesses so far…
Bob and Dawn and the girls were definitely alive up until 4:55 or five o’clock, according to Kim’s statement.
Kurt and his cousin saw Jeff driving away from the parsonage alone in his Mustang between 4:45 and five o’clock.
Matt Miller though told police when he drove by the parsonage at 5:15 after retrieving his forgotten corsage, Jeff’s car was still in the driveway.
But Dennis Nicodemus said he for sure saw Jeff at 5:17pm or shortly thereafter at the gas station.
Being realistic, it would have taken Jeff at least 5 minutes drive time to get from the parsonage to the store.
So… According to police’s theory, that means Jeff had roughly a 10-15 minute window to shoot all four victims, pick up the shell casings, shower, change clothes, put a small load of clothes in the washing machine, pack his tuxedo, get in his car, ditch the shotgun and spent shell casings somewhere police could not find them, and then drive to the gas station.
Investigators knew that window of time was nearly impossible. But still, they were convinced Jeff could have made it happen if he planned it just right.
They believed that in order for him to have pulled it off, he would’ve had to pre-plan every second.
Most important of all he had to have ditched the shotgun, spent casings and any other incriminating evidence somewhere along his route in a spot they hadn’t thought to check.
*SFX of horses, walkie talkies & dogs barking*
County police officers and state troopers searched the land and roads around the parsonage, including ditches on Mulberry Road, Osborne Road and all around the Lakeville Amoco gas station.
The took photos of shoeprints in mud that never were connected to anyone, and found a white t-shirt on the side of the road that appeared to have blood on it. But later came back as not belonging to Jeff or any of the victims.
Other than that, police found nothing, and I mean, nothing of any investigative value.
They even sent divers into some lakes, but that too led nowhere.
This didn’t deter investigators from still looking hard at Jeff.
They put lack of physical evidence aside and began scrutinizing his timeline more…
In light of not finding the shotgun or shells anywhere on Jeff’s driving route from the parsonage to the gas station, they now thought perhaps he’d just gotten rid of evidence somewhere else. Most likely between the gas station and Lynette Greer’s house.
I took a closer look at that theory though, and asked the same question, could he have?
Detective: When you met there, do you remember Jeff and Darla showing up?
Eric King: Yeah they did show up and I’m almost positive it was like a half hour late.
Detective: Do you remember why they were late?
Eric King: His Mustang had broke down.
Detective: Who told you that?
Eric King: That was told to us by Jeff and Darla I believe.
Delia D’Ambra: That’s the voice of a man named eric king.
In April 1989 he attended prom with Jeff Pelley and Jeff’s girlfriend, Darla.
Eric is just one of many people over the years who has told law enforcement in depositions what they remember about Jeff the night of prom.
According to police reports, Darla said Jeff arrived at Lynette Greer’s home to get ready for prom sometime between 5:30 and 5:45.
Which makes sense, because Dennis Nicodemus said Jeff’s car was gone from the gas station by 5:37.
While visiting Lakeville for my reporting, I timed the driving distance myself.
Delia D’Ambra recording: I just arrived at the former residence that the Greer family lived at. So this is the place that Jeff came to after he stopped by the Lakeside Amoco gas station and my stopwatch says it took about 15 minutes and 23 seconds to get here after leaving the gas station and the average according to the GPS maps says anywhere from 14 to 17. So, my time was kind of right in the middle of that.
Accounting for at least 21 minutes travel time on the road. Add on at least ten minutes that Jeff was at the Amoco gas station. That makes about 31 minutes in travel time after he left the parsonage. So if Jeff left the parsonage at ten after five he should have arrived at Lynette Greer’s house at 5:40…5:41. Maybe a little sooner. Depending on traffic and depending on how fast he was driving. Which matches up with a lot of statements from the eyewitnesses at the Greer residence.
Delia D’Ambra: One of the people positive about when Jeff arrived at Lynette’s was her date a guy named Mark Berger.
In 1989 Mark told police that he got to Lynette’s at 4:40pm and around 5:20 Jeff called to let the girls know he was running late.
A little after 5:30, Jeff arrived and quickly changed into his tuxedo.
By 5:45 Mark, Jeff, Darla and Lynette were on their way to meet a group of friends at the Emporium Restaurant in downtown South Bend.
They were late when they got there by 6:15pm, and met up with Eric King, his date and a few others from LaVille High.
Detective: Tell me what type of demeanor Jeff was displaying that night.
Eric King: Everybody seemed like they were in pretty good spirits. I think he was a little bit stressed because of the car breaking down, but-
Detective: How did he exhibit that?
Eric King: Well, when they first got there, everybody was like, where are they at? Kind of wondering. He happened to explain himself why he was late.
Detective: Right. Did he seem upset at all?
Eric King: No, he didn’t seem really upset about it.
Detective: Does he ever seem preoccupied at all?
Eric King: No.
Detective: Does he ever seem to be worried about anything?
Eric King: Not that I can recall. No.
Detective: You had talked with him that evening?
Eric King: Yeah.
Detective: Demeanor is pretty much normal at this time?
Eric King: Yeah, it’s normal at this time. Just enjoying the evening and all that type of thing.
Delia D’Ambra: So, with all of these people’s statements taken into account, Jeff Pelley was accounted for from 5:40pm through the time his family’s bodies were discovered
What police had to focus on was the small window of time between five o’clock and ten after five.
That was when law enforcement felt certain the Pelleys were shot to death.
One huge wrench thrown into their theory though came from a woman named Lois Stansbury.
According to Mark Senter’s 1989 investigative report, Lois called the Indiana state police two days after the murders.
She told Mark that she saw Bob Pelley standing in the driveway of the parsonage alive at five o’clock on Saturday, April 29th.
Lois lived a few homes down from the church and on that Saturday, she’d been out running errands with her two daughters.
She told Mark that after a quick shopping trip in Lakeville and visiting her father’s house across the street from the Pelley’s, she’d idled near the foot of the parsonage’s driveway and seen Bob standing next to a black pickup truck talking to a man inside it.
She believed Bob was holding a shovel or something that looked like a shovel.
She said she honked her horn to get Bob’s attention and gestured with a friendly wave and he waved back, but he seemed distracted.
Lois was certain her sighting of Bob happened at five o’clock because she had a receipt from a Kmart store in Lakeville timestamped for 4:04pm.
She estimated that her travel time and two stops she made driving back home would have put her seeing Bob at five o’clock.
According to reports, Mark Senter took the Kmart receipt from Lois to check out the information, but to this day it has never been seen again.
Saint Joseph County police lost it.
Despite this error, I wanted to drive Lois’ route myself and time it out.
She told Mark she started at the Kmart, then made a stop at a nursery, then her father’s house, and it was right after that that she saw Bob.
I wanted to know if it really was possible for Lois to be in front of the parsonage when she said she was.
I spoke with one of her daughters who was with her in 1989 and she told me that Lois declined my interview request, so the best I’m able to do is emulate her timeline.
Delia D’Ambra recording: I am going to drive the route that Lois Stansbury told law enforcement in 1989 that she took after she paid for her purchases, loaded her daughters in the car at Kmart and then made her way back toward Osborne Road.
*SFX of car driving noise*
Delia D’Ambra: After I did the math, here’s what I found.
If Lois Stansbury checked out at Kmart at 4:04pm, with all of her stops accounted for, at a minimum she realistically could have seen Bob Pelley in his front yard anytime between 4:50pm and five o’clock, which is not exactly when police believed the murders occurred.
They felt Jeff committed the crime more likely between five and ten after five.
And I know it’s literally minutes we’re talking about here, but it does matter. This whole case rides on just minutes.
If you think about it, Lois could have seen Bob alive at around five o’clock, and then he’s murdered right after that.
One big question Lois couldn’t answer for police was whether she remembers Jeff’s car at the parsonage when she saw Bob.
If it was parked at the house…then that’s convincing proof that Jeff was there and was the shooter.
If the Mustang wasn’t there at five o’clock, then Jeff couldn’t be the murderer.
But Lois said she didn’t even notice whether Jeff’s car was there or not.
She also didn’t get a good look at the man in the black truck that Bob was supposedly talking with.
All she knew was that the guy didn’t look familiar and neither did his dark colored truck. This in a town where everyone knows everyone, and what they drive. To this day that truck or it’s driver has never been identified.
Lois’s story that the Pelleys were still alive at five o’clock or even shortly doesn’t necessarily mean Jeff couldn’t have still killed the family in the window of time police claimed.
For example, I go back to Crystal Easterday’s testimony.
She said that when Bob and Dawn never showed up to take her and her date’s prom picture at 5:30, she went over to the parsonage at 5:50pm and no one answered.
Also, she said both Bob and Dawn’s cars were parked in the driveway.
That tells me they had to have been dead, or detained in some way or else Crystal would not have encountered what she did.
I’ve also read statements from a woman who visited the church to pray around 6:00pm and she told police that the whole time she was there she didn’t see any activity at the parsonage.
The only thing she said felt odd happened around 6:30.
She was kneeling in the sanctuary praying and heard a noise that sounded like someone had opened the church’s front door. When she went to check it out she didn’t see anyone, but that was enough to spook her, so she left.
Another statement by a man who was mowing his grass next to the church building at six o’clock confirms that he didn’t seen anyone come or go from the parsonage at all Saturday night either.
Despite investigators feeling sure that Jeff killed his family, and having a lot of circumstantial evidence, the police weren’t able to make a case.
The prosecuting attorney refused to file charges and by the summer of 1989, the quadruple homicide went cold.
By fall Jacque Pelley had moved to Kentucky with her maternal grandparents, Jack and Mary Armstrong.
Jeff enrolled in college, where Darla joined him.
Jessica went to live with Dawn’s parents in Michigan.
But a year and a half after the killings things for the surviving Pelley kids took a downturn.
Jeff and Darla’s relationship fell apart and he moved back to Lakeville and got an apartment, but the scrutiny of being a murder suspect in the small town got to him and he eventually moved back to Fort Myers, Florida.
Jessica struggled to cope with the loss of her mom and sisters and began acting out, eventually winding up in foster care.
She writes a lot about this and her life’s trauma in her memoir ‘I am Jessica.’
Jacque seemed to be the only one who coasted, despite the wheels of justice churning to a screeching halt on her family’s case.
Everything stayed frozen in time, until suddenly the case got red hot, more than a decade after the massacre.
I’m getting into that, next on Counterclock.
Listen to Episode 8, Switch and Bait, right now.