Jeff’s attempt to retrieve his inheritance early backfires and lands him in a world of trouble in Florida. Indiana police jump at the chance to try and get Jeff to confess to his family’s murders but that backfires too.
Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 8: Switch and Bait.
*SFX of prison buzzer & cell doors closing*
It’s September 1991, two years after the Pelley family was murdered.
A man in an orange jumpsuit at a federal prison in Atlanta is furiously scribbling words on a piece of paper.
His name is James Chapman, and he’s a jailhouse snitch.
He claims he knows who killed Bob, Dawn, Janel, and Jolene Pelley.
James had a lengthy criminal history and throughout the 1980s and 90’s he’d been in and out of prison.
In a letter he penned to saint joseph county investigators in 1991, he wrote that one of his former cellmates confessed to the Lakeville murders.
According to handwritten letters I have copies of James’ story goes like this…
*SFX of prison*
In early 1988 he got a new cellmate who went by the name Dave, just Dave, no last name.
Dave told James that he was in prison for stealing a box truck filled with furniture and transporting it over state lines.
Before being arrested, Dave, his wife, and their kids were transients in South Bend, Indiana and ran out of money. They were told to visit a local pastor.
When they did, the reverend gave the family a $100.00 check.
The money quickly dried up and Dave and his wife got into a fight, he hit her and she ran back to the pastor for help.
The pastor got the police involved and eventually, Dave was busted with the truck full of stolen goods.
Dave vowed to James that when he was released he would quote — “get back at the pastor and blow him off the face of the earth”—end quote.
Fast forward to a year later, Summer 1989.
According to James, Dave had made parole at the beginning of the year and James himself was out of prison too.
The two men met up near an interstate in Ohio and shared dinner and a motel room, that’s when James says Dave confessed to murdering a family of four in Indiana in April.
James said Dave explained how used a 12-gauge shotgun to shoot all four victims in the head, including two young girls he chased into a downstairs game room.
When their mother came down screaming Dave said he’d shot her too.
Dave also told James that he’d shot a man upstairs, and stepped over his body and shot him a second time when he tried to get up.
Dave told James he’d stolen a 35-mm camera, a bag of coins and a wristwatch from the family’s house.
So, this scenario sounds a lot like the Pelley murders, right?
Maybe, but I’m always wary of jailhouse confessions.
James wrote several more letters to Indiana police in the early 90’s about this Dave friend of his being the family’s killer, but the problem was, his information is not credible.
For example, James doesn’t even know the full name of his old cellmate for starters.
Then there’s the obvious details that don’t fit with the crime scene.
Like when he states Dave told him he used a 12-gauge shotgun in the murders.
We know from the autopsies and evidence inside the Pelley parsonage that a 20-gauge was used.
There’s also times in James’ letters that he says Dave described the little girls as wearing long white nightgowns when he killed them.
That too is just not possible. I’ve seen the crime scene photos of the dead Pelley girls, they were in tank tops and shorts not nightgowns.
There’s also no way Dave stole a 35-mm camera, because that was collected as evidence from the parsonage.
Needless to say, Saint Joseph County detectives didn’t give James Chapman much credit.
His information wasn’t considered legit, but they couldn’t write him off entirely. So, they took what he said, filed his letters away and kept moving along.
In 1991 Detective John Botich was still convinced that Jeff Pelley was the person who killed Bob, Dawn, Janel, and Jolene.
In the two years since the slayings, he’d had some odd interactions with Jeff in Lakeville.
John Botich: I probably interviewed Jeff 20- 25 times. If I was outside of my house which is just outside of Lakeville..Jeff was driving by because he ended up moving to an apartment in Lakeville. He’d stop by house. ‘Hey John. How you doing?’..’Good Jeff, how are you’… ‘I got a job I’m working at this place and I’m selling knives. Or I’m thinking of doing this vacuum cleaner thing. What do you think about that.’…You know, people say, I tell people this. If you knew I was the lead investigator on a case where your mother, your stepmother, your father and your two stepsisters all got killed…would there be one question you’d ever ask me? Even if you hated your stepmother and your stepsisters. Did you ever find out who killed my dad? Never! He never asked that. I’d go see him at his apartment and that was kind of freaky because some of the furniture he had in there was the furniture that was in the basement of that house.
Delia D’Ambra: Sometime in late 1990 Jeff moved from Indiana back to Cape Coral, Florida.
He was about to turn 20 years old and wanted to make a fresh start.
He took a job working in a credit bureau business in Fort Myers owned by long time family friends who’d attended First Church of the Nazarene when Jeff was growing up.
The leader of that family was a prominent Fort Myers businessman named Phillip Hawley.
Phil had five sons: Pierre, Danny, Paul, David and Martin, all roughly close to Jeff’s age.
After moving to Indiana, Jeff stayed close friends with the Hawleys, especially Martin, who was a classmate of his from Cape Coral High School.
In May 1989, Martin was actually interviewed by the Fort Myers news-press reacting to the murders of the Pelley family.
He was 16 when he spoke to the reporter and said quote, “it doesn’t seem realistic. Their family life hasn’t gone very well.”
According to the report, Martin told the newspaper that he was in Chicago the weekend the Pelley’s were killed and was heartbroken for his friend, Jeff.
In the wake of the crimes and Jeff returning to Fort Myers, the Hawley family didn’t just give him a job, they took him under their wing.
Jeff thrived working for Phil’s business, chasing payments for delinquent accounts and collecting commissions.
*SFX faded wedding bells*
He’d basically become part of the Hawley family, and even married one of Phil’s nieces, a woman named Kim.
Things were looking up…
Until all of the sudden, they weren’t.
In the early 90’s, Jeff Pelley graduated from former juvenile delinquent petty thief, to outright fraudster.
According to court affidavits and hospital records, Jeff was being investigated for suspicion of committing medical insurance fraud.
It stemmed from an elaborate scheme to try and get early access to his inheritance from Bob and Dawn’s estate.
In 1991, Ed Hayes, who was Dawn’s father and the executor of Bob and Dawn’s assets noticed Jeff was up to something.
At the time, Ed was responsible for allocating and investing life insurance money to Jeff, Jacque, and Jessica.
The girls were left with roughly 65-thousand dollars each and Jeff was supposed to get 48-thousand dollars. Some of his money had already been used to pay for his one year of college.
None of the children were allowed to access any of the funds until they turned 23.
According to Ed, not long after moving to Florida Jeff repeatedly asked for funds from his trust fund, but Ed continually told him no.
Fast forward to July 1991 and Ed gets a somber phone call from Jeff…
*SFX phone ringing*
Jeff told ed that he had skin cancer, the same diagnosis as his biological mother, Joy, and he’d had surgery to remove it.
The doctors were able to remove the growth but Jeff was claiming he was left with a $20,000 hospital bill he couldn’t pay.
Wary that Jeff was trying to use the story as a means to access his trust fund early, Ed made Jeff send him the bill from the surgeons and hospital to verify his story.
Jeff forwarded Ed the bill and it seemed legit.
When Ed called the phone number on the bill listed for the hospital’s billing department to verify the charges and procedure, a woman on the other end who claimed to work for the facility wasn’t very helpful.
She seemed like she had no idea what she was doing and couldn’t answer any of Ed’s questions. She also wouldn’t transfer him to a supervisor.
Ed tried to verify the doctors who were listed on the bill, but he found out they weren’t even listed on the hospital’s staff.
By this point Ed felt sure Jeff was trying to pull a fast one, he just didn’t know how he could have forged the formal letterhead and phone number and made the bill look so legit.
Ed took his concerns to Florida authorities and for a few years, federal agents worked the case, trying to expose Jeff for medical fraud charges.
By 1994, the FBI and John Botich and Mark Senter from Indiana were working together to see if the pressure of facing federal indictment would push Jeff over the edge.
John and Mark wanted Jeff to finally crack and confess to murdering his family.
Here’s John and Mark to explain how it went down.
John Botich: We got to Florida and we hooked up with the FBI the deal of what we were going to do was. Because they had an arrest for Jeff for fraud. So, we go there set it up for like 6 o’clock in the morning. We’re going to go to the house and I’m going to knock on the door. I knock on the door, Jeff opens the door and goes ‘Hey John. How you doing?’…I said ‘Good Jeff.’ I said “You’re going to have to come with me.’…he said ‘Oh okay.’…I put the handcuff on him. I don’t tell him why I’m even there. You know. I put the handcuff on him, we’re walking to the car and he goes ‘Hey John can I ask you a question’ and I go ‘Yeah what?’ and he said ‘Are we going back to Indiana today or tomorrow?’…I said, ‘I don’t know yet Jeff we got to figure it out’…So we took him to the FBI office and Mark and I are sitting in there with him. He kicked Mark out.
Mark Senter: I knew that this was going to be our last shot. If we don’t get him in Florida…we’re done.
John Botich: I probably talked to him for an hour and a half, two hours or whatever and he would never give it up and I said well there’s going to be some other people that come in to talk to you Jeff, so, and they came in and read the warrant and arrested him.
Delia D’Ambra: Jeff’s scheme had officially unraveled.
He’d been exposed for forging the medical bill and enlisting the help of his mother-in-law.
According to documents, Jeff had set up a phone line in his house and she would answer it pretending to be the hospital’s billing department when Ed Hayes called.
In the end, the hospital declined to press charges, because Jeff’s mother-in-law worked for them and the company just wanted to move on. Keep it hush, I guess.
Ed on the other hand wanted Jeff to be punished for his deception.
Ultimately in July of 1994, Jeff pleaded guilty to a lesser count of wire fraud and was sentenced to probation.
Jacque Pelley in no way condones her brother’s deceit, but she understands where he was coming from.
Jacque Pelley: I’m not going to justify what he did because it was wrong, but I can tell you, one, he wasn’t trying to steal my money. He wasn’t trying to steal Jessica’s money. He was trying to gain access to his money that was in the trust fund. I know from my own firsthand experience, getting money as per the will was not easy. Again, what he did wasn’t okay, but it wasn’t… The executors were not playing by the rules either, so it made for a tough situation.
Delia D’Ambra: I’ll just say, Jacque is a firm supporter of her brother.
She thinks the tactic John and Mark used to try and get him to confess to the 89’ murders was wrong and borderline illegal.
Jacque Pelley: I find that very interesting that they would go all the way to Florida to be the ones to knock on his door for something that happened in Florida out of their jurisdiction.
Delia D’Ambra: I’m not one to judge either way.
John and Mark did what they did, and still it led nowhere in nailing Jeff for the murders so, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a moot point now.
What I do know for a fact is that after pleading guilty in 1994, Jeff’s life took a turn for the better.
He started working with computers and eventually landed a lucrative job traveling internationally as a consultant for IBM.
He and Kim had a son and moved from Fort Myers to Dade City, Florida where they bought a half-a-million dollar home.
According to court records, in 1997 things got rocky in their marriage and they filed for divorce, only to reconcile.
Their split-union turned reunion ushered them into the early 2000’s with optimism.
The same could not be said for John Botich and Mark Senter though.
The Indiana detectives were sure Jeff was a murderer, but just couldn’t prove it.
In 2000, Saint Joseph County went through a series of political changes, most notably the election of a county prosecutor named Chris Toth.
John and Mark tried to convince Chris to pursue charges in the Pelley case and it worked.
Chris ran his campaign on the promise that he would finally bring to justice whoever was responsible for murdering the Pelley family.
When he won his seat, he created a new investigative division within the county prosecutor’s office dedicated to solving cold cases.
The Pelley murders were top of the list…
And a brand-new investigator who was eager to make a name for himself, picked it up and ran all the way with it.
Craig Whitfield: There’s intense, intense scrutiny on the case, it’s high profile. It was a national story even before they had social media…and there’s a lot of pressure on investigators and prosecutors and everyone to get to the bottom of it.
Delia D’Ambra: That’s next, on episode 9 of CounterClock.
Listen right now.