The cold case homicide investigator who built a case against Jeff 13 years after the Pelley murders details his investigation and logic. Delia raises questions about a critical piece of evidence used to make the arrest that he can’t explain.
Episode Source Material
- “Former Cape Man Charged in 89’ Killings” by Sharon Turco for The Fort Myers News Press September 22nd, 2002 via newspapers.com
Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 9, Years to Wait.
*SFX of tape on boxes & rifling through papers*
In 2001, newly minted Saint Joseph County special crimes unit investigator Craig Whitfield began carefully opening up boxes.
*SFX of crinkling plastic bags*
In them were pictures, interview transcripts and pieces of evidence, all related to the Pelley family murders.
A crime that after 12 years, was still, puzzlingly, unsolved.
Craig Whitfield: It was one of those things where it didn’t seem to be clear from the outside looking in, what happened and there were a lot of rumors at the time. Seems like there’s always a lot of rumors when a homicide like that occurs. A lot of speculation, people talk…
Delia D’Ambra: Craig was a retired Mishawaka, Indiana police detective who’d applied to work on a new cold case crimes unit that county prosecutor Chris Toth created.
Craig Whitfield: Prosecutor, Chris Toth, was starting up a cold case squad. The county had 140 or 150 unsolved homicides, and he felt that it would be beneficial to have a cold case squad, and I applied for that position. And so, I was one of two cold case investigators at that time.
Delia D’Ambra: Craig now works as a hospital police officer in South Bend, but in 2001 when he took the cold case job, he had 19 years of detective experience and had spent 24 years on the Mishawaka Police Force.
He was taking on a mammoth case, and he knew 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.”
Delia D’Ambra: What was your first step in reopening the investigation that many years later?
Craig Whitfield: I read all the reports first, went through them, read them a couple of times, two or three times, made copies of all the reports, highlighted things I thought was interesting or pertinent things I wanted to follow up on, people I wanted to talk to, try to drill down on things that people had said or suggested. And then once I felt like I had a really good understanding of the case, then I pulled all the evidence out to see what was there…see what’s missing.
Delia D’Ambra: What was missing, according to Craig, was follow-up on several pieces of the initial investigation, most notably follow-up with eyewitnesses.
Some people had been spoken to a few times, some just once, and others not at all.
As he was getting his bearings on the case, Craig talked often with John Botich, who was a personal friend.
After their conversations, Craig established a mindset.
Craig Whitfield: Jeff was a suspect from the beginning.
Delia D’Ambra: And with that, he set out to see if Jeff really did kill his family.
Now, I’ve read all of Craig’s case reports from 2001 and 2002 and I can confirm, he did re-interview a lot of people.
He tracked down and spoke with everyone who’d given statements to police in 1989, people like Darla, Lynette Greer, Matt Miller, Sheila and Irish Saunders, and Kim Oldenberg.
He even took a hard look at Jonathan Herczeg, the guy who Jeff had stolen from prior to the murders.
Craig interviewed Jon twice in one week, just to make sure he wasn’t hiding anything. But each time, Jon adamantly denied any involvement in the Pelley murders and said he and Jeff had mended fences weeks before the killings.
In the 12 years that had passed, reports had trickled into the Saint Joseph County police from people who claimed Jon had gotten rid of a bag of bloody clothes for Jeff after the murders.
Craig had to ask Jon about the accusation.
Jon said all of those stories were false and came from people who used drugs trying to get back at him for petty beefs.
Jon died last year, so iI can’t talk to him myself. I’ve spoken with his mother and left messages for his brother Joseph who was also interviewed by police, but no one in the Herczeg family will talk with me.
Craig eventually ruled Jon out as a suspect.
Craig Whitfield: We did interview him two or three times. And I think he had been interviewed several times by John Botich and Mark Senter before. So, it wasn’t like it was just overlooked. I mean, he was interviewed.
Delia D’Ambra: Was there ever an alibi established for him that you remember, that really made it to go, “Okay, let’s focus elsewhere?” Because I didn’t see any of that in the reports, other than he said he was home, or with friends.
Craig Whitfield: Well, I want to say that I talked to his friends…and you can go as far as the evidence will let you go..and without reading my report, I can’t really answer that, because I don’t remember all the details of the interview. I mean, we talked to so many people.
At some point, it became that he was… It didn’t make sense again. A lot of things just have to make sense. And-
Delia D’Ambra: When you say make sense, that it didn’t make sense for him to be a viable suspect?
Craig Whitfield: Yeah. At some point, you channel your energy in the direction that the evidence has taken you, and it didn’t… At that point, it didn’t make sense that he is that guy that you need to be focusing all your energy on. We focused energy on him, but I think in the end, again, it all… When you look at the bigger picture, if you look at the bigger picture, it all… It circles back to Jeff Pelley. He’s the one that had the motive.
Delia D’Ambra: By summer 2002 Craig had done a lot of interviews…but none as important as the ones he conducted with Jaque Pelley and Jessica, Jeff’s two surviving sisters.
Jessica had lived a hard life, bouncing in and out of foster care and struggling with substance use issues.
When Craig located her, she’d moved far away from Indiana, was a mother of two kids, and hadn’t spoken with Jaque or Jeff in years.
She had no idea law enforcement suspected Jeff of the murders.
In fact, she didn’t even know that it was a homicide case.
For years, she’d been told that Bob was responsible for a murder-suicide.
Jessi Toronjo: I didn’t find out until I was in my 20s when the detectives came to my house.
Delia D’Ambra: And how did that all go down?
Jessi Toronjo: They asked me who I thought had done it, and I said, “Bob.”, and they said, “There’s no way.”, and I was like, “What?” They’re like, “No, he was shot twice, there’s no way possible he could have done it.” And then my mind automatically went to Jeff.
Delia D’Ambra: With Craig sitting in her living room, more than a decade after her two sisters and mother were gunned down, Jessica thought about a strange interaction she’d had with Jeff six years after the murder when she was 15. It was the last time she’d seen or spoken with him.
Jessi Toronjo: I thought it was weird, because he called, I don’t know how he found out where I was, I don’t know how he got the number, but he ended up calling while my foster mom was going through some stuff so it just was very convenient that he called and said, “Hey, do you want to come visit?”
Delia D’Ambra: Jeff had invited teenage Jessica to Florida to spend time with him and his new wife, Kim.
Jessi Toronjo: I remember him having a significant other. So, I was like, “Okay.”, and then I kind of needed some place to stay at that point so I went there for two weeks. Yep, he picked me up from the airport. I remember going back to his house, he showed me the room I was going to be staying in, and then all of a sudden, he just was like, “Well, who do you think did it?”, and I was like, “Your dad.”, and then he just, he’s like, “Oh, okay.”, and kind of dropped it. I didn’t think much at the time, I mean, I thought it was weird but of course, he’s going to ask me, we haven’t seen each other in five years, so I didn’t think much of it at that point.
Delia D’Ambra: So, in that moment when Jeff asked you, “Who do you think did it?” and you say, “I think it was your dad,” we know that that would’ve been an opportunity for Jeff to say, “Well, listen, Jessi, there’s really no way, because there was no firearm found.” Maybe he didn’t say that because he thought it would be more damaging to you, but now looking back, what do you think about the fact that he didn’t say that? Do you think he was protecting you, or do you think that he was…
Jessi Toronjo: No. I think he was fishing. I really do, because why would you just ask that one question and not say anything else? Thinking back, I think he wanted to know if I thought it was him.
Delia D’Ambra: Craig took the information Jessica gave him and moved on to interview Jaque.
By 2002, she’d also long left Indiana and was married with kids too.
Jaque definitely took a more aggressive approach when it came to cooperating with Craig’s investigation.
When the two finally sat down in a room together, she brought a lawyer.
Jaque Pelley: I was tired of every time, every time I have been interviewed by the police, things getting twisted around. I thought for my own piece of mind, I want to record it and I want somebody else present because I’m just tired of things getting twisted around. They presented it as, ‘Oh hey, we’re just here because we got this cold case unit going on and we’re re-investigating everything.’ I can tell you that when they left, that the attorney that we had sit in said, ‘They are absolutely after your brother and they’re not looking at anybody else.’
Delia D’Ambra: The noose was tightening around Jeff.
Craig was convinced more than ever that he’d gotten away with murder.
Especially when Craig took into account Jeff’s 1994 fraud conviction.
Adding to that were letters Craig found stuffed away in the evidence boxes that were handwritten by Bob himself.
*SFX of handwriting on paper*
They were messages he’d penned to Jeff in the years prior to his death.
One letter showed how for years Bob had pleaded with Jeff to correct his attitude and behavior.
Here’s a voice actor to read a few excerpts from it.
Kyle McCurry as Bob Pelley: October 10, 1985. Dear Jeff, I know I am not always as wise as I need to be as a parent…Indeed, I often wonder if I even qualify as a father. I realize too that I’m not always right, but I do try…Sometimes I feel like running away too but in my “maturity” I know that won’t really help anything.
I love you…no questions about it. No reservations…I love you. Nothing you might ever do will change that.
I know that you’ve had inner struggles and that things haven’t been easy for you since mom’s illness began.
These are some of the things I expect of you.
- Complete your chores in a timely manner without me constantly reminding you.
- Watch your choice of words. This includes; “crap”… “shut-up”… “bull”…etc…You are intelligent enough to know which words I find offensive and/or inappropriate.
- Show proper respect. Your attitude, actions, and words all reflect your respect or lack of it.
I am not trying to restrict your creativeness or mold you into someone else, I am trying to direct you…to help you become all that you can be, with the least amount of struggle for you. Finally, understand this…life is not always easy or fair…but I will always be there to try and help you…if you want me to! Love, Your dad, And proud of it!
Delia D’Ambra: Craig knew that building a circumstantial case against Jeff with a few old letters and a couple of new interviews and wasn’t going to be enough to file charges.
Not by a long shot
He needed what investigators had been unable to find more than a decade earlier.…
Hard evidence that proved Jeff pulled the trigger inside the parsonage.
In July 2002, Craig Whitfield typed up an investigative summary of the physical evidence in the Pelley case.
He’d read through all of the police reports from 1989 and in his opinion felt the evidence and testimony established that a load of laundry was washed in the parsonage’s machine on April 29th of 89’.
In the boxes of evidence, he’d found were items of Jeff’s clothing packaged in a brown paper bag with a Lakeville local grocery store logo on the side.
The name of the store was Annis Grocery.
FBI agents who’d reviewed the bag and its contents back in 89’ had made black markings on it indicating chain of custody.
Craig determined that the clothing in the bag had to be the items officers reportedly removed from the Pelley’s washing machine. Though that was never noted explicitly in any reports.
Craig believed the clothing was what Jeff had worn to murder his family.
The articles, according to Craig, were a dark and pink striped shirt, a pair of blue jeans, and two white socks.
Craig Whitfield: Based on what I read, because I wasn’t at the original crime scene, I saw the pictures and read all the reports, but my take on it was that they were washed, they were in the washer.
Delia D’Ambra: The FBI had found 34 coins and a dollar bill totaling $4.50 cents in a pocket of the jeans.
Alongside the money was a paper receipt for Annis Grocery.
You saw the packaging of the blue jeans when you took them from evidence. I think I have a photo, but-
Craig Whitfield: Yeah. I’d love to see it if you…
Delia D’Ambra: Yeah. Well, I … let me see here. Yeah. So, this is a photo of a state in which the jeans and the packaging of the jeans were, with the receipt and the coins are in that general area. But when you took the blue jeans out of the evidence boxes, how were they packaged? What were indicators to you as what that meant about these blue jeans?
Craig Whitfield: I don’t remember exactly how they were packaged. They had been sent to the FBI for examination…and I recall opening the packaging and looking inside and … just to see what was there…but the one thing that struck me was that there were …there was … The contents of the pocket, it was a bunch of coins and a receipt from the very day that the murders happened. It had the right date, but there was no time on it, unfortunately
Delia D’Ambra: Photos of this evidence are on our website if you want to take a look.
Craig argued that the blue jeans being in the washer was incriminating…and enough probable cause to seek Jeff’s arrest.
Craig believes the money and receipt were left in the pocket because Jeff wore them to murder his family then was in such a rush to take them off and wash them…he forgot to remove the change.
Craig Whitfield: It was so odd that, if you’re going to throw your jeans in the washer, you’re going to know that those coins are in there…and so I think you’re really in a rush to throw the jeans in the washer.
Delia D’Ambra: But when I really thought about that logic, it doesn’t make sense.
For one, not a single police report from 1989 actually states that a police officer removed blue jeans from the washing machine.
In fact, John Pavlekovich’s letter to the FBI from May 16th, 1989 does not list blue jeans at all.
It only lists the dark and pink striped shirt and white socks as coming from the washer, and Pavlekovich himself didn’t even personally handle those items. He claimed another officer did.
Then there’s John Botich’s reports that don’t mention blue jeans in the washer either.
There’s a lot of talk between officers of, “I was told they were taken from the washing machine.” “I looked over and saw items being removed,” but there isn’t a particular officer or Sergeant or detective who says, “I took them out, put them in the bag, went straight to the police department.
Craig Whitfield: Would it be best if you had somebody saying, “I took them out of the washer, put my initials on them, put them in the bag, sealed it with evidence tape, made a property receipt on it and submitted it into a locked locker for keeping, for secure keeping.” So, that’s always the best thing. So, now if you have somebody who says, “Okay, well I saw him do that.” Now that’s not the best, but it’s still not bad, you saw him do it.
If somebody saw him do it, that certainly leaves the door open for the argument…but if somebody saw that person do it and they forgot to put it in the report, then they have some explaining to do.
Delia D’Ambra: Yeah, I’ll say.
Adding to my doubt that the jeans were ever in the washer is the fact that no police report ever mentions an Annis Grocery store bag being used to store evidence at the crime scene.
If Craig is so convinced that Jeff wore blue jeans while committing the murders and then threw them in the washing machine, then how did Darla, Dennis Nicodemus, Mark Berger, and Lynette Greer see Jeff in blue jeans when he arrived to change into his tuxedo?
Every one of those witnesses’ statements to police describes Jeff as wearing a black Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans on his way to and at Lynette’s home
There’s also Jeff’s own words…
Jeff Pelley: When I went to go to Lynette’s house, I changed into a pair of blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.
Delia D’Ambra: But Craig says you can’t believe Jeff. He could be lying.
But like I said, even if you discount Jeff as a liar, there were several other people who witnessed him wearing his blue jeans after he left the parsonage for prom.
Craig is convinced though that those eyewitness accounts either aren’t accurate…or Jeff was wearing a different pair of pants in front of all those people, not blue jeans.
The problem with that though is, there’s never been another pair of pants integral to this case other than the blue jeans.
I pressed on with Craig
If the blue jeans were what Jeff wore during the murders and then threw in the washer. How did the coins, as Craig says, stay in the pocket?
Even more glaring, why would police at the crime scene have packaged clothing evidence in a paper grocery store bag?
If the jeans go through a cycle in the washer, how do the coins stay in the pocket, and then how is that receipt even readable if they went through a wash cycle? Cause it’s readable.
Craig Whitfield: Yeah. I mean, I’ve done … I’ve seen coins… I left a few coins in my pocket before and they get washed and they’re still in there because you know, the pocket gets twisted a little bit and it’s all … it’s trapped in there…and maybe it depends on what type of ink. With today’s receipts, they’re heat generated. The type of receipts may be, but this here is actually ink, and you can tell by looking at it it’s smeared a little bit, but it’s still readable, very readable.
Delia D’Ambra: So it was your determination that that receipt was in the pocket with the coins, not just in the Anna’s Grocery Store bag, like at the bottom or anything like that?
Craig Whitfield: No. I believe it was probably in the pocket. Yeah.
Delia D’Ambra: Why would evidence that was taken from a washing machine, be put into a paper, grocery sack. I mean, that doesn’t seem like a good way to preserve evidence at all, but is that something that was just commonplace by police officers in 1989?
Craig Whitfield: Well, I can’t speak for what the investigators at that time did, but biological evidence cannot be put in plastic. So, if there’s any biological evidence on the jeans, it would need to be put in paper.
Delia D’Ambra: Why is that?
Craig Whitfield: Because it breathes, and it won’t destroy evidence.
Delia D’Ambra: A plastic bag breathes?
Craig Whitfield: Plastic will. Plastic will, paper won’t.
Delia D’Ambra: Okay.
Craig Whitfield: So you get … There’s that breath-ability factor built in. So, but I don’t know what they were thinking. I wasn’t there, but I … and I noticed this here, a bag that says, Annis Finer Foods on it. I wasn’t there. So, I don’t know if anybody went to Anna’s grocery that day, or if Jeff went there. I presume he did cause the receipt was, what I believe is in his pocket. You might be suggesting that it was in the bag that the evidence was put in. Is that what you’re thinking?
Delia D’Ambra: That’s exactly what I’m thinking.
Mostly because no one in the entire case timeline saw Jeff at Annis Grocery store on Saturday, April 29th.
Officers in 89’ never visited the store to interview staff and corroborate if Jeff had been there on Saturday to even make the purchase from the receipt.
So, my next question was, how is it even possible Jeff’s blue jeans contained that legible receipt if he never went to the store?
Craig couldn’t answer that question.
Craig Whitfield: Yeah. Some things it’s easy to corroborate at the time, but then when you try to do it many years later, it’s impossible…but as far as talking to anybody that actually said, ” Yeah, I saw Jeff at Annis grocery.” I don’t recall talking to anybody that said that. I would have to refer back to my reports, but I don’t recall anybody saying that they had seen him there.
Delia D’Ambra: Based on everything I have investigated for over a year in this case, I think Craig made a mistake regarding the blue jeans.
Now, I know that’s a bold thing for a journalist to say about a seasoned cop. But follow me for just a second.
The evidence and interviews when read in detail and laid out side by side, actually support a scenario where Jeff wore his blue jeans out of the parsonage when he left for prom.
It’s undisputed that he changed into his tux at Lynette’s house and put his street clothes in a bag and eventually that bag went into his trunk.
In my research I’ve discovered that Lynette’s mother, Rebecca Greer, who was helping the teens get ready for prom on Saturday, worked at Annis Grocery store in 1989.
She very likely could have had an Annis paper bag at her home for Jeff to throw his street clothes into.
I also believe reports and evidence show that when police in 89’searched Jeff’s car, they seized some of his clothes that were in the trunk.
The Saint Joseph County police reports vary on when this seizure happened, but in John Pavlekovich’s May 16th, 1989 letter to the FBI he wrote that Jerry Rutkowski quote — “found a Hawaiian shirt in the trunk of the suspect’s car when apprehended” — end quote. For some reason though, Pavlekovich didn’t mention where blue jeans came from.
What I believe is that the Annis’s paper sack always contained Jeff’s blue jeans and Hawaiian shirt and was in his trunk.
That bag got stored with evidence for years and when Craig pulled it out in 2002, he believed those were the clothes that came from the washer.
I think he thought that because there was some vague references in police reports that articles of Jeff’s clothing were found in the washer
In reality, when you look at the evidence and read the case documents closely, I’m convinced that the blue jeans were never washed.
Later forensic results from the crime lab came back stating no blood was ever found on the pants and they had signs of soiling.
That doesn’t mean I believe Jeff isn’t the killer, I just think this one piece of evidence was misinterpreted when it was re-investigated.
But Craig stands by his interpretation of the blue jeans.
He blames officers’ bad record keeping in 1989 as to why doubt could exist about whether the jeans were washed or not.
Craig Whitfield: In this particular case, this officer probably would have definitely stumbled around trying to explain how he collected these jeans, this shirt, and socks as evidence.”
Delia D’Ambra: Do you think it’s within the realm of possibility that perhaps the blue jeans that are in this grocery store bag were worn by Jeff out of the home, he changed into his tuxedo and that these jeans ended up in the trunk of his car and were taken in this bag and put into evidence and maybe just labeled as, “These are the ones that were taken from the washing machine.” …but in fact, they were taken from some other point in time. Do you think that’s within the realm of possibility?
Craig Whitfield: I kind of doubt it. Only because I think you’re saying they would have been put in the trunk of the car with other evidence probably, right?
Delia D’Ambra: Whatever was taken from him when he was questioned or taken from Great America, anything that was taken from him after prom, after everything.
Craig Whitfield: Yeah… That’s the problem when you don’t have the report, you can make up whatever you want it to be. You can suggest this or suggest that, the defense can argue whatever they want to argue to take away from the fact that somebody said they saw him take the jeans out of the washer. He didn’t say he took the jeans, the officer, didn’t say he took the jeans from the washer, but somebody said they saw him do it. So, it makes it complicated.
Delia D’Ambra: Very complicated.
The questions I was asking Greg, were not ones he had to answer back in 2002.
Back then he forged ahead, claiming the jeans were washed. He wrote up a probable cause statement for Jeff’s arrest.
It was based on the same circumstantial information that had always existed in the case, plus his theory about the jeans.
The prosecutor approved the warrant, and on August 10th, 2002…
Jeff Pelley was arrested for four counts of first-degree murder.
13 years after the crime.
Craig and a swat team had surrounded Jeff’s home in Florida, but he wasn’t there.
Jeff, now 30 years old, was actually in Los Angeles, California, coming back from an international work trip.
Craig Whitfield: He was coming back from Australia, and he has at LAX in Los Angeles and came in, and customs checked him, and he had a warrant, a murder warrant. And so, he wasn’t that interested in saying much at that point.
Delia D’Ambra: It was time for Jeff to get a lawyer.
He was going down for murder.
Male Reporter: His motive? He was 17 at the time, he was grounded and he wanted to attend prom.
Delia D’Ambra: Next up…the high-profile trial that sealed Jeff’s fate and forever changed everything about this case.
Listen to episode 10, Trial Phase part one, right now.