Murder in the Family, All for the Prom

A gruesome Indiana murder in 1989 is finally solved.


June 8, 2007 — -- It was 1989, a festive spring weekend in rural Lakeville, Ind., for 17-year-old Jeff Pelley, a minister's son who was taking his first love, Darla Adams, to the prom. While the couple and their friends were hanging out, Jeff had a premonition.

"He told me he had a strange feeling something bad happened at home," Darla said.

Pelley was right. Something sinister, something horrific was about to be discovered at his home.

The day after prom night, on Sunday morning, the Rev. Bob Pelley and his family did not show up for worship at the Olive Branch Church -- it was an anomaly for the pastor.

Will Tisdale, a church elder, walked to the pastor's home and tried to look in the windows, but the shades were uncharacteristically drawn, and the doors were locked.

Tisdale used a spare key to enter a side door. It was then that he discovered Bob Pelley, shot dead on the floor. "I went over to the phone. … I called 911."

While waiting for the police to arrive, Tisdale looked around for other family members.

"The kids was at the foot of the stairway just a little ways down the stairway … and I didn't go all the way down, I went about two or three steps. That was enough for me. … It was a bloody mess."

Detectives said the preacher had been shot twice at close range with a shotgun. And downstairs in the basement, the pastor's wife, Dawn, her two daughters, 8-year-old Janel and 6-year-old Jolene, were also shot at close range.

Detectives Mark Senter and John Botich were among the first on the scene. Senter was horrified.

"No human being should've ever seen what we saw that morning," he said.

Police questioned family and friends but there were few leads to follow. No witnesses. The murder weapon was never found.

According to the police, there was no evidence of burglary or robbery, and the house was still locked up when they arrived.

Senter quickly determined that it "showed us that someone from the inside did this."

Investigators began to take a closer look at the Pelleys.

The Pelleys were a blended family. Dawn Pelley had three girls, the two youngest who were murdered, and 9-year-old Jessie, who returned home from a sleepover at a friend's house.

Jessie remembered cops everywhere.

"At that age, the first thing I thought was my dog had died," she said. "You know, something happened to my dog. You don't think anything greater than that when you're that young."

Jessie soon learned the truth.

"They just said that they were gone," she said. "They didn't go into details. You know obviously my first reaction was to cry, and I cried for days."

Bob Pelley had two older children: Jeff, who went to the prom the night of the murders, and Jacque, 14, who was visiting a friend at a local college.

The Pelleys may have looked like the Brady Bunch, but the surviving children made it clear that was not the case.

"We didn't always get along with Dawn or see eye to eye with her," Jacque said. "We did not agree with the way Dawn was raising the girls, because it was different than the way we were raised."

There was tension in the house between the two families. Jacque and Jeff were allies in a divided home, and she had fond memories of growing up with her brother.

"He was always there to look out for you if you needed looking out for," she said, "and I felt like he was an all-around good guy."

But there was another side to the story of this blended family. Jessie, Dawn Pelley's biological daughter, had harsh memories of her stepdad.

"I just remember a lot of rules," she said. "Like in church, we couldn't talk at all. We had to sit there and listen. If we did talk, you know we got a spanking when we got home."

According to Jessie, it was hard to be a child of a preacher and to "act perfect."

Police found Jeff with his friends at the Great America Theme Park, north of Chicago, where they told him the news.

He freely acknowledged in a 1989 police interview that he did not get along with his stepmother.

"I mean I didn't hate her or anything, but we just tolerated each other," he said.

Jeff couldn't call his stepmother "Mom."

But he told police that he loved his father and had no idea who would kill his parents, and that the news of their murders "stunned him."

From that first day of questioning, police had their suspicions that Jeff may have been involved, but they had no evidence to make an arrest. It took police 13 years to charge the man they thought was guilty of killing the Pelley family.

Investigators focused on Jeff, who had showed up late to meet his girlfriend, Darla.

Darla was surprised that Jeff was allowed to go to the prom because he had been in trouble with his dad. Darla said Jeff was given permission to go by his father at the last minute after the pastor had a change of heart.

Police were anxious to hear from Jeff directly about the battle over prom night. They asked him how long he was grounded for, and Jeff said that his father had allowed him to participate in the entire prom night that same week.

It was that reversal that puzzled police. According to everyone else they had talked to, Jeff's father was adamant. Will Tisdale remembered talking to the preacher about Jeff and the prom the week of the killings, and said Jeff's dad had no intention of letting him drive his car to the prom.

"His dad told me he took stuff out of it, where it wouldn't run," Tisdale said.

The conflict gave police something to work with in a case nearly empty of physical evidence. It made Jeff their one and only suspect, and gave them Jeff's possible motive: to go to the prom and save face in front of his high school sweetheart.

But the case against Jeff was so weak that two district attorneys over two decades refused to prosecute.

Meanwhile, Jeff moved to Florida. Now an adult, he had a wife and child who had nothing to do with Lakeville, Ind. But police, still working on the case, put together an elaborate timeline of Jeff's whereabouts that they believed put him and him alone at the murder scene.

The timeline started from the time the victims were last seen alive to when someone tried to contact them and there was no response -- a period of about 45 minutes. Police also found witnesses who put Jeff at the murder scene during those 45 minutes.

Jacque blames local politics for Jeff's arrest and the police for a sloppy investigation that turned up nothing.

"He wouldn't have pulled the trigger, I believe with all my heart," she said. "I know that Jeff is innocent."

Jeff's defense attorney, Alan Baum, brought his own experts in to attack the prosecution's timeline and the time of death, which police put at 5 p.m. Saturday. Baum said there was definitely "some human activity in that house after, long after Jeff left."

"20/20" gathered the jurors together to talk about the trial and the limited circumstantial case. Ironically, it wasn't the police timeline that brought the jurors to their conclusion.

According to one juror, "What stood out for me was a picture of Rev. Bob Pelley. A photograph of his body laying in the house, the manner in which it was laying … led me to believe that the shooter came out of Jeff's bedroom."

And there was another photograph the jurors found significant, of a gun rack in the parent's bedroom. No gun -- just a gun rack -- but combined with Jeff's stepsister Jessica's testimony, it became critical because she remembered both a bow and a gun in the rack Friday night.

In the jury room, there were three votes over 2½ days, and with each ballot, the tally for innocent shrank until everyone agreed that Jeff had committed the crime.

A murder spree that took four lives was finally solved without the high-tech CSI or DNA evidence. A prosecution depended upon the old saw of motive and opportunity, and a community determined not to forget the minister, his wife and their two little girls.

Jeff is appealing the verdict. He is currently sentenced to 40 years for each murder, for a total of 160 years.

Jacque Pelley, Jeff's sister, is looking for anyone with information that might help exonerate her brother. Please visit to contact her.