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When Dad Says No: The Jeff Pelley Story

I'm a Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

Olive Branch church parsonage

Olive Branch church parsonage

Pastor Robert “Bob” Lee Pelley and his wife, Dawn were doing the best they knew how blending their families. Both widows, Bob had brought his son Jeff Pelley and daughter Jacque Pelley into the marriage, while Dawn had three daughters, Jessie, Janel, and Jolene. In an effort to unify the family, Bob and Dawn adopted one another’s children.

The Pelley Family

The Pelley Family

While to outsiders it may have appeared the Pelleys were a modern day Brady Bunch, behind closed doors it was anything but such. Jacque would later claim she and Dawn frequently argued because she thought Dawn’s old-fashioned child-rearing was oppressive for young girls. Jessie later said Bob was a strict disciplinarian who expected his family to be perfect preacher’s children.

Whether it was disagreements with stepparents or frustrations with their own parents, trouble was brewing in the Pelley home. And it was about to boil over.

Dad Says No

Jeff Pelley was a 17 years-old high school senior in the spring of 1989. He wasn’t much different than a lot of boys his age in that he'd began getting in to a little trouble as he sought independence; the awkward age between being a boy and a man. And just as many father’s of teenage boys are prone to do, Bob tried to keep his son on the straight an narrow with firm discipline. It's easy to image, however, as a preacher, Bob was probably more harsh than some since his son’s behavior could be a reflection on his abilities to “lead.”

Jeff’s most recent trouble had involved petty theft and, as punishment, Bob had forbid his son to attend pre or post prom activities. Jeff was also forbidden from driving his Ford Mustang; his father would be the only permissible form of transportation to and from the prom for Jeff and his date.

Jeff was angry, as would be expected of any teenage boy about to miss some great activities surrounding the second most anticipated night of the year for a high school senior. He screamed at his father and tossed-out the common threat of leaving home after graduating and never coming back. Jeff said nothing most parents of rebellious teens haven’t heard before.

Just how angry Jeff really had gotten, however, was about to come a matter of debate for many, many years to come.

Prom Night

On Saturday, April 29, 1989, Kim Oldenburg, a classmate of Jeff’s, stopped by the Pelley home with her mother and date before going to the prom to visit the Pellys. Kim later testified she felt a great deal of tension during the visit and said Jeff seemed angry and sullen.

Later in the evening, Jeff called his date to let her know he would be late picking her up. With no sign of Bob in the car, an Amoco station attendant would later testify Jeff had come inside and asked to use a wrench because his car was idling rough. After a few minutes under the hood, Jeff returned the wrench and was on his way.

Jeff picked Darla up at a friend’s house at approximately 5:30 p.m., went to South Bend for a celebratory dinner, then attended the dance for the rest of the evening. After the prom, Jeff and his date joined other seniors at the local bowling alley. When bowling began winding down, Jeff and Darla went over to Kim’s house where she was hosting a post-prom slumber party.

The next morning, Jeffrey, his date Darla, and other members of the Lakeville, Indiana, graduating class of 1989, woke early and headed out for a class trip at Six Flags Great America just outside of Chicago, Illinois.

Years later, Darla would say while they were hanging out with friends at the theme park that Jeff suddenly had a premonition. “He told me he had a strange feeling something bad happened at home,” Darla said.

Foreboding or confession? That was the million dollar question.

Where's the Preacher?

About the time Jeff was picking up his prom-date, Crystal Easterday was wondering what was keeping Bob and Dawn Pelley. They said they were going to come by and see her prom dress, but they never showed. Crystal decided to stop by the Pelleys on her way to the prom but found no one home; the curtains and blinds were shut, which she found odd but didn’t give it much more thought.

At six o’clock the same evening, the Pelley’s neighbor noticed the curtains drawn tight while he was mowing the yard. He too thought it was strange, as well as the basement light that was still burning after nine o’clock later that evening.

Olive Branch Church of the United Brethren

Olive Branch Church of the United Brethren

The following day was Sunday. When congregants began gathering at the church around 9:30 a.m., several of them noticed the absence of Pastor Bob and his family. When the time for services came and went, folks began discussing possible reasons for the Pastors no-show.

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Was he and the family sick? Surely he would have called someone to take over. Had the family gone out of town? Again, they were certain Pastor Bob would have made arrangements for someone to deliver a sermon. Some of the men decided something was terribly wrong and made the short trek to the parsonage next door to check on the Pastor and his family.

Although there was a sense of dread among the group as they made the walk, they kept trying to convince themselves there was a plausible explanation.

First instincts made them attempt to see inside through the windows but the blinds were uncharacteristically closed for the daytime hours. So they knocked, loudly and several times, but never received an answer. With the uneasiness growing by the minute, Will Tisdale used a spare key from the church gain access to the home.

Almost immediately they found Bob Pelley lying dead from gunshot wounds in the hallway. Tisdale frantically called 911. While waiting for help to arrive, the men would discover Dawn Pelley and her daughters Janel and Jolene, dead in the basement.

When police and ambulance arrived, the men told officers what awaited them inside the parsonage. They also told informed police three members of the Pelley family were unaccounted for: Jeff, Jacque, and Jessie.

Had they been kidnapped? Killed and their bodies hidden? Could they be responsible for the killings and on the run?

Police began searching for the three missing Pelley children.

Present and Accounted For

While investigators worked the scene and others were trying to find the missing children, Jessie Pelley returned home from a friend’s house where she had spent the night. She was confused by all the activity taking place at her house. Only 9 years-old, her first thoughts were something horrible had happened; maybe her dog had died but soon enough Jessie would learn the much more horrible truth about her parents and sisters.

Despite her shock and trauma, Jessie was able to tell detectives Jacque Pelley was visiting a friend away at college and Jeff was on a class trip to Six Flags. He and Jacque were summonsed home immediately.

With everyone now present and accounted for, it was time to figure out who had killed this family.

It Has To Be Jeff

Police were already aware of Jeff’s run-in with petty theft, but after taking statements from a few friends of Bob’s at the church, they learned chances were slim Bob would have had a “change of heart” about Jeff driving his car. According to the friend, Bob had even went so far as to remove certain vital pieces of the Mustang's engine to make sure Jeff didn’t sneak and drive. Bob was that determined to get Jeff back on the straight and narrow.

With no signs of forced entry, police were certain it was an inside job and Jeff certainly had motive. Jeff denied killing his family and kept insisting he was able to drive his car to prom and attending the class trip because his father had relented after making his son promise there would be no more trouble.

Regardless of Jeff’s claims, detectives were certain he was the killer. There just wasn’t enough evidence to prove it. The quadruple homicide would remain unsolved for the next 13 years.

Political Promises

Life had gone on for the surviving Pelley children. Jeff had moved to Florida. He had married and was a Sunday school teacher.

Jeff Pelley

Jeff Pelley

In mid-2002, Saint Joseph County, Indiana, District Attorney Christopher Toth knew he was skating on thin ice with constituents. They were dissatisfied with his job performance, or lack thereof as it should be said, and one of their biggest gripes was the unsolved Pelley murder. Toth had previously declined to seek charges against Jeff, as had the District Attorney before him. Now, however, he used it in an effort to satisfy voters and keep his job.

As part of his campaign for re-election, Toth promised to get justice for the Pelleys and secured an indictment from the grand jury against the Pelley’s son. On August 2, 2002, Jeff Pelley was arrested and charged with murdering his father, stepmother, and his adopted sisters.

It was too little too late. Toth’s opponent, Michael A. Dvorak, took over prosecution of the case when he was sworn into office in January 2003. He too had made a promise of justice to voters – and he intended to keep it.

At all costs.

Judicial Rollercoaster

In 1989, when Jeff realized he was the prime suspect, he and his grandfather had spoke with Michael Dvorak, who was then a practicing attorney. When it was brought to his attention in 2002 and Jeff asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed, Dvorak refused to recuse himself and carried forth with trying the case himself.

Despite only having a circumstantial case against Jeff, and a weak one many believed, on Friday, July 21, 2006, Jeff Pelley was found guilty of murdering his family. In October 2006, he was sentenced to 40 years for each murder; a total of 160 years.

In April 2008, the Indiana Court of Appeals “reversed and remanded” Jeff’s conviction but on February 19, 2009, the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated his conviction.

As of this writing, Jeff Pelley is an inmate at Indiana’s Wabash Correctional Facility. He first eligible date for release is October 2, 2085 when he is 114 years old.

© 2016 Kim Bryan


Tim on January 25, 2020:

How can you convict with no evidence.

No bloody clothes, the gun is missing, and he was not nervous all weekend.

Anita Hasch from Port Elizabeth on June 07, 2017:

What a strange story. Circumstances seem to point to Jeff, however anybody else could have done it as well. Just because you had argued with your father, does not mean you killed him. In fact, I would say that there is a big possibility that the murder was committed by somebody else. As an Pastor, I would imagine that one of his duties would be to counsel couples with marriage problems. Now say he encouraged an abused woman to leave her husband? Say this husband had a drug or drink problem. This guy would be more likely to come to their house in a rage and kill the pastor and whoever interfered.

In the last couple of years I have heard of two such cases. Although they were not a Pastor, both these men encouraged the women involved to leave their abusive husbands. The one was shot in his office and the other one landed in hospital. In fact, I think Jeff is innocent.

Suzie from Carson City on April 13, 2016:

Yes, of course I believe he's guilty. But he certainly got away with it for a long time. I can't see to understand how left unsolved for so long, they were able to convict him years later with no more evidence than they had originally. Everything is POLITICAL!

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