LAKEVILLE, IN — Who killed the Pelley family on prom night?
Police say that on April 29, 1989, 17-year-old Jeffrey Pelley, who was angry after his minister father grounded him and forbade him from going to the dance, killed his father, stepmother, and two sisters by shooting them to death at close range at their home in Lakeville, Indiana.
The bodies of the Reverend Robert L. Pelley, 38; his wife, Dawn, 32; and their daughters Janel, 8; and Jolene, 6; were found in the church parsonage on the following Sunday after the family failed to appear for services at the Olive Branch Church of the United Brethen in Christ.
It was neighbor Will Tisdale who found the bodies, after going to the house to check on the family. After discovering the Reverend’s corpse shot dead on the floor, he found the children. “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,” he said.Investigators claim that after slaughtering his whole family, that Jeffrey Pelley cleaned up and went to the dance at LaVille High School.
His prom date, Darla Adams, told ABC News in 2007 that Pelley appeared to have had a premonition during their date. “He told me he had a strange feeling something bad happened at home,” she said. Adams had been surprised when her date showed up, as she didn’t expect the elder Pelley to change his mind about allowing his son to attend the dance. Pelley told her that his father had relented at the last minute. The day after the prom, Jeff and his girlfriend went to the Great America Theme Park north of Chicago.
For years, the case remained cold. In the meantime, Pelley had relocated to Florida, gotten married, and had a child. Pelley, who has always maintained his innocence, was not charged until 2002, when the case was re-investigated. In 2006, he was found guilty and sentenced to 160 years in prison for the murders, 40 years for each killing.
His attorneys argued during his trial that he would not have time to have killed his family, cleaned up, and still made it to the prom. They also claimed that he could not have acted “normal” at prom, as his friends testified during the trial that he did, so soon after such a horrific act.
The defense also questioned the decision by investigators not to look for fingerprints at the crime scene, reportedly due to the fact that police considered Pelley their only suspect.
They became convinced that Pelley was the killer largely due to the fact that they found it unlikely that his father, who had reportedly been “adamant” about grounding his son, would have suddenly had a change of heart and allowed Pelley to participate in all of the prom activities. The motive for the massacre, police said, was to attend the events and save face in front of his girlfriend.
During the trial, jurors reportedly found a photo of a gun rack, which was missing a gun, combined with Pelley’s stepsister Jessica’s testimony that she remembered both a bow and a gun being in the rack on the Friday night, compelling. The gun used to commit the murders was never found.
Still, the case against Pelley was reportedly so weak that two district attorneys over two decades refused to prosecute.
According to the website Justice For Jeff, run by Jacque Pelley, in March of 2009 the Innocence Project from Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis agreed to take the case. According to an update posted in 2016, they are still working on a resolution.
Main photo: Public domain/Morguefile