Testimony concluded Thursday in the post-conviction relief hearing for Jeff Pelley, who in 1989 murdered his father Rev. Robert Pelley, 38, stepmother, Dawn, 32, and stepsisters, Janel, 8, and Jolene, 6. During the four-day hearing, Francis Watson of the Indiana University Wrongful Conviction Clinic attempted to piece together an alternate murder plot that sounded more like it was lifted from a bad television show rather than a likely version of events. If the long-running cop show Law and Order boasts that its stories are “ripped straight from the headlines,” then it appears Francis Watson and some of her questionable witnesses are ripping right back, offering testimony so contrived that if it were a Hollywood production it would end up on the cutting room floor.
Star witness for the defense, Toni Beehler, finally got her day in court and let loose a fantastic tale. According to Beehler, she was hired by Bob Pelley’s church to take photographs for the church directory. Beehler maintains that Bob resisted having his photograph taken because he “had another life prior to becoming a minister” and that “he didn’t want to be found.” Perhaps wishing to further unburden himself to this person he had never met before, Bob allegedly ushered Beehler into the church, had her place her hand on a bible and dropped a bombshell on the unsuspecting Beehler. “I moved money for the bad guys and I wanted out and I wanted a life and more family,” Beehler recalled Bob telling her. “They’re (the bad guys) going to kill each member of my family, and I’m going to watch, and then they’re going to kill me…they’re sending people. I don’t know when, but they’re going to go kill me and my family.” Tuesday’s testimony differed only slightly from the videotaped statement she gave investigators back in 2003. During that testimony, she added that the family dog was a target of the bad guys as well.
It is unclear why Beehler waited until 2003 to take her story to investigators. The Pelley murders were a huge local news story in 1989 and the years that followed. They were also frequently featured as the Crime Stoppers Crime of the Week in the South Bend Tribune and on local television. Toni Beehler is a longtime South Bend area resident. Tim Decker, the officer who interviewed Beehler in 2003, during his testimony questioned why Beehler didn’t come forward earlier. He also stated that the FBI looked into Pelley’s life in Florida, and that for local investigators, “Florida was never part of the conversation.”
Frances Watson also called Kathy Hawley to testify. An interesting choice considering that Hawley’s husband, Phil, and other members of the Hawley family are at the top of Watson’s list as potential suspects in the murders. Additionally, this family has a well documented history of forgery and fraud, ranking Kathy Hawley’s testimony among the most unreliable hearsay imaginable.
Then, of course, there’s the defendant himself. Although Jeff Pelley didn’t testify, we know he has his own issues with the truth. When interviewed by investigators back in 1989, he lied when he claimed he left the Pelley residence at 4:55 on April 29. He also lied about which gas station he stopped at. While it bears no relevance on the current proceedings, it is also a fact that back in the nineties Jeff Pelley committed an elaborate fraud that resulted in his pleading guilty to federal wire fraud charges. So, was Jeff Pelley telling the truth when he told investigators that his father gave his guns, including the 20-gauge shotgun, to another man for safe-keeping prior to the murders?
On the final day of the PCR hearing, the defense called Andre Gammage. Gammage was Jeff Pelley’s Indiana-based attorney at the time of trial. During questioning, the defense brought up a document containing information that Bob Pelley may have given his guns to Thomas Keb. The defense wanted to hear from Gammage why Keb was never called as a witness during the trial. Gammage said that he believed Keb was on the witness list, but either doesn’t know or couldn’t remember why Keb wasn’t called. However, under state questioning, his recollection seemed to become a little clearer. Regarding the guns being removed from the Pelley home angle, Gammage said he did not want to go down that path during trial, with the reason being that they might not have been able to account for all the guns.
So there it is. If Thomas Keb was given the shotgun prior to the murders as the defense claims, then producing Bob’s 20-gauge would surely exonerate Jeff Pelley. Undoubtedly, investigators for both sides tried mightily to track down Bob’s shotgun. If it was in someone else’s closet or basement at the time of the murders, then Jeff is innocent. But, coincidentally, like the murder weapon, Bob’s 20-gauge could not be recovered either. Perhaps because they are one and the same. Of course, Jeff Pelley and his defense team were under no obligation to prove his innocence, but coming up with the non smoking gun would have been just the ticket to do so.
Strangely, in Delia D’Ambra’s Counterfactual podcast, she steers clear of Bob’s missing 20-gauge, choosing instead to focus on Bob’s 22 pistol. In an astounding feat of speculative gymnastics, D’Ambra asserts that because Bob’s 22 was unaccounted for for a few months in late 1988 and early 1989, then it must have been the weapon used in a Florida murder, later ending up back at Bob’s and possibly contributing to the reason for his murder. In the vast universe of coincidences, which one seems more likely to point towards a murderer: Bob’s missing 20-gauge shotgun or Bob’s briefly unaccounted for 22 pistol? One is completely in line with the facts of the case. The other emerges out of an incoherent web of unsubstantiated speculative claims intertwined with wild and baseless conjecture. Not a very sound narrative on which to build a case for innocence.