Innocence attorney not interested in whereabouts of Pelley “non smoking” gun

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. 

Pelley innocence attorney claims mob involvement led to murders

Convicted Lakeville, Indiana murderer, Jeff Pelley, and his Indiana University Wrongful Conviction Clinic attorney, Fran Watson, are in St. Joseph County Superior Court this week seeking post-conviction relief and a potential new trial.  Emboldened by the success of the popular true crime podcast, CounterFactual, they have a new theory that it wasn’t Jeff Pelley who brutally murdered his father, Bob Pelley, his stepmother, Dawn, and his stepsisters Jolene and Janel, in 1989, but rather some bad hombres from Florida with whom Bob had been involved in some shady business dealings.  

Fran Watson claims to have an important new witness, Toni Beehler, who could blow the case wide open.  “Prior to the trial, the defense attorney did not know about a witness who will be testifying at these evidentiary hearings, and her testimony would have been consistent with the defense theory that the killers were tied to the fraudulent bank activity and the mob influence,” Watson explains.  

Beehler came forward and talked to detectives in 2003 after Jeff Pelley was charged for the murders.  Beehler told investigators that she had been hired by Bob’s church to take pictures for the church directory.  She claims Bob didn’t want to have his picture taken “as he had another life prior to becoming a minister.”  

So, clearly, he must have been mobbed up, right?  At least that’s the story Jeff Pelley and Fran Watson would like to implant in everyone’s imaginations, because Beehler says Bob Pelley gave her no additional details about his past life.  Apparently Beehler’s information was vitally important to convey to investigators after Jeff Pelley had been charged, but not so much during the initial investigation that followed the murders. 

The CounterFactual podcast takes great pains to try to implicate Bob Pelley in all manner of illegal activity.  The whole podcast is constructed around illuminating his so-called shady past.  It becomes a podcast within a podcast as host, Delia D’Ambra, investigates murder and criminal activity in Florida that Bob had nothing to do with.  Still, podcast producers and Fran Watson would like everyone to think Bob was involved, or at a minimum knew too much, and for that he and his family were bumped off by mob hitmen.

Much is made about the fact that Jeff Pelley only had about a 20 minute window of opportunity to commit these murders.  However, if you buy into the mob hitmen theory, another window of opportunity comes into focus.  The same witness statements that open and close a window for Jeff Pelley, create one for the alleged hitmen.  There is only about a 15 minute window between the time Jeff Pelley leaves the family home and the victims begin to go missing in action.  That indicates the alleged hitmen must have arrived shortly after Jeff Pelley’s departure.  It’s an incredible stroke of luck that Jeff avoided becoming the fifth victim, but also a bit of misfortune that the hitmen’s timing makes Jeff look really fucking guilty. 

Of course, there’s also all that circumstantial evidence that points to the murders originating from within the house.  But that just speaks to the cleverness of the hitmen to not force entry and to avoid a violent struggle with the occupants.  Nor did the hit team ransack the home, search for potentially incriminating documents or steal any valuables.  Additionally, the hitmen knew enough to use the 20-gauge shotgun from Bob’s bedroom, making it seem as if the perpetrator was someone very familiar to the family, and who had familiarity and unfettered access to all areas of the domicile.   

For a full explanation of the mob hit theory, in all its improbable and convoluted glory, one should listen to the CounterFactual podcast.  Episode 18, “Factually Based?”, is a critical episode where the fanciful hitman theory runs up against cold reality and reason.  Contrast Fran Watson’s conspiratorial ranting and raving to the methodical analysis of an independent crime scene expert who is brought in to offer his opinion on the crime scene and the type of killer who could have committed such a horrible act. 

Jeff Pelley was convicted by a jury in 2006 and had his conviction upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2009.  If real evidence exists to exonerate Jeff Pelley, then it needs to come out.  But asserting that Bob Pelley’s criminal past finally caught up with him is reckless, irresponsible and wholly without merit.  However, there is one individual who has a documented criminal past that involves theft and even an FBI fraud investigation and conviction.  Now, who is the one with the secret life he doesn’t want anybody to know about?