A Family Divided -- Part 1

By: Sarah Platt Email
By: Sarah Platt Email

It is a murder case that has been in Michiana (and sometimes national) news for almost 20 years now.

Lakeville minister Robert Pelley and his family were killed in their home back in 1989.

Seventeen years after the tragic day, a jury convicted the minister's son Jeff Pelley of the four murders.

But last month, an appellate court threw out the conviction because it said Pelley was not given a speedy trial.

The state has appealed that to the Indiana Supreme Court.

Jeff's 14-year-old sister Jacque and 10-year-old stepsister Jessi were gone the night of the murders.

We have their reactions on this appeal, and their two very different views on Jeff’s conviction.

This is a case which has brought a deep divide among what was once a blended family.

Jessi Pelley was the oldest daughter of Dawn Pelley's three girls. Jessi has asked us not to use her married name, as she still continues to put this tragedy behind her.

Jessi says she was deeply disappointed to learn that her stepbrother won the appeal, and that there is a chance he could go free.

Jacque Pelley -- now Jacque Delp -- was the younger sister of Jeff. Both were Reverend Pelley's kids. Jacque maintains her brother was wrongly convicted, and hopes he will be released.

It is a crime that took the lives of four people on April 29, 1989: the Reverend Robert Pelley, his wife Dawn, and two of her daughters, 8-year-old Janel and 6-year-old Jolene.

The gruesome murders shocked the small community of Lakeville.

Jessi, now 28, was just 10 years old when she arrived home from a sleepover to find her house had become a crime scene.

“I remember the upside down tape – the danger tape – wrapped around the house. There were cops everywhere, the church people were out there,” she recalls. “My first thought was that my dog died.”

Jessi soon learned the real reason police were there.

“I cried for days,” she admits. “It was overwhelming. Here I am having nowhere to go and nobody. It was very difficult for years.”

After the murders, Jessi bounced around homes, living with her grandfather, aunt, and then finally settling in with an adoptive family at 13.

Jessi admits her blended family with the Pelleys was no "Brady Bunch." Photos and memories are all she has left now, though.

She says she especially misses her little sisters.

“Jolene and I were very close, we did a lot together. And Janel and I, even though we didn't get along all the time, we'd always play pranks on each other,” Jessi fondly recalls. “I know my sisters and I sang a lot, and I do miss that.”

“People need to realize that I'm the only one out of my family left, and it has affected me, and I don't think most people realize I exist.”

Jessi last saw her stepbrother Jeff when she was 15. She says he invited her down to visit him at his Florida home. At that time, Jessi believed her stepfather had killed the family and himself.

One of the first questions Jeff asked her when she arrived in Florida was about who she thought committed the murders.

“I thought it was weird that he asked me who I thought did it,” she recalls. “It was done, it was over with. It was just kind of weird.”

Her opinion of who committed the murders changed in 2002, when investigators arrived at her home and explained that they were re-opening the case -- and that the main suspect was now Jeff Pelley.

“When I found out, it made sense to me, because he was a very violent person,” says Jessi.

Jessi testified against Jeff Pelley at the trial. Growing up, she says her step-brother enjoyed being a bully, and often took it beyond normal sibling rivalry.

As an adult now, Jessi says she has no doubt her step-brother committed the murders.

She was surprised to learn that Jeff won his recent appeal.

“I was actually shocked and then scared,” she admits. “If he's capable of doing something like that to two small children, you know, not saying he would come after me, but I am scared.”

But Jeff's other sister, Jacque, who was 14 at the time of the murders, has a very different view of what happened.

She believes neither her brother nor her father killed the family. Jacque blames the media for helping convict her brother.

She did not want to go on camera, but emailed us her thoughts on the case and appeal.

"We are happy to have won the appeal,” she wrote. “It has been a long time coming to fix something that never should have taken place to begin with, and I am not just referring to the trial but to the charges in general."

"The media has not painted a fair and accurate portrayal of this case or my brother,” Jacque continued. “Things are regularly taken out of context just so the story sounds better."

Meantime, Jeff Pelley's lead defense attorney, Alan Baum, maintains his client is an innocent man.

By phone, Baum reiterated that no fingerprints were taken from the crime scene and that no murder weapon was found. He says the prosecutor at the time, Chris Toth, charged the case for his own political reasons.

“I've tried an awful lot of cases and very few times do we have the extraordinary burden as defense lawyers of defending someone who is truly innocent,” says Baum.

Meantime, it's clear that the case, which has pitted family members against each other, is still unraveling nearly 20 years after the crime occurred.

“He murdered four people, he took my family away from me, and if he gets out, you know, that's not ok,” says Jesse. “He was found guilty for a reason, because he did it.”

“As we know, there are people sitting in prison, some for 10, 15, 20 years who are innocent, later proved innocent by DNA and things of that sort,” counters Baum. “In Jeff's case, there was never any evidence.”

Jeff Pelley is currently serving a 160-year prison sentence -- 40 years for each of the four murders.

At this time, Jeff and his wife Kim have declined our request for an interview.

Through a family statement, they tell us they remain hopeful about this appeal process.

Coming up Wednesday night at 11:00, we will have more from Jessi, Jacque, and Jeff Pelley's defense attorney.

We will take a closer look at the appeal process and where it goes from here.

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