CounterClock podcast questions Jeff Pelley’s guilt

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When Jeff Pelley returns to South Bend in March from his Michigan City jail cell for a multi-day hearing before a St. Joseph Superior judge, someone unrelated to the case will be in the courtroom to monitor and Listen carefully.

Delia D’Ambra will be there to gather material for additional episodes of “CounterClock Season 3,” one of the hottest true crime podcasts of 2021.

Her podcast has rekindled national interest in the case, in which the 17-year-old La Ville High School student was convicted of shooting and killing her father Robert, stepmother Dawn and step-sisters Janel. , 8, and Jolene, 6, at their Lakeville home on prom night in 1989.

The free podcast has been downloaded over 30 million times since its release in April and was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 10 true crime podcasts of the year.

This isn’t the first time a podcaster has presented the case. Esther Ludlow, based in San Francisco, devoted to him in May 2020 two episodes of her weekly podcast “Once Upon a Crime”. But Ludlow only told one screenplay based largely on journalist Carlton Smith’s 2009 book, “The Prom Night Murders: A Devoted American Family, Their Troubled Son, and a Ghastly Crime.”

D’Ambra spent a year researching and reporting on the case, which included an investigation into Robert Pelley’s past in southwest Florida, shortly after quitting his job as a reporter at NBC2 in Fort Myers to focus on podcasting. She also spent time in Lakeville.

The season’s 20 episodes are rich in detailed accounts of primary source material and include interviews with a variety of people in both states.

D’Ambra said she appreciates Rolling Stone’s nod because most of the true criminal podcasts that reach national audiences are more entertainment than journalism.

Delia D'Ambra, podcast host

“I’m very familiar with, having worked in Florida, working with public records laws, obtaining documents and just navigating the state of Florida,” D’Ambra told The Tribune. “My familiarity with Florida and being able to truly investigate the crime and the victims in light of their entire lives before they were in Indiana has been of great benefit to the story and the investigation.”

D’Ambra learned of the case from an Indiana University law student who was interning with Audiochuck Podcast Network, the Indianapolis-based firm where D’Ambra works. The school’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic has fought for more than a decade to secure a new trial for Pelley.

D’Ambra said she communicated and compared notes with law students and with Pelley’s attorney, Frances Watson, a faculty member at IUPUI’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law. In seeking a new trial, Watson will rely heavily on the possibility that someone from Robert Pelley’s past came to Lakeville to murder the family.

Robert Pelley had worked in information technology at a bank in Florida that federal officials were investigating for money laundering. He moved the family to Lakeville to pastor at Olive Branch United Brethren Church about a year before the murders.

“A lot of things in Florida, especially the documentation and corroboration, the witnesses, the people I interviewed on tape, some of these things are things his defense team was not aware of,” said From Ambra. “I think they’ll take some of it, obviously do some of their own due diligence.”

Frances Watson, Professor, Robert J. McKinney Law School at IUPUI

D’Ambra said Pelley, who turned 50 this month and is serving four consecutive 40-year terms, declined his interview requests. For the podcast, she broadcasts the audio of her interviews with the police.

D’Ambra told The Tribune that she left the project feeling guilty or innocent, but is certain Pelley did not get a fair trial when he was convicted in 2006.

“I don’t think the prosecution has proven its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.

Of the many questions about Pelley’s conviction, D’Ambra identified three that she said were the most important: whether the jury was given specific information about a pair of jeans that prosecutors said he was wearing when ‘he committed the murders; the likelihood that he may have committed the crime within the time limit set by prosecutors; and if the shotgun Pelley allegedly used was in the house at the time.

Jeans and physical evidence

D’Ambra repeatedly reminded listeners that the prosecution case lacked physical evidence linking Pelley to the murders.

Prosecutors argued that Pelley was angry because his father would not let him attend the post-prom festivities since he was punished. Pelley argued that her father gave in to the punishment.

D’Ambra pokes holes in the state’s only attempt to obtain physical evidence: the jeans he wore the day before he left for the prom and at the time, prosecutors said he shot dead the victims.

At trial, police told the jury that Pelley washed the jeans in the home’s washing machine after the shooting in an attempt to clean up and mop the scene. But she notes that her review of the file shows that no police officer reported finding the jeans in the washing machine, and that FBI lab results in 2006 revealed that the jeans had no blood on them but that it was soiled and unwashed. Coins and a legible receipt were found in the pockets.

The rectory of the Olive Branch United Brethren Church in Lakeville where Jeff Pelley is said to have killed four members of his family, including his father, the Reverend Robert Pelley.

D’Ambra criticizes defense attorney Alan Baum for not reporting these facts to the jury.

“If we look back at how I handled it, I guess we’ll have to conclude that I didn’t make that factual connection and that argument, and that I could have questioned this blue- issue. jeans more, or let’s say better, “Baum says in an episode of the podcast. “It’s hindsight, but sometimes the hindsight is 20/20. I can’t change the story. Maybe this is one of the areas where I could have hit harder and didn’t.

D’Ambra told The Tribune that this was “a critical piece of evidence the jury was able to see and was given information about.”

“Is it a pivot in terms of guilt or innocence? I don’t really know,” she said. “But I know this is something that has been touted a lot by the prosecution, so it was very important to question its relevance.”

A narrow timeline

Witnesses during the trial established that the victims were still alive shortly before 5 p.m. on the day of the murders.

A friend of Jeff Pelley’s said he saw him walk away from the house between 4:45 p.m. and 5 p.m. Pelley to the station at 5:17 pm It took about five minutes to drive from the house to the gas station.

According to their case at trial, police believed Pelley had committed the murders between 4:55 and 5:15 p.m. Meanwhile, D’Ambra said in Episode 7, Pelley was to “shoot the four victims, pick up the casings. , take a shower, change clothes, put a small load of clothes in the washing machine, put away his tuxedo, get in his car, drop the shotgun and used shell casings somewhere the police don’t could not find, then get to the gas station.

“Investigators knew that accomplishing all of this in such a short period of time was almost impossible, but they were nonetheless convinced that Jeff could have done it if he had planned it right.”

Was the gun in the house?

Police determined the victims were killed with a 20-gauge shotgun, but never found the weapon.

D’Ambra said a question “which has always marked me and should be further explored” is whether Robert Pelley’s shotgun was in the house before the day of the murders.

Thomas Keb, a friend of Robert Pelley’s and whose in-laws lived down the street from the church where Robert was pastor, told D’Ambra that Pelley gave him a bag containing three weapons – a gun, a pistol and a shotgun – and asked him to keep them for a while.

Keb told the same story to Baum, Jeff’s attorney, in a deposition, and to police investigator Craig Whitfield in a 2003 affidavit.

Jeff Pelley told police his father, about a year ago, had removed all guns from the house after Jeff attempted to kill himself with the gun.

Keb declined to be interviewed for the podcast but told D’Ambra he kept the gun bag in his in-laws’ basement.

In episode 10, D’Ambra tells Whitfeld, “If Jeff is guilty then that 20 caliber wasn’t in that gun bag, that 20 caliber is between here and the AMCO (gas station) in Lakeville. So it’s just these things that make me… “

“I like your attention to detail,” Whitfield replies. “This is a question I would like to see answered.”

Neither side called Keb to testify at the trial.

Pelley sisters split over Jeff’s guilt

Jessica Pelley, Dawn’s daughter from her first marriage, and Jacque Pelley, Jeff’s biological sister, did not sleep at the house the night of the murders. Jessica, 9, was away for a sleepover, while Jacque, 14, was spending the weekend at Huntington College.

Jessica, now Jessi Toronjo, believes Jeff is guilty and told police she remembers seeing the gun still hanging in a bedroom when she left for the slumber party.

She tells D’Ambra that she knew Pelley was guilty when he didn’t look at her during the trial.

“If you haven’t, you’re going to look at somebody and say, ‘Dude, hey, I didn’t do it’,” she said in episode 11. “No, kept your head lowered, didn’t look at me once. “

Book cover 2019 "i am jessica" on the impact of the quadruple homicide committed by the Pelley family in 1989 in Lakeville.  Picture provided

She expands on these feelings in a 2019 memoir, “I Am Jessica: A Powerful Survivor’s Healing and Hope Story,” written by her cousin, Jamie Collins.

Jacque said she couldn’t remember if the gun was in the house before she left this weekend, but noted that she had no reason to look for it.

Jacque maintains a website, justiceforjeff.org, which claims Jeff’s innocence. When contacted for comment, she asked the Tribune not to release her last name or identify where she currently lives.

But she praised the podcast.

“Delia’s work is a great representation of the facts and the hard work that Fran and her students have put in over the years,” Jacque said. “We never wanted to take Delia in a certain direction. We wanted to let her do her own research to see if she found the same things as us, or maybe more than us. We wanted her to follow him wherever it took her.

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