OK, I will no longer wait for someone to ask me how I was involved in solving the “Prom Night” murders. Jeff Pelley was found guilty in 2007 of killing most of his Lakeville-area family because he was grounded and couldn’t go to the prom.
The author of “The Prom Night Murders” book, said someone “leaked” the story to me. Now, Indiana University law school’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic, “Counterclock” podcast, and the “Justice for Jeff” website are suggesting he was wrongfully convicted in 2006.
And now, Pelley will return to a St. Joseph Superior Court room in March, in his years-long attempt to get a new trial to prove his innocence. He is not innocent and I know he confessed, perhaps indirectly, to it.
Here’s how I know he killed his father, stepmother, and two stepsisters, all because his father wouldn’t let him go to the prom in the spring of 1989. In 2002, as a staff writer at The Tribune, I was doing a series of articles on cold (unsolved) cases in the area.
The 1989 Pelley case was unsolved so I began working on it with Prosecutor Chris Toth, South Bend Police Capt. John Williams, and Cold Case investigator James Clark. At the same time, I sat beside Nancy Sulok in the newsroom and, as such, she could easily hear my telephone conversations.
When I first mentioned this story, Nancy said she had an unusual tip about the case, but something she hadn’t investigated. She told me a crazy story about a psychic in Florida, named “Psychic Sue,” who had called her. Psychic Sue told Nancy that police now had the gun used in the Pelley case. She said the gun was found standing up in a hollow tree in a wooded area near Pelley’s home, by the farmer who owned the land.
I called Psychic Sue and she told me the same thing. I was leery of her credibility as a psychic, and still suspect she had an anonymous source from this area. Regardless, I went to John Williams’ office at the SBPD and asked him, “Is it true that a farmer found a gun in a hollow tree that may be linked to the Pelley murders?”
I expected him to tell me it was a St. Joseph County investigation but Williams looked at me, surprised, and said, “How did you know that?”
I laughingly responded to him, “Well, by your response, you just now told me that it’s true.” Williams put his head down, covering both of his eyes with cupped hands, realizing he had just been tricked into confirming the gun-in-tree story. I didn’t tell him that Psychic Sue was my source. Making any reference to psychics will get you labeled as “nuts.”
After speaking with James Clark and Chris Toth about the case, I began my investigation by looking at the evidence held by the cold case unit. In one of the files, I saw Pelley’s phone number. Of course, I copied it. (That’s called “good reporting” by fellow journalists in the newsroom).
I then called Pelley at his Florida home and he answered. Hoping to get him to talk, I told Pelley that a farmer had found the gun and police believed it was the one used in his family’s murder. Pelley then said two things to me. He told me he had to speak with his lawyer and he asked me how I got his phone number.
My reply was, “Good reporting.”
It was in August, 2002, and I had been working on the story when James Clark called. He told me something about my phone call made a difference in the case. Clark said if I stopped working on the story, and promised not to write anything just yet, Chris Toth told Clark he would give me exclusive first rights in a pending case, related to Pelley. Clark hinted an arrest was pending.
Now, here’s where it became problematic. At the time, I had an editor I did not trust. If I had told her about the offer, she would have made me refuse it, and furthermore, to report the offer as a news story. Instead, I asked Nancy Sulok for advice and she agreed that, if I thought the offer was sincere, there wouldn’t be any harm in waiting a few days to write the story. After all, it had been 13 years since the Pelleys were murdered, and I wasn’t working against a deadline.
So I waited.
Shortly thereafter, I received a personal, overseas call from Chris Toth. True to his word, Toth was giving me first rights to this news story: They had just arrested Pelley and he was being charged with four counts of murder.
The turning point in the case was when I called Pelley to ask about the gun in the tree. He mulled it over and, in a short time, called local police. He said to them, “If I confess to the murders, and tell you everything, will you take the death penalty off the table?”
Clark and Toth both knew then, “We got him.”
They arrested Pelley at the airport, where he had just returned from an overseas job with IBM.
After being found guilty of four counts of murder, he was sentenced to 160 years in prison.
And no innocent man asks if the death penalty would be “taken off the table” if he told them everything they wanted to know about the killings. That, my friends, is an admission of guilt in my world.