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No new trial for 'Prom Night Murders,' judge rules

Though he was convicted of killing his father, stepmother and two stepsisters on the night of the LaVille High School prom in 1989, Jeff Pelley has maintained his innocence.

He appealed his case to the Indiana Supreme Court and more recently he filed a petition for post-conviction relief, claiming he found new evidence that should be heard in a new trial.

But in a decision this week, St. Joseph County Judge Stephanie Steele ruled Pelley didn’t meet his burden of proving his new claims warrant a new trial.

Steele’s ruling comes two years after a week-long evidentiary hearing and closes the book on Pelley’s last realistic chance at getting acquitted.

In her ruling Steele writes Pelley “bears the burden of showing how the trial result was unreliable and how the outcome would have been different. He has failed to do that here.”

Attorneys who represented Pelley in the recent appeal did not respond to messages from WVPE.

'Prom Night Murders'

Four members of the Pelley family were found dead in an upstairs hallway of their house in Lakeville on April 30, 1989. All four were shot with a shotgun police believe was kept in the house, though the weapon was never found.

Suspicion quickly turned to Jeff Pelley, who was 17 at the time, since it was well-known that he had been butting heads with his father about being allowed to go to his high school’s prom.

On the day of the dance, a couple of Pelley’s friends came to his house to take photos. They noted he was wearing a pink shirt and blue jeans.

The friends left a little before 5 p.m. trial records say, and Pelley was next seen at a local gas station around 5:20, where he got help fixing his car. Jeff Pelley then drove to his girlfriend's house to change into his tuxedo and go to the dance.

There has been no physical evidence connecting Pelley to the murders. But prosecutors maintain that friction around the dance was the motive and Pelley had access to the murder weapon. The state’s theory of the case is that the 17-year-old shot four family members, hid the gun and cleaned himself up in the span of about 20 minutes, all before going to a school dance where no one said he acted strangely.

The murders took place in 1989, but Pelley wasn’t charged until 2002 by newly elected St. Joseph County Prosecutor Christopher Toth. Pelley was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 160 years in prison.

Post-conviction relief

In his more recent filings, Pelley argued that prosecutors lied to the jury at his trial by telling them a pair of blue jeans was found in the washing machine and had been washed. He further argued the fact his trial attorneys didn’t contend that point also made them ineffective and entitles him to a new trial.

However the state never offered witness testimony about the jeans being washed and Steele noted the jury had custody of the jeans during its deliberations and had ample time to examine them and come to their own conclusions about if they were washed or not.

“The absence of the jeans from the washing machine would not have case any more doubt on the State’s timeline,” Steel writes. “If anything, it would have given Pelley a few more seconds to clean up the crime scene.”

Pelley also claimed his attorneys were ineffective by not looking into possible connections his father had with organized crime syndicates in Florida, where the Pelley family lived prior to coming to Lakeville.

One part of that claim is the testimony of a woman named Toni Beehler, who came forward to police in 2003 when she saw Jeff Pelley charged with killing his family. Beehler apparently told police she was a saleswoman selling a photographic church directory to Jeff's father Robert, who was a pastor at a local church. Robert Pelley didn't want to buy a directory, Beehler told police, because he "had another life prior to becoming a minister.”

Pelley claims prosecutors never gave Beehler's testimony to his trial attornies, but Steele found they did, even if the record keeping system of the prosecutor's office was shoddy.

The Florida connections could have pointed to alternative suspects, Pelley says, but Steele found the lack of credible evidence about happenings in Florida wasn’t enough to say his lawyers were ineffective constitutionally speaking.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.