Day 2 of Jeff Pelley’s post-conviction relief evidentiary hearing

The second day of the post-conviction relief evidentiary hearing for Jeff Pelley began around 10:30 a.m. Pelley was convicted of killing his father, stepmother and two stepsisters on prom night in 1989.

The hearings began Monday with two witnesses, the cold case investigator, Craig Whitfield, who reopened the case and submitted the probable cause affidavit and the cold case expert, Patrick Zirpoli, who consulted for the defense.

On Tuesday, Defense attorney Frances Watson, will be calling multiple witnesses. The judge asked the parties to prepare for a long day.

At the beginning of the hearing, the judge reviewed what happened during Monday’s hearing.

Evidence presented on Monday included Whitfield’s report, list of evidence, an FBI report, and Zirpoli’s report.

During the discussion, the question of how the FBI report is to be used in the trial. The state objects to it alleging hearsay.

The defense was asked to provide a brief if Watson wants to use it as a business record.

One thing the defense wanted to clarify is that she was reminded that in the post-conviction relief hearing, the threshold is preponderance of the evidence.

The state then asked for their objections to be noted on the record.

The first witness of the day for the defense is Elaine Battles. She was a St. Joseph County Police officer from 1978 to September 1989.

She interviewed Jacqui Pelley and the surviving stepsister, Jessica. She said that’s the only involvement she had in the case. She later went back to school and then was hired by the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office.

She was assigned as a paralegal to assist the prosecutor on the Pelley case. Her duties during the trial included making sure the witnesses showed up when they were scheduled and taking notes during the trial.

Battles testified she doesn’t remember anything regarding preparing the evidence for the original trial. She says she has no recollection of packaging the evidence for publication.

She believes the prosecutor and possibly someone from the homicide unit were likely there during that time.

She testified about how evidence was handed over to the defense during the discovery process. Reports would be numbered, a minute sheet would be created, it would be signed by the prosecutor, then copies would be made for defense, the prosecutor’s office and then it would be submitted to the courthouse for processing.

Watson asked about May 2003 and who would have made a memorandum if someone came in to provide information. She said if it was a case she was assigned to, she might have been the person asked to speak with that person.

She would have the person go to her office and then talk to them, then direct t hem to the appropriate person. She wouldn’t have done any in-depth interviews, Battles testified.

Watson asked about Timothy Decker, who was a cold case investigator for the prosecutor’s office in May 2003.

Back in 2003, if there was an interview that was recorded on videotape, a copy was made for the defense, the prosecutor and for the case.

The defense entered two reports into evidence that include Decker’s supplemental report and the other is the state’s additional response to motion for discovery May 23, 2003.

One of the reports is a narrative supplemental of an interview and the second is the evidence sheet showing it was entered into evidence. Battles confirmed there was nothing indicating the videotape was produced to the defense.

The interview in question is with Toni Beehler. The defense says a May 14, 2003 interview with Beehler was recorded but the defense has never seen the interview.

Beehler allegedly had information about statements Bob Pelley made before his death.

After a single question by the defense, Battles was released from the stand.

The next witness is the secretary at the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s office who prepared discovery documents in a case. She says she made three copies of everything.

When filing discovery, she said she would attach the minutes and the document. When you file a document with St. Joseph you have a minute, then attach the documents followed that, Crawford said.

She was the person who actually took the documents to the clerk’s office and file the original minute and original motion, along with copies for the prosecutor, paralegal, and attorneys Alan Baum and Andre Gammage. She was responsible for putting the documents in the mail for the defense. She would put it in interoffice mail.

The date is on the official court document, which is why the document isn’t dated by her. The court documented the date. Most of the time they didn’t date them because the file stamp had the official mark of the court.

She says there would always be a minute attached to a motion. The documents Watson showed her that were presented into evidence

The defense is questioning why the date was not filled out. Crawford is testifying it was not common practice at the time because the court’s file stamp was the official date. She says she would have prepared the document the same day it was filed.

The state began cross-examination. The state asked Crawford about not filling out the date in filed documents they presented into evidence. She again said she never filled out the date because the court’s filed stamp was the official date.

She then explained she would prepare the envelopes for the defense attorneys and her procedure of making sure when she made photocopies that every page was copied.

On redirect, the defense asked about where she placed her initials on documents she prepared. She explained she put her initials on the documents. She restated how she would put the documents in interoffice mail for attorney Gammage and would prepare Baum’s documents for mail.

She was then asked if she ever strayed from this procedure. She said not usually.

When she got the discovery from the paralegal when she went to the photocopier, she would make all the copies, then prepare complete copies for each person who needed it.

She was asked again about a document that was provided either by Battles or Scott Deurring.

Watson asked if she ever prepared a master list of the documents, but she said she doesn’t know. She then reiterated her procedure of marking documents and filing them.

The state did not re-cross.

Crawford was released from the stand. She stated it was the first time she had ever testified in court after working for so many years in the prosecutor's office.

Court then recessed for lunch. 

Court resumed after lunch with testimony from Timothy Decker, who previously worked for the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office. He was a cold case investigator with the homicide unit in 2003.

He started there in January 2003. Before that he was in the private sector, and before that he was a South Bend Police officer for 25 years.

When he started as the cold case investigator, Pelley had already been arrested and charged.

He conducted an interview with Toni Beehler on May 14, 2003.

Watson showed Decker the supplemental report he wrote concerning his interview with Beehler. He said it isn’t a verbatim report, just a summary of what they discussed.

After writing the report it would become part of the case. He said there was also a record of property, the audio and video recordings of the interview. After he writes the report, the evidence would be turned over to an evidence technician. That person has to log it as evidence and maintain it as evidence.

Watson presented an exhibit that Decker recognizes as containing his handwriting. It notes the interview with Toni Beehler.

The videotaped interview with Beehler is being played in court. Decker interviewed her in May 2003.

Much of the videotape was difficult to understand over the live stream.

Beehler mentioned that Bob Pelley did not want to be photographed.

The defense’s petition says Beehler stated in the interview that Bob told her his family would be killed if they were located because of incidents that happened when they lived in Florida.

The interview was around 15 minutes long and was played in its entirety.

Decker was asked about Beehler’s statement. He said it took her several years to come forward. The murders happened in 1989 and she didn’t speak with investigators until 2003.

He said some of her story didn’t make sense or was in the wrong chronological order. He said he didn’t necessarily not believe her but had some concerns about what she said.

He questioned why Bob would share information he had concerns for his safety with a stranger. He felt she couldn’t answer to those concerns.

Decker said he was unable to corroborate what Beehler said because Bob was deceased. He said someone else had followed up on the Florida connection. He said the FBI investigated the bank where Bob used to work.

He argued she didn’t give any specifics he couldn’t investigate and that she just said he had a previous life.

Decker didn’t recall which prosecutor he told about the interview with Beehler.

He didn’t think it was his decision to change the course of the investigation based on what the witness said. Normally he would’ve reported to the prosecutor, give the report and the videotape, then see if they wanted to do more follow up, Decker said.

Watson asked if Decker ever looked at any of the evidence. He said he did not. He did serve as the chief witness of the trial but did not testify.

He was asked if he remembered preparing the evidence for publication at trial. He did not. He did not remember speaking with the FBI ballistics expert to prep him.

The defense completed their direct questioning.

The state asked Decker about a conversation he had before the videotaped conversation with Beehler. He didn’t recall any information she had told him before the videotaped conversation and that it would be included in his report if she had.

Before completing redirect, Watson asked about obtaining a better version of the Beehler interview. The state wants to review the version Watson wants to enter into evidence.

That will be done outside of court but then it will be admitted in open court.

Decker was then excused from the witness stand.

The next witness, John Botich, was one of the investigators with the St. Joseph County Police Office at the time of the Pelley murders.

He did not personally collect any evidence at the scene. He did not watch anyone seize evidence from the washing machine.

He did go to Gurnee Illinois to locate Jeff Pelley after the murders.

Watson is presenting into evidence a document which is a police report from the Gurnee Illinois police.

Watson was asked to not ask leading questions after an objection from the state. The state also objected because the document hasn’t been presented into evidence and that it is hearsay.

Watson moved to enter the document into evidence and the state objected based on hearsay.

The document itself is something that was part of the discovery process in the original trial. The defense is arguing it was created during the ordinary course of business and would be exempted from hearsay.

Because the case is civil, there are different rules for evidence.

If it is an exception to hearsay, it has to be created near the time of the event, it was created in the ordinary course of business, it was created as a regular practice.

The state says the law specifically says police reports are not an exception to the hearsay rule. The state agreed the document meets all of the prongs to be excepted from the hearsay rule.

The judge allowed a portion of the document Watson is discussing can be admitted into evidence over the state’s objection.

Watson asked Botich about the second paragraph on page 423 of the Gurnee police report.

Watson asked if the document mentioned what items were collected in Gurnee.

Botich doesn’t remember collecting any evidence in this case. He said he went there to locate Jeff and Darla because they were missing.

He went to Gurnee because that’s where the prom after party was happening.

While in Gurnee, does he remember anything that was located there. He did not. He was asked if he could read the document to refresh his recollection.

After his memory was refreshed, he doesn’t recall any evidence being taken from the car. He can’t say what evidence was taken from the car. He doesn’t remember whether pictures were taken.

He said whoever is responsible for collecting the evidence would take the pictures.

Botich did locate a white shirt on the side of the road. It was tested and contained animal blood, he recalled.

Botich said it was found after he went to Gurnee.

The defense then admitted a photo of Jeff that was taken within a week of the murders. The photo is of Jeff’s upper body without a shirt.

The state objected to the vagueness of when the photo was taken, but the judge entered it into evidence.

Botich was then released from the witness stand.

Court resumed after a short recess.

The judge has asked the defense to submit a brief in writing why the police reports should be entered into evidence as exceptions to the hearsay rule. The judge does not want the hearings to keep being interrupted by discussions about the documents being objected due to hearsay.

The defense says she was not anticipating it being an issue because the documents are police reports. Watson argued these were business records that are authentic.

Sergeant John Steven Kuhny with the St. Joseph County Police Department responded to the Pelley home in April 1989 to collect evidence.

Watson showed a search warrant created by then Detective John Pavlekovich that listed the items seized from the home.

He confirmed he returned to the home several days later with members of the South Bend Police Department to conduct luminol testing in the washing machine.

Luminol is a spray that detects blood.

Watson showed Kuhny another document, which he had never seen before. It was a document describing what happened during the luminol testing.

He was asked if they seized any items related to washing clothes, including detergent. He said they did not.

Luminol can react to the phosphates in the detergent – giving a false positive.

They were using luminol for investigative purposes, but then he didn’t understand the reason since there could be false positive. Kuhny said the washing machine was empty at the time of the testing.

He testified they didn’t check the load capacity setting or temperature setting on the washer.

In cross, the state asked about the luminol testing. He said he witnessed them do luminol testing in the tub of the washing machine.

On the day of the murders, what did he see in the washing machine, the state asked.

He said he saw pants in the washing machine. He said they appeared as if they had been washed. They were stuck to the sides. He said it appeared they had been through the spin cycle.

He believed the lid was closed.

He does not know who took the jeans out of the machine.

The defense is asking questions in re-direct.

He testified he didn’t see any coins in the washing machine and he didn’t remove anything from the washing machine. He didn’t write the report, but he told his senior at the scene.

Kuhny says he was there when pictures were taken and when the crime scene video was taken.

Watson asked why there were no pictures of the washing machine, he said he didn’t know. He didn’t take any photos and didn’t remove anything from the washer.

Kuhny was then released from the witness stand.

The defense has called Toni Beehler to the stand.

In 1989 she was working two part time jobs. She worked for United Church Directories that provided a membership directory and made money by selling photos to the families.

She said Bob called her and asked her to come to the church. She had talked with him a few times before – maybe three times.

That interaction would be the fourth time she spoke with him.

In 1989, did she make a report with police? She said she tried.

Beehler doesn’t remember going to the prosecutor’s office in 2003 to talk about the murders. She remembers going to the office on Jefferson but doesn’t remember when it was other than it was after her lunch.

She said she saw the story in the news again and that Jeff was going to be convicted and thought that wasn’t fair.

Beehler said she now remembers visiting the office and speaking with the officer.

She said he made her sit in an old chair, he didn’t write her name down, didn’t write her statements down.

She testified no one pressured her to go make a statement. She said it weighed heavily on her.

Beehler then explained what happened when she went to talk to Bob. She said the church was dark, but he saw her and asked her to go up to the altar. He had her put her hand on the bible.

He told her he wasn’t a reverend, then said he had a life before this and worked for very bad people. He claimed it was the mob. He said he moved money for the bad guys and wanted out and they found him because of the church directory, she testified.

Bob said “they” were sending people to kill him and his family.

The conversation ended when another person entered the church. Bob told her to get out of the church and never return.

Beehler says Bob was murdered several days after that.

She said she was scared. Her father was a police officer and she learned when to keep her mouth shut cause things can come back to you – and you can die, she said.

She said she believed Decker dismissed what she said. No one ever reached out to her about the information she told Decker.

Beehler was released from the witness stand.

Court adjourned for the day.

Court will resume on Wednesday

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