Healing continues 30 years after prom night murders
Produced by Chris O’Connell and Stephanie Slifer
Jessi Toronjo was just 9 years old when she returned from a sleepover at a friend’s house to find out her mother, stepfather and two sisters were murdered in their Lakeville, Indiana, home. Police immediately suspected Jessica’s stepbrother, but it would take 13 years to arrest him. The motive? Prosecutors say the then-17-year-old Pelley wiped out his family in anger at not being able to drive to his prom. Pelley was ultimately convicted, but the case continues to wind its way through the courts.
Jessi Toronjo: My name is Jessi. … My hair is pink. … I decided to change my hair. … I also changed my name to Jessi. Jessica, I no longer wanted that name ’cause she was a very sad, lonely, angry little girl. And I just didn’t want that anymore [cries].
Jessi Toronjo: When I was a young child, I lived … with my mom and my dad … And then there was me, the oldest … my middle sister Janel … And then there was my little sister Jolene.
Jessi Toronjo: My dad died when I was five years old. … After my dad had died … my mom married Bob Pelley. … And Bob had become a minister.
Jessi Toronjo: Because my stepdad was the minister of the church, we lived in the parsonage
Jessi Toronjo: Bob’s kids were older than me and my sisters. … My first impression of Jeff was he was very tall, skinny, crazy big hair. And Jacque, she was a little more quiet, reserved.
Jessi Toronjo: My sister Janel and I had a best friend, Stephanie Fagan … She was like one of the family.
Stephanie Fagan: We played in the backyard. We ran through the cornfields. … It was typical country girl stuff.
Stephanie Fagan: The Pelley family through my eyes … seemed normal for the most part.
Jessi Toronjo: In April 1989, I was 9 years old. … My whole world was shattered.
FRIDAY, APRIL 28, 1989
Jessi Toronjo: Jeff was planning to go to the prom that weekend. … Jacque was at a church camp.
Jessi Toronjo: I had planned to go to a friend’s house … So I ended up going to the sleepover by myself for the whole weekend.
SUNDAY, APRIL 30, 1989
Stephanie Fagan: My Sunday routine was we would usually arrive at church between 9 and 9:15. I would go over to the Pelleys’ because Dawn usually had breakfast made … eggs, bacon, whatever we wanted.
Stephanie Fagan: So, I ran over there … and the door was locked. … I was confused. The doors were never locked … And I went running back to the church and I said, “I don’t know. They must all be sleeping.”
Stephanie Fagan: At this point in time I think the whole congregation was there … They had a master key … They went and scoped it out themselves. … And they came back and said everybody needs to run to the alter and pray. I was super confused [cries].
Jessi Toronjo: We drove up, and I saw lots of people in the parking lot. … And there were cop cars everywhere. There was yellow crime tape. … A police officer came up to the van and asked my friend’s mom to get out. [Cries] and I could see them talking. And I could see the tears just start streaming down her face.
A HORRIFIC DISCOVERY
NEWS REPORTS: The brutal murder of the Pelley family … Shot to death in their home Sunday morning … It thrust a small town into the national spotlight …
Jessi Toronjo: I had just found out that my whole family was gone. … I had just lost everything. … I pretty much became an orphan in a day.
Stephanie Fagan | Jessi’s childhood friend: Lakeville, Indiana, was never the same for me and it was never the same for anybody, to be honest with you, that lived there. It was hard on the whole community. Because that family was loved dearly, and nobody could understand it.
Jamie Collins | Jessi’s cousin: Jessi and I … we were three years apart in age … It wasn’t too hard for me to try to put myself into her shoes and to know what it must be like to lose everyone.
Jamie Collins: The funeral was on May 3, 1989 … in the church where Bob Pelley preached every Sunday next to the house where they were murdered.
Jamie Collins: It was … standing room only. … There was media everywhere. … News anchors running around with cameras, pointed at us as we walked in.
Also at the funeral were Jessi’s stepsister, Jacque, and stepbrother, Jeff. Both had not been home the weekend of the murders.
Jamie Collins: I remember seeing Jacque visibly, emotionally upset and shaken. … Jeff, he was just flat and distant. It’s like he was there, but he wasn’t there.
Jessi Toronjo: The only thing I remember about my family’s funeral was the caskets. I don’t remember who all was there. I couldn’t tell you what I was doing. I just remember the four caskets.
Jamie Collins: We were toward the front of the church in a pew. … And all at once, the chords to the piano began to play the song “Amazing Grace.” … And I just remember being so devastated to realize … the reason that the caskets were closed is because of the horrific way that they had died.
Evidence photos: Pelley family quadruple murder
On April 30, 1989, police in Lakeville, Indiana encountered a crime scene they’d never forget: two adults and two children found shot dead in the…
Mark Senter | Former Indiana State Police Detective: No one should have seen what we saw that morning.
Mark Senter: We walked in through the garage door and upstairs Robert Pelley was in the hallway, his glasses next to him and he had two gunshots on his body. And then we went downstairs and saw Dawn and Janel and Jolene. And that was what really put a face to this crime.
John Botich | Former St. Joseph County Detective: To see the young girls in that position the way they were with their mother trying to protect them was just something that was etched in my mind forever. … They were all shot in the head. … It was devastating. It stuck with me my whole life. I mean, 30 years later I can still see- if I close my eyes, the three people in the basement
Mark Senter: As a detective I saw the worst of the worst that morning, but we had a job to do. So immediately started talking about suspects. … It did not look like a burglary. It did not look like a home invasion.
The police spoke to all of the surviving members of the Pelley family, including Jeff Pelley:
DET. BOTICH [ interrogation]: So. do you know who killed your mother and father, or your father and stepmother?
JEFF PELLEY: No, I really don’t. I don’t know who would want to.
Jessi Toronjo: I didn’t know who had done it or who they thought had done it. It was like a hush hush thing with me.
Jessi Toronjo: In my own mind, I had to come up with something. So, I thought my stepdad had killed my mom and my two sisters and then killed himself. … He was not very nice to me. … Spanked me a lot so I thought, you know, at 9 that he could have been capable of that.
But police had dismissed that possibility almost immediately.
John Botich: After seeing the extent of the injuries of Bob Pelley and no murder weapon or no weapon laying around him, I ruled the suicide part out in my mind.
A month after the funeral, relatives sent Jessi away to camp with her friend Stephanie, in an effort to restore some normalcy to her life.
Stephanie Fagan: It ended up to not be normal. Jessica was a very changed person after that and when I say the million-mile stare, like, she had it a lot. It was almost as if she was there, but she wasn’t there.
Stephanie Fagan: When I look at those pictures it’s just so weird and strange to me because we both have smiles on our faces but … those little girls weren’t right. Those little girls were hurting.
After camp, Jessi says her relatives thought it was best for her to start over.
Stephanie Fagan: They didn’t want her to communicate with the people that she had shared this tragedy with.
Jessi Toronjo: After the murders we really didn’t have a close relationship — my stepbrother and my stepsister and I.
Jessi Toronjo: They went with family members on their dad’s side and I went with a family member on my mom’s side.
Jessi Toronjo: I ended up in Michigan because I went and stayed with my grandfather.
Jessi Toronjo: They just wanted me to forget and move on. … It’s like they wanted me to be in this bubble to protect me, but it wasn’t really protecting me. It was isolating me and hurting me.
Stephanie Fagan: I had sent letters … and I was told not to send any more letters
Stephanie Fagan I just would sit at night and think to myself I can’t imagine what she’s going through.
Jessi Toronjo: I ended up running away and then they placed me in a foster home.
Jessi Toronjo: I didn’t really have a place to call my own … I felt like a drifter.
Jessi Toronjo: I didn’t know where I was going to stay. … I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.
As time passed and Jessi tried to regain her footing, the investigation dragged on without any arrests.
Jessi Toronjo: At the age of 13, I did try and take control of my life. … And I actually pushed down all the feelings that I was feeling … I was happy and outgoing and had friends and didn’t think about the past.
But five years after the murder of her family, someone from her past life came calling.
Jessi Toronjo: My stepbrother Jeff … he did call me when I was 15 … and asked me to come down to Florida to visit him. … When I went to visit him, he did have a really good job with a computer business. He had a wife, Kim, and you know had his own house, so he was doing pretty good.
Jessi Toronjo: And the first thing that he asked me was, “Who do you think did it?” … So, I looked at him and said, “I think your dad did it.” And then it was dropped.
Unbeknownst to Jessi, police had been focusing on someone else from the very beginning.
Jessi Toronjo: Looking back on that time visiting Jeff … it could have gone way worse than it did.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
Stephanie Fagan: After the Pelleys were gone and after they were buried… There was no more laughing. There was no more running. There was no more playing. There was just no more of anything.
Stephanie Fagan [at cemetery]: … And they’re right over here. … When I was 16 … I got my driver’s license. The first place I went was to the cemetery. I would just sit and talk to them.
Stephanie Fagan: It was a huge way to cope with the loss.
Stephanie Fagan: And then I started kinda tending their graves. … and just making sure that … they were clean and scrubbed and that there wasn’t any moss and stuff on them.
Stephanie Fagan: My mind just wonders why? I mean they were so young.
For years, Stephanie Fagan grieved the loss of the murdered Pelley family, but also the loss of Jessi.
Stephanie Fagan: She was gone, I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t just let me, you know, keep in contact with her.
Stephanie Fagan: When I was a teenager, I did start doing research about the murders and that’s when it became kind of an obsession for me to find her.
Stephanie Fagan [at cemetery]: Every time I came out, I was always thinking, “I’ll run into her someday — if I just come out here enough, she’ll be here.”
Jessi Toronjo: I did not realize anybody was out there looking for me. I pretty much thought everybody forgot about me and had moved on with their lives because it wasn’t their family that they lost.
In 1998, when she was 18, Jessi tried to move on as well.
Jessi Toronjo: The first chance that I got to purchase my own home, I did. … I used some of the inheritance to purchase it. I had not had a home since I was 9. … It was an amazing feeling. … I felt like I belonged there, that I had a place.
Jessi finally had a home, and a family would soon follow
Jessi Toronjo: When I first met Tyson, it was love at first sight for him. Me, it was not. I was with someone else. So, when we reconnected a couple of years later … we just started hanging out. And ever since then we’ve been together
Jessi Toronjo: I have two children.
Jessi Toronjo: When my children were younger, they did know that I had a family and that they were gone. I did not go into detail. I did not really give them any explanation on what had happened, they just knew they were gone.
But in 2002, 13 years after the murders, keeping her past buried would become more difficult.
Jessi Toronjo: There was a knock on my door … And there were two detectives standing there.
They told her the case was being reopened.
Jessi Toronjo: They said, well, we’re here to talk about, you know, your family’s murder case. And we just want to know who you think did it.
Jessi Toronjo: When I told them it was my stepfather, they looked at each other and then, you know, looked at me, and said, well,” There’s no way it could have been him”. And then that’s when they asked me, well, “Who do you think could have done it?” And in that moment, Jeff came to my mind.
Jessi Toronjo: My older stepbrother, Jeff, liked to do things that, just scared me … He was so quick to getting angry. And he would use his fists. He would fight.
Jessi Toronjo: And they said, yep, “that’s exactly who we think did it.” … I got a pit in my stomach. … And then they started telling me … a little bit about the case.
APRIL 30, 1989
Mark Senter | Former Indiana State Police Detective: I know there was … a lot of angst in that family between him and his dad — between Bob and Jeff. I know a situation where Bob punched him one time. I think the neighbors saw a lot of that same thing as well.
Just weeks before the murders, Senter had handled a case in which Jeff Pelley had burglarized a home.
Mark Senter: Bob Pelley grounded Jeff for the burglary case … He could not go to the prom without his dad taking him. He couldn’t go to dinner before the prom. He couldn’t go to the after prom.
Mark Senter: The embarrassment of his dad driving him … not having to do any of the other activities, was crushing to Jeff Pelley
John Botich | Former St. Joseph County Detective: I interviewed Jeff with his grandparents May the first, 1989.
DET. BOTICH [interrogation]: Did you have anything to do with it?
JEFF PELLEY: No, I didn’t. Me and my father didn’t get along sometimes and sometimes I’d be really upset with him, but we always worked things out
But investigators didn’t believe him.
John Botich: When you’re talking about the death of your family, you think, you know, every once in a while, he’d tear up or he’d cry. He never did any of that.
The main evidence against Jeff was the timeline. The Pelley’s were last seen alive shortly before police believe Jeff left for prom.
Mark Senter: Who else could have done it, who else would have done it? Who else had the motive? … I believe he killed his family and then was able to go to the prom.
Yet back in 1989, the case against Jeff was thin.
John Botich: We didn’t have any forensic evidence. We didn’t find a murder weapon. … No eyewitnesses. We had circumstantial evidence and the timeline. Very tough case to prove very tough case to prosecute.
Mark Senter: The prosecutor’s office chose not to file charges on Jeff Pelley.
John Botich: At the time, the prosecutor did not think we had enough. In my mind, I thought we had enough.
But 13 years after the slaughter of the Pelley family, a new prosecutor thought there was enough evidence. Jeff Pelley was arrested and charged with four counts of murder.
Jessi Toronjo: When I heard Jeff was arrested … I was just waiting until the trial to see, you know, what was gonna happen. … I was scared that he was gonna get out, come after me. … When he’s angry, he’s not a nice person.
THE CASE AGAINST JEFF PELLEY
Seventeen years after the murder of her family, Jessi returned to the place she once called home.
Jessi Toronjo: When I came back to Indiana for the trial, it was like coming back a stranger. … I felt like it had never been my home. I couldn’t remember a lot about it. I couldn’t remember a lot about the past.
Jessi Toronjo i: And when I went to trial, people were asking who I was. And that’s when it hit me that wow, I really was lost.
Jessi Toronjo: I was scared to see him. I was scared to have all these memories come back up.
Stephanie Fagan: I did hope to have a reunion with Jessica at the trial.
Stephanie Fagan: My anxiety was very high because I thought, “OK. Here’s my chance. … I’m going to be able to see her because we’re all gonna be in the same courtroom.” … And that never happened.
That’s because Fagan was a witness and only in court the one day she testified.
Stephanie Fagan: I was not allowed to see her. I was not allowed to contact her.
JULY 11, 2006
NEWS REPORT: Tuesday lawyers laid out their cases to the jury in opening statements.
Frank Schaffer | Former Chief Deputy Prosecutor: This was a totally circumstantial evidence case.
Frank Schaffer: It was … a very, very small window when the family could have been murdered, and it was very clear the only person who could have done this was Jeff.
The prosecution’s theory was that Jeff killed his father in an argument over prom and then had to get rid of the surviving witnesses. The prosecutor took the jury through the timeline.
Frank Schaffer: On Saturday April 29th, the Pelley house was definitely buzzing. … Many of the individuals going to the prom wanted to come by and show Bob their prom dress, their prom tux.
Frank Schaffer: His home was always open. … He wanted to be someone the community could depend on, someone who could be trusted by his parishioners
Frank Schaffer: So up until roughly 5 o’clock there was a lot of traffic in and out of the home.
But the prosecution says by 5:30 p.m., no other visitors could get into the house.
Frank Schaffer: The house was locked up as tight as a drum. … It became very clear that the murders had to happen between say 5 and 5:20.
Frank Schaffer: The biggest thing was Jeff said he wasn’t there.
Jeff told investigators he left before 5 p.m., but witnesses testified they saw Jeff’s car parked outside the Pelley home after that.
Frank Schaffer: The witnesses saw when the car was at the house and when the car left the home. He was clearly at the house.
Jeff’s prom date also testified. She said when Jeff showed up at a nearby friend’s house at 5:30 p.m., he wasn’t wearing his tux.
Frank Schaffer: The idea that he had to take the prom outfit down to his girlfriend’s and there was no pictures taken with his parents … said a lot about what he had done in the house. He had to get out of there.
Jeff’s prom date also recalled something Jeff told her at an amusement park the day after prom – shortly before news broke of the murders.
Frank Schaffer: Jeff had seemed troubled … When she asked him what was the matter? Jeff had told her he thought something bad had happened at home. … It seemed to come out of nowhere for this whole situation, unless he knew something had happened back in Lakeville, Indiana.
Even though Jessi had not been home the weekend of the murders, she was also called to testify.
Jessi Toronjo: The day comes to where I have to testify. And I was very nervous because I knew I was gonna see Jeff. … And at this point I did want to say something to him. … That he took my whole family from me. He destroyed my life in one split second [cries].
Jessi Toronjo: As I sat on the stand and looked at him he didn’t even look at me. … I did not get what I wanted. It’s like he just pretended like I wasn’t there.
Frank Schaffer: I was always concerned that she would break down on the stand just because of the emotion involved in this. She did not. She stayed very, very solid the whole way.
Jessi testified she saw something important before leaving for that sleepover.
Jessi Toronjo: I let them know that when I said goodbye to my mom that the gun rack was on the wall and there was a bow and a shotgun on it.
Frank Schaffer: The bow was in the rack when officers came that Sunday morning because we had photographs of it, but the firearm was not there.
Police never found that gun, believed to be the murder weapon. But they were convinced they didn’t need it. They testified Jeff made a seemingly damning statement in an untaped interview.
Frank Schaffer: “If I tell you what happened would I get the death penalty.” … Who would say something about that … unless they’d done something wrong?
Alan Baum | Jeff’s Defense Attorney: There was no motive. There was no opportunity. There was no murder weapon. There was no case.
Alan Baum: From the very beginning, the police basically assumed that Jeff had committed this crime without any evidence. … What they didn’t investigate in the case was any possibility that someone else for other reasons had committed these murders.
NEWS REPORT: After calling more than 50 witnesses, prosecutors say all the facts point to Jeff Pelley.
Alan Baum: It’s preposterous to think that in the short amount of time that Jeff’s presence was unaccounted for somewhere around 20 to 30 minutes he could have killed his family, disposed of the murder weapon, driven over to his date’s house … There’s no possible way that he could have done all of those things in the amount of time he had.
As the trial drew to a close, Jeff’s fate – and Jessi’s sense of security – were hanging in the balance.
Alan Baum: There’s no doubt in my mind … that Jeff is innocent. He did not commit these murders.
Alan Baum: He’s not a killer.
Jessi Toronjo: Do I think the evidence points to Jeff? Yes, I do.
A VERDICT AND A REUNION
NEWS REPORT: The prosecutor started his closing argument letting the jury know it was his burden to prove the case.
The prosecution had no murder weapon, no confession and no forensic evidence. The case the jury had to consider rested mainly on the timeline and Jeff Pelley’s motive: his anger over prom.
Jessi Toronjo: Waiting for a verdict was very nerve-wracking.
NEWS REPORT: But now the burden of deciding Jeff Pelley’s fate is theirs.
Jessi Toronjo: I didn’t know what was gonna come out of this. I hoped he was going to be put in prison, but there was always that chance that that might not happen
NEWS REPORT: One of Pelley’s lawyers says his client is under a lot of stress now that the jury has the case.
Alan Baum: Jeff was facing life in prison … so everything was at stake
Frank Schaffer: The jury deliberated on this case, they went out, I believe it was a Wednesday afternoon about 2:00 or 3 o’clock. Came back with a verdict I believe it was after 8:00 on Friday night.
FRIDAY, JULY 21, 2006
Frank Schaffer: The jury came back with guilty on all four counts against Jeff Pelley.
Guilty for the murders of Dawn, Bob, Janel and Jolene Pelley.
Jessi Toronjo: I felt a sense of justice when I heard the verdict was guilty. My family’s killer was put away. … Jeff does have a wife and a child. … So, I did feel for his son because he was losing a dad, and I know how that feels.
Alan Baum: But I remember to this day. … The image of Jeff being handcuffed is burned in my in my mind … Jurors were quoted as saying, “Well, if he didn’t do it, who did?” … That is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Frank Schaffer: Jeff was sentenced to 160 years in prison for the four murders in this matter.
The case, however, was far from over.
Alan Baum: So, after the conviction, we, of course, filed an appeal and we were successful. The convictions were set aside on a number of procedural grounds
Jessi Toronjo: I actually had someone call me and tell me that. And I remember being at Save-A-Lot actually, and I was sitting in my car. And I just started crying because I was afraid it was all going to start again. And I didn’t want have to look over my shoulder.
But Jeff remained in custody and in February 2009, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld Jeff Pelley’s conviction; the sentence stood.
With the case seemingly behind her, Jessi decided her children were old enough to hear how she lost her family.
Dakota Toronjo | Jessi’s daughter: When I was first told about my mom’s past, we were actually in Indiana. … she took me to her sister’s and mom and stepdad’s graves. … She told me that … they had been killed when she was 9. … it made me sad, ’cause I was like, “Well that’s your family. That’s my family.” … I had never actually witnessed her cry like that.
THAT SAME YEAR
Stephanie Fagan: So, I would google “Pelley,” “Pelley murders,” “Jessica Pelley “… You know, any two words that I could put together to figure out where she was … Well, I had found one clipping of one article that said “Jessi Toronjo.” … So, I went on a search bar typed in her name. … Boom. This eye came up just this part of her eye. … I knew it was her. I knew. … Part of me was scared because I thought … maybe she didn’t want me in her life. But I said to myself, “You know what? I’ve come this far. There’s no stopping now.”
Stephanie Fagan [reading letter on her computer]: “I don’t know if you remember me or not, my name is Stephanie we were close when we were younger.”
Stephanie Fagan: … I’m just gonna write her a letter. I’m gonna tell her how I feel. I’m gonna I tell her who I am. And if she wants me to be in her life fine if she doesn’t …
Stephanie Fagan [reading letter on her computer]: “I will leave it you to write me back … I will probably be biting my nails until you do.”
Jessi Toronjo: So, one day I log into Facebook … and there’s a message from a Stephanie Fagan. Well, I don’t recognize the name. … But I click on it, and I read it.
Jessi Toronjo [reading Stephanie’s letter on her computer]: “I have huge tears in my eyes right now just knowing that you are actually going to get my letter this time. “
Stephanie Fagan: I just … told her I’d been looking for you my whole life. And I told her … “I took care of your parent’s graves. And I’ve thought about you. And I’ve talked to you in my sleep. I’ve talked to you when I wake up.”
Stephanie Fagan [reading letter on her computer]: “I’ve gone through my life and never lost sight of finding you.”
Jessi Toronjo [reading Stephanie’s letter on her computer]: “I never in a million years though I would ever see you again.”
Jessi Toronjo: And I’m bawling as I’m reading it and just crying hysterically. And the feeling I got was someone reached out to me and has been looking for me this whole time and wants to get to know me again and wants to be around me and remembers everything.
Stephanie Fagan: And at first she didn’t remember me. But then I then I started kind of telling her stories about camp. And it clicked immediately.
Jessi Toronjo [reading Stephanie’s letter on her computer]: “I’ve missed you for many years, much love Stephanie. “
Stephanie Fagan: And the rest is kind of history.
Jessi Toronjo: Stephanie and I call each other sisters. … From the moment that we reconnected we bonded in such a way that I’ve never had a bond like that.
Jessi’s cousin, Jamie Collins, also came back into her life.
Jamie Collins: Reuniting with Jessie, she was this fierce, vibrant kind of bold, free-spirited person with this hot pink hair.
Jamie Collins: She had told me a lot of her deepest darkest secrets and about her past and her thoughts and her fears and her dreams. And we talked about so many things that in a lot of ways I felt like I knew her better than maybe I’ve ever known anyone.
Jessi Toronjo: So, Jamie … said to me, “You know you should write a book about your life.” And I told her, I said, “Well everybody tells me that,” but I definitely could never do that and I probably couldn’t talk to a stranger about everything. And she said, “Well, what about me? Could you tell me?” And I told her, “Yeah, I could probably do that.”
Though she came across as outgoing and positive, the trauma of Jessi’s childhood was never far below the surface.
Jamie Collins: We were actually … writing the book at the time that Jessica kind of had a downward spiral. And it was a very scary time for both of us. … She lost a close family friend to cystic fibrosis. … And for her, it had triggered these elements from her past … Once the triggers hit her, that was that was it.
Jessi Toronjo: I hadn’t lost anybody since my family. And I never realized that it would hit me like that. So … I have a whole week where I don’t remember a whole lot. … I trashed my living room. I was angry. … It was like I wasn’t even there.
Jessi Toronjo: I could feel myself being sucked into the darkness and I just couldn’t bring myself out.
Stephanie Fagan: That week I knew something was going on. … I got a call. … And she was crying. … All I could hear was “you know I need you. I need you” … I was like, “OK, you calm down.” There was no calming her down. … I was like,” maybe you just need to take an anxiety pill. Maybe you just need to calm down …” She’s like, ” I took all of them.” I said, “Oh this is not good. …. And the phone went silent. And I couldn’t hear her anymore. And I thought that’s it. This whole time I waited for her and I looked for her and now this is it. This is it. She’s gone.
A SURVIVOR’S PATH
Dakota Toronjo | Jessi’s daughter: That week when she was spiraling, the last thing I remember was an ambulance at our house … and I was watching them take my mom out on a stretcher.
Jessi Toronjo: I ended up waking up in a hospital and I didn’t know how I got there, I didn’t know what had happened. But the doctor asked me if I tried to kill myself. And I was floored. … I guess I had taken a bottle of pills and tried to kill myself. I later found in a notebook a goodbye note.
Stephanie Fagan: At that point in time that was rock bottom for her. … She called me. I was one of the only people that knew. She said I’m done. I’ve got to get help.
Jessi Toronjo: I was scared for my life- that I wasn’t gonna make it. And I did not come this far not to make it. So, I ended up admitting myself in the hospital and started getting some help.
Jessi Toronjo: I’ve learned that I do have DID, which is dissociative identity disorder, and I am part Jessica and part Jessi. So, when I pushed Jessica down inside me, way down, and didn’t want to feel sad, lonely, I think I lost a lot of the memories that I had in doing that. And now that I’m trying to get them back, you know, it’s difficult too because I’m just now letting Jessica come back.
Jessi Toronjo: A survivor’s path is very messy. There is no clean line. There is no straight path. You have your ups and downs…. But when you get help, it’s a little bit easier
Jessi Toronjo: I do not consider myself fully healed, but I am definitely on the way to recovery.
Jessi Toronjo: When I think of Jessica, I don’t think of just a lonely, scared little girl anymore. I realize she is me, and together we can overcome anything.
Anything. Including a recent development in her stepbrother’s case — it’s still winding its way through the courts. Jeff Pelley’s new legal team has filed a motion for post-conviction relief.
Jessi Toronjo: 30 years later there’s still a legal process going on.
Jessi Toronjo: It really is a form of slow torture. … But I fully believe that he’s not getting out.
Jessi is trying not to dwell on it and instead focusing on helping others. “I Am Jessi[ca],” the book she wrote with her cousin Jamie, was published on April 29, 2019 – the 30-year anniversary of the murders.
Jamie Collins: We’ve had a few book signing events … And it’s been amazing just to see kind of the outpouring of support from the community.
Jamie Collins: It’s been really an overwhelmingly positive experience for both of us.
Jessi Toronjo: When I read the book, it made me realize how strong I am [cries], and it made me realize that I have a purpose and it is to help people. And this book is one way that I’m going to do that.
Stephanie Fagan: There’s a lot I admire about Jessi. … I admire Jessi for her strong will. I admire her for her strength. I admire her for everything that she went through. … And I feel like she came out just this beautiful flower in a field full of weeds. That’s how I feel about her.
Dakota Toronjo: I saw her in this downward spiral … and then in just the past year or so I’ve seen her crawl back up … she survived it. … Seeing my mom go through this has taught me to value family and to never give up and to always keep fighting no matter what’s going on in my life.
Jessi Toronjo: Having my family today is a blessing. … I look at them and I just realize how lucky I am to be alive.
Thirty years later, Jessi has regained the sense of family she lost so suddenly, but she still thinks of what life would be like had things turned out differently.
Jessi Toronjo: Now that I’m starting to feel again, I do think about my sisters and what they would have been like and if I would have had any nieces and nephews from them … And my mom, you know, how would she be with my kids? … Would they have called her grandma? Would they have called her Nana?
Jessi Toronjo: I think today, my mom is looking down, and she’s proud of me.
Jessi Toronjo: I know they’re not here, but I know they’re with me. And I still think of them.
Jessi Toronjo: I remember singing with my sisters right up there on that stage. … We would sing “Amazing Grace.”
Jessi Toronjo: Thirty years ago, I did not know “Amazing Grace” would apply to me. … I know now that I survived for a reason. … “I once was lost now I’m found” … I really was lost for a long time. And now I’m not anymore.
The Indiana University McKinney Wrongful Conviction Clinic is representing Jeff Pelley.