The Dardeen family met a truly disturbing end in their small town of Ina, Illinois in 1987. More than a decade later, a serial killer sitting on death row in Texas would claim he committed the crimes, along with more than 70 other slayings. Yet the truth of the Dardeens’ final moments remains as uncertain today as it was on the evening of November 18, 1987 when police first discovered their brutalized bodies.
The police visited the trailer because Russell Keith Dardeen, then 29 years old, hadn’t shown up for his job as a water treatment plant operator at the nearby Rend Lake Water Conservancy District. Reportedly, Keith—he preferred to go by his middle name—was an extremely reliable worker; when he neither appeared for work nor called in to report his absence, his supervisor placed calls to both of Keith’s parents, who said that they hadn’t seen him. By evening, the police went to the Dardeen family home to investigate, where they met Don Dardeen, Keith’s father, who had brought keys to the trailer.
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What they found inside was a crime scene so violent and gruesome that it would haunt everyone involved for years to come. Elaine Dardeen and her three-year-old son Peter had been beaten to death with a baseball bat that had been a birthday present to Peter from his father earlier that year.
To make matters worse, Elaine had been pregnant with the couples’ second child, a daughter, and the beating caused her to go into labor. The killer or killers had shown no mercy, however, and the newborn child was beaten to death as well. Elaine was bound with duct tape and gagged, and all three were tucked into bed together. The area had even been cleaned up, indicating that the killer or killers had been in no hurry to vacate the crime scene.
The initial suspicions that Keith Dardeen had brutally murdered his own family were quickly laid to rest when his body was found the following day, lying in a nearby field. He had been shot three times, and his penis was cut off. Police found Keith’s car parked outside the police station in the nearby town of Benton, some 11 miles from the Dardeen home. Blood on the interior indicated that it was the likely site of Keith Dardeen’s murder.
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Such a brutal crime would have been enough to shock a rural community, but the fact was that the Dardeens were not the first victims in the area. Over the past two years, Jefferson County had been home to 15 homicides, including one particularly grim case in which a teenager living in Mount Vernon killed his parents and three siblings.
While the spate of murders seemed unrelated, it was enough to drive locals into an intense state of fear. During the days and weeks following the discovery of the Dardeen family murders, locals took to openly carrying shotguns and the coroner in nearby Franklin County was quoted as saying that locals were so afraid to let strangers into their homes that if he ran out of gas on a country road, he wouldn’t even bother knocking on the door and would instead simply walk to the highway and hitch a ride.
In spite of a massive investigation involving 30 detectives dedicating full time work to the case and interviewing more than 100 people, the police were not able to determine a motive for the killings, let alone find a likely suspect.
As time passed and the case grew colder and colder, Joeann Dardeen, Keith’s mother, continued to pressure authorities to try to solve the murders of her son and his family. She gathered more than 3,000 signatures in an attempt to get The Oprah Winfrey Show to do a segment on the murders, which were deemed too graphic for daytime television. Similarly, America’s Most Wanted also initially passed on the case, though they later did a segment in 1998 that produced no new leads.
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It wasn’t until the year 2000 that new light was thrown upon the brutal slaying of the Dardeen family. That year, a serial killer named Tommy Lynn Sells, who had been arrested after cutting the throats of two girls near Del Rio, Texas, began confessing to other murders that he claimed he had committed over the years while riding the rails and working at traveling carnivals. One of the killings that Sells claimed responsibility for was the murder of the Dardeen family.
According to Sells, he met Keith at a truck stop, or maybe a pool hall, and Keith invited him home to dinner, where Keith then propositioned Sells to engage in a threesome with him and Elaine. Or maybe not. Maybe Sells just saw the “For Sale” sign on the Dardeens’ trailer and, with it, an opportunity. Part of the problem with the confession of Tommy Lynn Sells is that he didn’t always stick to his own story, let alone the particulars of the case.
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When Sells first confessed in 2000, Joeann Dardeen was convinced of his guilt. As the years went by, however, her conviction waned, and by the time Sells was executed in 2014, her doubts were significant. “Tommy deserved to die for what he did, but I wanted him to stay alive until I know [sic] positively he didn’t do it,” she told the Associated Press shortly after his execution.
Though Sells confessed to more than 70 murders, at the time of his execution, authorities were only convinced of his guilt in 22 of his supposed killings. The brutal slaying of the Dardeen family wasn’t one of them, and to this day the chilling Illinois murder case officially remain unsolved.
Featured photo via: Murderpedia and Teddy Kelley / Unsplash