Into the Unknown: The Dardeen Family
This month's mystery is a horrific one, and I will start out this post with a stronger warning than I usually offer. You will not like what you are about to read. This post talks about an incident that involves violence against a child, a pregnant woman, and even a moments-old newborn, as well as the murder of their hardworking patriarch. This case is hard to stomach, and one that I had a hard time coming to grips with.
On November 18, 1987, the bodies of three members of the Dardeen family were discovered in their home. The father, Keith, was missing and initially was suspected of killing his family, only to be found murdered himself in horrific fashion later on. A dead family was bad enough, but what was worse was the exact circumstances of their murders.
Some of the content in this post may disturb or upset sensitive readers.
As this post deals with the unsolved murder of children, including a newborn, this post may be particularly disturbing.
I do not post graphic pictures, but websites found by following links in this post may. Reader discretion is advised.
THE HISTORY: Ina, Illinois is a rural village in southern Jefferson County. It boasts a population of less than 2,500 people, and is home to Big Muddy River Correctional Facility and Rend Lake College.
The only major murder case in Ina's history was the arsenic poisoning of Elsie Sweeten's husband by her and her lover, Reverend Lawrence Hight, who followed up their initial crime by killing Hight's own wife by the same method. They were both convicted of the crime and sent to prison. The murder caused the area some scandal in 1924, especially when Elsie was granted a second trial and acquitted years later.
For the most part, after the scandal of the Sweeten-Hight case, Ina remained quiet for over 60 years. But in late 1987, residents were on high alert following a sudden rash of murders and other violent crime in Jefferson and neighboring Franklin County.
THE VICTIMS: The morning of November 18, 1987, Jefferson County police were asked to check on Russell Keith Dardeen, who went by his middle name, because he hadn't shown up for work. This was unusual for Keith, as he had only recently hired on and completed training as an employee for the Rend Lake Water Conservancy District. The Dardeens had just bought the mobile home they lived in in 1986, and rented the land from a farmer near Ina. His wife Ruby Elaine, who also went by her middle name, worked in an office supply store. Both were active churchgoers. Keith sang in their Baptist choir, and Elaine played piano. Both were dedicated employees at their jobs, and with the new home purchase no doubt wouldn't have missed work.
The recent spate of violence in Ina prompted the Dardeens to put their mobile home up for sale. Keith was looking for jobs in Mount Carmel, a city over an hour away where both his parents lived, and was determined to move his family there even if he didn't have a job yet. He was fearful, and regretted moving his family to Ina.
Unfortunately, they did not get out in time.
After Keith's mother called the police, his father went with them with keys to his son's home, and let them in after they didn't receive a response to knocking on the Dardeens' door. When officers entered the mobile home, they discovered a horrific scene. Inside were the bodies of Elaine, her and Keith's 3 year old son Peter, and a newborn baby girl. Elaine had been bound and gagged with duct tape, and all of those present had been beaten to death. All three victims were tucked into Keith and Elaine's bed. A baseball bat, Peter's most recent birthday gift from Keith, is presumed to be the murder weapon. Officers found it in the bedroom, left out in the room and covered in the victims' blood.
The murdered newborn baby girl, whose name on her gravestone is Casey Elaine, shouldn't have been there, as her mother wasn't due to give birth for almost two months. Her presence at the scene told police just what a horrific ordeal her family had been through. Elaine had been beaten so severely she'd gone into labor and given birth to the girl during the attack, and then the killer or killers murdered the baby the same way they had the rest of the occupants of the home.
THE INVESTIGATION: Police found signs that the Dardeens' killer attempted to clean up the scene after the brutal attacks. Elaine, Peter, and the baby girl were tucked into bed after their deaths. The home itself was in order, with no signs of ransacking or searching, and nothing appeared to be missing according to family.
At first, Keith Dardeen himself was a suspect in the murders of his family. Friends and family couldn't believe that he would harm his family, and they were proven correct when hunters found his body in a field the next day. His death was as horrific as the rest of his family's. Unlike his family though, Keith was shot to death, and his genitals were mutilated. Whether the mutilation occurred before or after his death is unclear. At autopsy, the coroner found he was killed within an hour of the rest of his family. Think about that for a moment. If he died after his wife and children, he may have witnessed all that happened in his mobile home that day, only to be cut down shortly afterward in an equally horrifying fashion.
Marijuana was found in the house, but the amount was small enough police didn't believe it was related to dealing. The Dardeens weren't known to be in debt beyond the ordinary car loans and the mortgage for their mobile home, and they weren't gamblers or involved in any other crime, either.
The genital mutilation Keith suffered suggests a sexual motive to the crime, at least against him, but there seems to be no evidence of what exactly someone was trying to say by doing such a thing. The exact nature of the mutilation has not been made public, so it's impossible for a layperson like me to speculate what the intent may have been behind the act. There has never been any rumor or evidence that Keith was struggling with or attempting to hide his sexuality. No extramarital affairs on Elaine or Keith's parts have ever come to light, either. The way the bodies of Elaine, Peter, and the baby girl were tucked into bed together suggests remorse, which might lead one to believe that the killer or killers knew the family.
I also do not know if there were similar crimes committed in the area at the time. Reports on the rash of crime in Jefferson County at the time are vague and little detail is readily available.
Leads quickly ran dry as police explored every possible motive and came up with nothing. It didn't take long for the Dardeen family murders to go cold. Over the years, the case was featured on America's Most Wanted as well as podcasts, true crime websites, and blogs like this one.
THE SUSPECTS: The only publicly named suspect in the case is serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. Also known as "Coast to Coast" and "The Cross-country Killer" for the varied locations of his known and suspected crimes, Sells was homeless for much of his life and was known to hitchhike and hop trains to get around the country. In the early 2000's Sells confessed without prompting to the killings of the Dardeen family, but the Jefferson County Sherrif's Office declined to charge him as there were inconsistencies with his claims and the facts of the case.
In Sells's confession, he claimed Keith Dardeen let him in the residence, but family and friends as well as law enforcement don't believe this would have been the case. Residents of Ina were wary at the time due to the other murders in the vicinity, and Keith had refused to let a teenage girl into the house to use the phone just days before the murders. It stands to reason that if Keith wouldn't allow a young woman in the house, he certainly wouldn't have allowed a strange man who arguably posed a greater and more obvious threat to his family.
One of Sells's claims was that he killed the family after Keith made an unwanted sexual advance, but as I mentioned before, Keith was not even rumored to be bisexual or gay, which while not definitive makes that claim unlikely. Police believe this was a move on Sells' part to make his actions seem justified after the fact, something Sells did often when he spoke of his many crimes.
Sells confessed to many murders during his incarceration in Texas, many of which he hadn't committed. He changed his story about the Dardeen family several times after his initial confession, and a lot of the details he gave were vague. But there are plenty of people who are sure his confession was true, regardless of these inconsistencies.
False confession is a bizarre phenomenon with some multiple murderers, and sadly, forces police to follow false leads and offers false hope for the victims' families desperate for resolution and justice. It's possible Sells, and other killers who falsely confess to crimes, are attempting to play on the gratitude of the judicial system in order to receive a more lenient sentence, or they just like the attention confessing to unsolved crimes gets them. There are many theories as to why criminals would confess to crimes they didn't commit. We may never know.
Though he is suspected in the murders of over 20 people from Missouri, Illinois, Texas, and Kentucky, as well as many other locations, Sells was only convicted of the murder of Beatriz Perez, a nine year old girl from San Antonio, Texas. For this murder, he was given the death penalty and executed in 2014 at Huntsville Prison.
THE AFTERMATH: Over the years, this case has continued to baffle everyone who comes across it. Clues are scarce and the longer this goes unsolved, the less likely it is the Dardeen family will have answers. Keith's mother crusades for justice for her son and his family to this day, granting interviews and trying to keep the case in the public eye.
Tommy Lynn Sells' confession had the potential to breathe new life into this cold case but unfortunately nothing came of it. Even if Illinois had levied murder charges against the suspected serial killer, it's unlikely he would have been extradited to Illinois to face trial, as his death sentence in Texas would have taken precedent. After his confession, the case went cold again and remains so.
THE CONCLUSION: The Dardeen family suffered horrors the average person can only imagine, and until someone comes forward, all that horror was seemingly for no reason. While there is a plethora of evidence at the scene, none of it has proven helpful. Police and internet sleuths alike are stumped to even come up with a plausible motive for someone to kill such a normal, wholesome American family.
If you have any information about the murders of The Dardeen Family, please contact the Jefferson County Illinois Sherriff's Office at 618-244-8015 or the Jefferson County Crime Stoppers at 618-242-8477.