On the evening of November 18, 1987, police discovered the body of Ruby Elaine Dardeen. She had been beaten ferociously and as a result, had gone into labor. The perpetrator(s) also brutally beat her newborn to death

Dardeen Family

Suspicion initially fell on her husband, Russel Keith Dardeen, but the following day, November 19, Keith’s body was found. He had been shot and his genitals were mutilated. Further examination revealed that he had been killed within an hour of his family. The Dardeen Family murders were considered too brutal to be reported on daytime television.

Who was Dardeen Family?

The Dardeen family consisted of Russell Keith Dardeen, 29, his wife Rudy Elaine Dardeen, 30, and their 2-year-old son, Peter. They were excited to welcome another child and had decided to name it either Ian or Casey, depending on whether it was a boy or a girl.

Keith, Elaine and Peter Dardeen on Halloween
Keith, Elaine, and Peter Dardeen on Halloween

In 1986, Keith purchased a trailer after completing the training required for his job as a treatment plant operator. He and Elaine rented the land it sat on from a nearby farming couple. The trailer was nestled among woodland beside Route 37, just outside of Ina, Illinois, and they lived there with their 2-year-old son.

Keith worked at a treatment plant and Elaine worked at an office supply store in Mount Vernon. In their free time, the couple played in a musical ensemble at a local Baptist church. They had considered moving to a better place as they welcomed their new child, and had put their mobile home up for sale. However, this was not the only reason for their desire to move.

The Dardeen family did not feel safe staying in the area as it had been becoming increasingly violent. They wanted to move somewhere safer for their children. There had been 15 homicides in Jefferson County in the previous two years.

As a result, Keith became very protective of his family, and one night when a young woman came by his trailer to make a phone call, he refused to let her in.

What happened to the Dardeen family?

On November 18, 1987, Keith, who had been a reliable worker at the treatment plan did not show up to work, nor he had informed anyone, and calls to his house went unanswered all day. Keith’s supervisor called his parents but neither of them knew what happened to their son.

Keith’s parents became concerned and called the sheriff’s office and agreed to drive down to Ina with the house key and meet the deputies.

No one had a hint of what was inside, once inside, they met a horrid scene that would mentally scar them for the rest of their lives. They found the bodies of Elaine, her 2-year-old son, Peter, and the newborn baby, all lying in a single bed.

Elaine and Peter had been bound and gagged with duct tape, and both of them had been beaten so severely that Elaine, who was pregnant at the time, went into labor and delivered a girl, but the killer or killers took no mercy on the newborn either and killed the newborn too. They were beaten with a baseball bat, it was a birthday gift from Keith to Peter earlier that year.

“Elaine suffered a blow on the right top of her head that fractured her skull and 2-year-old Peter suffered numerous abrasions and contusions, his skull was also fractured.”

Three members of the family were slain to death, but Keith was missing along with their car, there was no hint as to where he could have been. Investigators assumed that Keith had killed his family and ran away.

A team was assigned to search for Keith, but their search was cut short the following day after a group of hunters discovered his body in a wheat field not far from the trailer. Keith had been shot three times, on his skull, the right side of his face, and his left cheek. His penis had been also chopped off.

Keith’s car was found parked outside a police station in Benton, around 11 miles away from his family house. The inside of the trailer was spattered with blood, indicating that Keith had been murdered there. Autopsies of the bodies were not enough to conclude who was killed first, it was determined that they were all killed within an hour or two.

As the news of the Dardeen family homicides circulated around the area, locals were left even more fearful than they were already. There was a rise in gun sales as well as sales of security systems. Before the incident, the locals left their doors unlocked, but now they double-checked to make sure they were locked.

A total of 30 detectives worked full-time on the case, interviewing 100 people but nothing proved to be helpful. Investigators were bound to find the motive behind the murders.

Possible Motives

Determining the motive behind the murder was difficult in the case, the back door was unlocked; there was no evidence of forced entry and a VCR and portable camera were in plain sight in the living room. Cash and jewelry were equally accessible in another room. Keith was sexually mutilated, and investigators ruled out sexual motivation.

Dardeen family trailer in Ina with Peter Dardeen and Elain's red car.
Dardeen family’s trailer in Ina with Peter and Elaine’s red car.

Investigators could not find any extramarital affairs involving either Keith or Elaine, which could have resulted in a jealous rage, nor they could find any grudge or debt troubles.

A stack of papers with sports scores found in the house led them to wonder whether Keith has been in gambling debts. However, Joeann Dardeen, Keith’s mother told the police that her son was so frugal that he raised his young son’s college fund by reselling 50-cent cans of soda at work for a small profit.

Inside Keith’s trailer, police found a small amount of marijuana but never found conclusive evidence that they were a drug dealer. Keith’s mother suggested that marijuana belonged to the killer or killers.

Joeann said later that “I think someone wanted Keith to sell drugs, and he refused.” Several years later in 1997, she said, “or there’s a possibility someone like Elaine, and she would not accept his advances and he took out his rage on both of them… We just don’t know.”

The murder of the Dardeen family was so brutal that some believed that it have been a work of a cult trying to appease the Devil, but no symbols related to a ritual were found in the trailer. However, investigators did not believe that they were randomly chosen, “I believe it was a very personal, deliberate thing.”

As time passed, the case grew colder and colder, but Keith’s mother made sure that the authorities don’t forget the brutal murder. She continued pressuring the authorities to try solving the murders of her son and his family, she gathered more than 3000 signatures in an attempt to get The Oprah Winfrey Show to telecast a segment on the murders, but the producers turned her down, saying the crime was too brutal for the daytime television.

America’s Most Wanted had a similar reaction at the beginning, but they changed their mind in 1998 and telecast a segment. The show, however, was unable to generate any new leads.

Tommy Lynn Sells confession

The most promising lead came in 2000, when serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells was arrested for cutting the throats of Kaylene Harris, 13, and Krystal Surles, 10 near Del Rio, Texas. After his arrest, Tommy claimed that he had carried out the Dardeen Killing along with other 70 unsolved murders.

Tommy Lynn Sells remained the number 1 suspect in the Dardeen family murders
Tommy Lynn Sells remained the number 1 suspect in the Dardeen family murders

Sells was confirmed to have committed at least 22 murders, but the investigators were unable to link him to the Dardeen family murders. He gave statements, but nothing matched the evidence.

Sells claimed in 2010 that he met Keith at a truck stop, and while telling the story again he said he met him at a local pool hall, in both versions he said that Keith invited him for dinner and a three-way with him and Elaine. Keith’s mother discarded his claims and said Keith was far too protective of his family to do such a thing.

When Tommy Sells first confessed to killing the Dardeen family, Joeann was convinced of his guilt but as Sells was interviewed he was found to be less reliable. When asked how Elaine’s body was positioned, he answered that incorrectly, before finally guessing the position correctly. While he answered some details correctly, those details could have easily been picked from the media.

Sells said in his 2010 interview: “I know people got their doubts, They say there’s no physical evidence tying me to Dardeens, but there wasn’t for any of them because they wasn’t looking for me. I moved. I was always a transient.”

Sells was put to death in 2014, and nobody has ever been charged with the murders of the Dardeen family. We will never know whether Tommy Sells was involved in the murder of the Dardeen family or he was trying to avoid the death penalty by confessing to crimes he had not committed and taking advantage of the judicial system’s gratitude.

Dardeen Family murders theories

There is a reason why this murder is unsolved for over three decades, whether it was the murder of all family members or no motive was found behind the killing. However, there is no strong theory, that gives the motive behind the brutal killing of the Dardeen family.

Elaine with her son Peter Dardeen
Elaine with her son Peter Dardeen

Keith’s mother Joeann said that someone wanted him to sell drugs and Keith refused them and he or they may have killed his family. Someone from Elaine’s past, her stalker, or someone she refused had killed their family.

Keith’s friend told that Kieth had become very protective of his family that once when a girl asked to use their phone he didn’t let her in, maybe that girl has something to do with the murders.

However, three decades later, the murder of the Dardeen family is still unsolved and looks like it will remain the same way.

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