On the night of November 18, 1987, a horrifying discovery was made: the lifeless body of Ruby Elaine Dardeen. She had been savagely beaten, leading to premature labor. The newborn child was also found, tragically beaten to death. Initially, suspicion fell on her husband, Russel Keith Dardeen.

Dardeen Family

However, the following day, Keith’s body was discovered. He had been shot, and his genitals were grotesquely mutilated. The timeline of their deaths suggested that Keith had been killed within an hour of his family. The Dardeen Family murders were so brutal that they were deemed too graphic for daytime television.

Who was Dardeen Family?

The Dardeen family was composed of Russell Keith Dardeen, 29, his wife Ruby Elaine Dardeen, 30, and their 2-year-old son, Peter. They were eagerly anticipating the arrival of another child, whom they planned to name either Ian or Casey, depending on the gender.

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

In 1986, Keith bought a trailer after completing his job training as a treatment plant operator. He and Elaine rented land from a farming couple nearby to place their trailer. The trailer was nestled amidst woodland, adjacent to Route 37, just outside Ina, Illinois. This is where they lived with their young son, Peter.

Keith was employed at a treatment plant, while Elaine worked at an office supply store in Mount Vernon. In their spare time, they participated in a musical ensemble at a local Baptist church. They had plans to relocate to a better area as they prepared to welcome their new child, and had even listed their mobile home for sale. However, their desire to move was not solely due to their growing family.

The Dardeen family had been feeling increasingly unsafe in their area due to a rise in violence. Over the previous two years, there had been 15 homicides in Jefferson County. This prompted Keith to become highly protective of his family, to the point where he refused to let a young woman use his phone when she came by his trailer one night.

What happened to the Dardeen family?

On November 18, 1987, Keith, who was known for his reliability at work, failed to show up at the treatment plant. He hadn’t informed anyone of his absence, and calls to his home went unanswered throughout the day. Concerned, Keith’s supervisor contacted his parents, but they were also unaware of their son’s whereabouts.

Growing increasingly worried, Keith’s parents alerted the sheriff’s office and agreed to drive down to Ina with the house key to meet the deputies. Upon entering the trailer, they were confronted with a horrifying scene that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. They discovered the bodies of Elaine, 2-year-old Peter, and the newborn baby, all in one bed.

Elaine and Peter had been bound and gagged with duct tape, and both had been beaten so severely that Elaine, who was pregnant, had gone into labor and delivered a girl. Tragically, the perpetrator(s) showed no mercy to the newborn and took her life as well. The weapon of choice was a baseball bat, a birthday gift from Keith to Peter earlier that year.

While three family members were found dead, Keith was missing, along with their car. Investigators initially assumed that Keith had murdered his family and fled. A search team was assembled to find Keith, but their efforts were halted the next day when a group of hunters found his body in a wheat field not far from the trailer. Keith had been shot three times: in his skull, the right side of his face, and his left cheek. His genitalshad also been mutilated.

“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.”

Keith’s car was found parked outside a police station in Benton, about 11 miles away from his family home. The interior of the trailer was splattered with blood, suggesting that Keith had been murdered there. Autopsies of the bodies were inconclusive in determining who was killed first, but it was established 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. This led to a surge in gun sales and security system installations. Prior to the incident, residents would leave their doors unlocked, but now they made sure to double-check their locks.

Despite the efforts of 30 detectives working full-time on the case and interviewing 100 people, no significant leads were found. The investigators were left grappling with the motive behind the murders.

Possible Motives

Uncovering the motive behind the murder proved challenging. The back door was unlocked, there was no evidence of forced entry and valuable items like a VCR and portable camera were left untouched in the living room. Cash and jewelry were also left undisturbed in another room. Keith was sexually mutilated, but 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 found no evidence of extramarital affairs involving either Keith or Elaine that could have led to a crime of passion. They also found no evidence of any grudges or financial troubles. A stack of papers with sports scores found in the house led them to consider whether Keith had gambling debts. However, Keith’s mother, Joeann Dardeen, told the police that her son was so frugal that he raised funds for his young son’s college education 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 they found no conclusive evidence that they were involved in drug dealing. Keith’s mother suggested that the marijuana belonged to the killer(s).

Keith’s Mother Joeann later speculated, “I think someone wanted Keith to sell drugs, and he refused.” In 1997, she added, “Or there’s a possibility someone liked Elaine, and she would not accept his advances, and he took out his rage on both of them… We just don’t know.”

The brutality of the Dardeen family murder led some to believe that it could have been the work of a cult trying to appease the Devil, but no ritualistic symbols were found in the trailer. However, investigators did not believe that the family was chosen at random. “I believe it was a very personal, deliberate thing,” they said.

As time passed, the case grew colder, but Keith’s mother ensured that the authorities didn’t forget the brutal murder. She continued to pressure the authorities to solve the murders of her son and his family. She even collected more than 3000 signatures in an attempt to get The Oprah Winfrey Show to air a segment on the murders, but the producers declined, stating that the crime was too brutal for daytime television.

America’s Most Wanted initially had a similar reaction, but they changed their mind in 1998 and aired a segment. However, the show failed 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 had invited him for dinner and a three-way with him and Elaine. Keith’s mother dismissed his claims, stating that 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. However, as Sells was interviewed further, he was found to be less reliable. He incorrectly answered questions about Elaine’s body position before finally guessing correctly. While he answered some details correctly, those details could have easily been gleaned from the media.

In a 2010 interview, Sells stated, “I know people have their doubts. They say there’s no physical evidence tying me to the Dardeens, but there wasn’t for any of them because they weren’t looking for me. I moved. I was always a transient.”

Sells was executed in 2014, and to this day, no one has ever been charged with the murders of the Dardeen family. It remains uncertain whether Tommy Sells was involved in the murder of the Dardeen family or if he was trying to evade the death penalty by confessing to crimes he hadn’t committed, exploiting the judicial system’s leniency.

Dardeen Family murders theories

There are several theories about the Dardeen Family murders, but none provide a solid motive behind the brutal killings. Keith’s mother, Joeann, suggested that someone wanted Keith to sell drugs and he refused, leading to the murders. Alternatively, someone from Elaine’s past, a stalker, or someone she rejected could have been responsible.

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

Keith’s friend mentioned that Keith had become so protective of his family that he once refused to let a girl use their phone. Could this girl have had something to do with the murders?

However, more than three decades later, the murder of the Dardeen family remains unsolved, and it seems likely to stay that way.

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