One of the most horrifying murders in US crime history was the gruesome slaying of an entire family in Illinois in November 1987. The mom was pregnant and gave birth either before, during, or shortly after she was killed. Her child was dead too of course. The crime is still unsolved to this day.
More than a quarter-century later, the grisly, unsolved slaughter of Joeann Dardeen’s son, his pregnant wife and their young son in southern Illinois still haunts her as well as the Illinois people. Bludgeoned with a baseball bat along with her 3-year-old son Peter, 30-year-old Ruby “Elaine” Dardeen gave birth during that 1987 attack in the family’s home in the 2,500-resident village of Ina. The killer took no mercy on the newborn either, ending her life as quickly as it began. The household’s patriarch, Russell “Keith” Dardeen, turned up dead the next day in a wheat field, his body was found mutilated.
No one has been brought to justice in the Jefferson County case where the most promising lead was the notorious serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells’ claim he carried out the killings ― among the as many as 70 he took credit for in various states as a drifter and carnival worker. Authorities ultimately linked him to nearly two dozen murders. But because of questions about the veracity of his supposed confession, the Dardeen murders were not among them.
The answer to the question of whether Sells killed the Dardeens or the family’s killer is still on the loose is more elusive than ever. That’s because Sells, at 49, went to his own death earlier this month in a Texas execution chamber for the 1999 stabbing death of an acquaintance’s 13-year-old daughter.
Joeann Dardeen doesn’t believe Sells was the one who wiped out her son’s family. She dismisses Sells’ claims that Keith Dardeen happened upon Sells at a gas station and invited him home for a three-way tryst with Dardeen’s pregnant wife. According to her, Keith Dardeen, the lead singer at a tiny Baptist church where his wife played piano, was too protective of his family to entertain such a thing.
Joeann sent police to check on her son’s family at their home, 80 miles southeast of St. Louis, on November 17, 1987, after Keith Dardeen failed to show up for work at a local water plant. Authorities found Elaine Dardeen with her son and her newborn baby all dead and positioned on a waterbed. Hunters found Keith Dardeen’s body the next day a mile away. The brutality of the crime was just extreme, so terrible and egregious.
Suspects were scarce before Sells got busted in Texas for killing 13-year-old Kaylene Harris by stabbing her 16 times. Sells soon began confessing to killings elsewhere. The Texas investigator who first arrested Sells in Harris’ death said Sells often claimed he’d wake up in unfamiliar places and have blood on him. He said his tools of death ranged from guns and knives to an ice pick and his bare hands.
In claiming he was to blame for the Dardeen family’s demise, Sells accurately described certain details of the massacre, some of which he could have gleaned from media accounts. When quizzed about details never made public about how Elaine Dardeen’s body was found, Sells initially replied inaccurately, then blurted out the correct response. Investigators believe, it’s possible Sells merely deduced the right answer. Sells also insisted he shot Keith Dardeen in a certain seat of the victim’s car, but evidence disproved that. To say, there was a lot of ambiguity.
Sells offered to be escorted back to Illinois to show where he hid key evidence, but it became clear Texas was not going to let him leave the state. So the prosecutor was stymied, unwilling to pin Sells with the Ina killings based on a questionable confession and no physical evidence. He could have been the killer, but there’s “a fair possibility that the actual killer may still be out there.”