Gruesome murder of an Illinois family remains unsolved as the main suspect is executed
INA, Ill. (KMOV) - In 1924, Elsie Sweetin and her lover, the Reverend Lawrence Height, decided to kill their spouses so they could be together. They chose arsenic. Height killed his wife Anna, and Elsie went after her husband Wilford.
“I gave Wilford some chocolate candy in which I had mixed some of the poison,” Elsie later admitted. “He became very ill, and on Tuesday I gave him more poison in oatmeal. On Friday, I administered the final dose of poison in his tomato soup.”
The pair almost got away with it. But it’s hard to keep a secret in a small town like Ina, Illinois. A dot on the map with just a couple thousand people. Word spread so fast the sheriff was forced to move them out of the county to avoid a lynching.
One might think that in a town so small as Ina, such a heinous crime would be the worst thing that ever happened, and what the town would be known for forever.
Not even close.
There’s one stop light in Ina, at the intersection of Main and Third streets. At Uncle Joe’s, you can get a fried bologna sandwich with fried pickles. After that, it’s a gas station, funeral home, antique store, and Baptist church.
Russell and Ruby Dardeen had just moved to town a year earlier, and owned a mobile home on the outskirts of the city. They went by their middle names, Keith and Elaine. They had a 3-year-old son named Peter. Keith worked at the local water treatment plant, Elaine at a supply store. The couple was actively involved in the tiny Baptist church, Keith a lead singer, and Elaine playing the piano. Life was drama free in the small town. But there was excitement: Elaine was seven months pregnant with a little girl, who would be named Casey.
But Keith was concerned. He told his family in Mount Carmel, 80 miles away, that he wanted to move. The area had become violent, with 15 homicides in rural Jefferson County in the previous two years.
He put the trailer up for sale.
Joeann Dardeen had just spent the weekend with her son and Elaine.
“It was odd. We’d usually end up talking about murders. I know you might think that’s crazy,” Joeann said. “But me and him were really into about a lot of murder cases you know and things happening to people.”
Joanne sensed Keith was worried about something. She just didn’t know what. He told her he would move by January.
“He said there’s just too many things happening down here,” Joeann said.
And then came November 17, 1987.
Keith failed to show up for work for his night shift, and nobody could reach his family. Concerned, his parents contacted the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, and headed south with a key to the trailer. Police met them at the scene. Keith’s car was missing, and they went inside. What they found was indescribable.
Elaine was sexually mutilated and bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. So was her son Peter. Baby Casey, due in two months, arrived during the beatings. She too, was beaten to death. There was no sign of Keith.
Police immediately began searching the trailer. No forced entry. Nothing was missing. Cash and Jewelry were laying in the open. But the crime scene had another twist: Elaine, Peter and Casey were tucked in, nicely, to their bed.
The police and family asked, where was Keith? A manhunt ensued, as Keith was clearly the number one suspect.
“Keith was a real stand up guy,” recalled his lifelong friend Kevin Davis, who was living in Colorado when police tracked him down right after the killings. “When they first came to me and said they were looking for him because they thought he had murdered Elaine, I said there is no way. That’s not even a possibility.”
Davis was right. A day later, hunters found Keith’s body in a wheat field, a mile away from the family home. He was also sexually mutilated and shot three times in the face. The county coroner determined all the family members were killed within an hour of each other. It’s unknown who was killed first.
The family car was still missing. But not for long. The next day, it was found 10 miles south, splattered with blood. Was it burned, or hidden deep in the woods, out of sight from police? No. The killer or killers drove and parked the car right in front of the Benton Police Department. Next door was the Franklin County Courthouse.
Thirty detectives worked the case full time. They interviewed more than 100 people. They tracked down more than 1,000 leads, but came up empty. Nearly 150 evidentiary items were labeled. Many have been sent to labs for multiple testing. DNA samples remain from the victims, but none from suspects. Jefferson County has shared their files with the FBI cold case unit. Because the bodies of Keith and Elaine were sexually mutilated, they brought in an expert on cults. More than 20 thick binders labeled “Dardeen” exist on the case.
Now, the case rests in the lap of Captain Bobby Wallace.
“To me, when you solve cold cases, it’s going to be more from the evidence than the people,” Wallace said.
And the people have lots of theories. Down the street from the Dardeen trailer is Bonnie’s Cafe, where breakfast is all you can eat for nine bucks. There, the locals have never forgotten. Lonnie Broadway has lived in the area his entire life.
“A lot of people talked about it, but they didn’t know what they were talking about. They just knew it happened, but they didn’t know why,” Broadway said. “They still don’t know why. They never will.”
Wallace is the fourth person to hold the massive files. He’s heard all the theories.
“From what I’ve seen of something that serious, I would think of one of two things that come to mind just personally,” Wallace said. “Would either A, send a clear message to somebody, or it was extremely personal.”
Bill Reed grew up with Keith.
“You just didn’t find people to say ‘I didn’t like him ... that guy did me wrong in any way.’” Reed said. “As long as its been, sometimes I think about it and I wonder, was this a strong message being sent to somebody else?”
Nearly 30 years later, Davis still feels the pain.
“I was the best man at their wedding. And to find out a few years later that they had been so brutally murdered and yet to find out that we’re not any closer to really solving this than we were after this happened, it’s very disturbing,” Davis said.
Joanne will be 84 soon. She hopes and prays she will live long enough to find closure.
“I believe somebody wanted him to do something and I believe that he flat out refused and well ... You do it our way or no way,” Joanne said.
No suspects were ever identified. There were few leads in the case. Years went by.
And then along came Tommy Lynn Sells.
Sells was convicted of murdering 13-year-old Kaylene Harris in Del Rio, Texas, in 1999 by slitting her throat. During that same attack, he slit the throat of 10-year-old Krystal Surles, but she survived. Just a child, she helped police make a composite sketch of the killer, picked Sells out of a lineup, and testified against him in court.
But that was just the beginning for Sells. He claimed he killed up to 70 people throughout the country. He said his nickname was “Coast to Coast.” And authorities found up to two dozen of his claims to be accurate, although he was known to embellish his accounts. He was indeed a serial killer, but later admitted to fabricating some of his stories. But soon, agencies from every state wanted to know if Sells had ever visited their fine towns, in hopes of clearing cold cases from the books.
Had he ever been to Illinois? Sure. Did he know anything about the Ina murders, and the Dardeen family?
Then Tommy Lynn Sells started singing, with a tale of meeting Keith at a truck stop, then changing the story to a pool hall, claiming Keith invited him to his house for dinner and a sexual rendezvous with both Dardeens. When police pressed for details never made public about the murders, Sells answered incorrectly. Then he blurted out the correct responses.
Police felt he had the answers to all the details that had already been made public, but was guessing at the ones that hadn’t been. Sells offered to go to Ina, and walk police through the crime scene. But he was already on death row in Texas, and state laws forbid those prisoners from being removed.
Until he started confessing, investigators on the Dardeen case had never heard of the name Tommy Lynn Sells. But there was a little, or very big problem with the Sells confession: the watermelon.
Sells described a set of watermelon ceramics inside the Dardeen home.
John Kemp of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office had heard enough. “He provided us with information that only the investigators knew.”
Sheriff Roger Mulch felt the same. “In our minds, we have enough confidence to believe he did it.”
Bill Clutter of Investigating Innocence was granted a jailhouse interview with Sells. Clutter went to Texas while investigating other cases that might be linked to Sells. While there, the Dardeen killings came up.
“Sells told me that those victims were targeted. That if they searched the woods near the trailer, they would have found a pile of beer cans where he had waited and watched. I believe he went into the trailer and took control of Ruby and the 3-year-old son, duct taped their hands and waited for Keith to come home.”
For Clutter, the watermelon ceramics sealed the case.
“For him to know that, he had to have been inside that house,” Clutter said. “I am convinced he is the Dardeen killer. That one detail that he was able to give.”
Law enforcement officials believed they had solved the case, and that Sells was the killer. But the Jefferson County State’s Attorney, after considering all the evidence, declined to charge Sells, saying there were too many inconsistencies between what he claimed, and the actual facts of the case.
Fourteen years after claiming he killed the Dardeen family, Tommy Lynn Sells was put to death in 2014. He was 49. It was 22 years after the Dardeens were murdered.
“I’m glad I finally got caught,” Sells said. “I was tired of doing this.”
So who was Tommy Lynn Sells? Why were the Dardeens murdered in such a savagely fashion? And were there really watermelon ceramics in the Dardeen home?
Sells grew up in southeast Missouri. He told police he began drinking when he was 7, was molested at 8, and started doing drugs at 10. He claims he tried to rape his mother at 13, and his family moved without telling him at 14. He says his killing spree began when he was 15. At 17, Sells moved to the St. Louis area to live with some relatives. Records show he lived in O’Fallon, then Edmundson. By his 20s, he says he was a heavy drinker and drug user, and later began drifting the country as a carnival worker. In the 1980s, police sources would track his movements running drugs between Florida and Indiana.
Sells would later recant his statements to police about how he met Keith Dardeen. Those were curveballs, he would later say, meant to steer police from the real reason he wound up at their trailer in Ina: organized crime. Remember the Dardeen car parked at the police department and courthouse, miles from the crime scene? Federal prosecutors had recently concluded a large drug conspiracy trial at the courthouse. Sells says somewhere, somehow, someone connected Keith Dardeen, a church-going singer who worked at the town’s water treatment plant and lived in a trailer, to a massive drug conspiracy trial. But how? And why? To that, there are no answers. Except Sells said it eventually involved him.
Clutter says he still gets chills when he remembers what Sells told him about Keith when the topic turned to the drug trial.
“When you step in the ballpark you better be ready to play. You bring yourself down, your wife down, even your kids. He’s lucky it stopped at his family.”
Keith, Elaine, Peter and Casey rest peacefully at the Graceland cemetery in nearby Albion.
Bobby Wallace is back looking over old case files.
Joanne Dardeen looks at her family pictures and prays.
Remember Elsie Sweetin and the Reverend? He would die in prison for poisoning his wife. But Elsie would get a new trial. She was said to be the prettiest woman in Jefferson County. A jury of 12 men acquitted her. It used to be big news in Ina.
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