On November 18, 1987, Russell Keith Dardeen, 29, didn't show up for work. His coworkers were concerned and that evening, police went out for a welfare check. In the family's home in Ina, Illinois, they found the bodies of his 30-year-old pregnant wife and young son, beaten to death.
Keith became the primary suspect immediately, but the next day, his body was found in a nearby field, shot with his genitals mutilated. He had been killed within an hour of his family, and the brutality made it unlikely he was the killer.
Because over 10 murders had taken place locally in the 2 years before, residents of the surrounding counties were becoming fearful. Many armed themselves, and some were so terrified they suffered psychological effects.
No suspect was ever identified until the 2000s, when serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells claimed to have committed the crime while serving a death sentence for a different murder. Because he was not allowed to leave the state to assist with the investigation, he was never convicted and the Dardeen family has doubts about his involvement. Besides that possibility, the case is cold.
Russell Keith Dardeen (who went by Keith) bought a trailer in 1986 while he was working as a treatment plant operator at the Rend Lake Water Conservancy District. His wife, Ruby Elaine Dardeen (who went by Elaine), moved there a little after he bought it with their 2-year-old son, Peter. They rented land from a nearby farming couple and started their life.
Elaine got a job at an office supply store in Mount Vernon. When the couple wasn't working, they were involved in a musical group at the local Baptist church where Keith sang lead vocals and Elaine played the piano.
In 1987, Elaine got pregnant with their second child. They planned to name her Casey if she was a girl, and Ian if he was a boy. Because they were expecting a new addition to the family, the decided it was time to move out of their mobile home. They put it up for sale impending the arrival of their baby.
Their new child was a big reason for the move, but not the only one. Keith's mom said that he wanted to move back to Mount Carmel, where he was born and raised, even if he struggled to find work there. She said her son regretted moving to Ina because it was becoming too violent an area, with 15 homicides in Jefferson County in the last 2 years. (The string of crimes began with Thomas Odle, a teen who killed his parents and 3 siblings as they returned one-by-one one night in 1985.)
Even though Odle was caught and charged, and the murderers in most of the other cases were caught and charged, the rural area was on edge. A friend of Keith's said that he was becoming extremely protective of his family. After a 10-year-old girl had been raped and murdered in May of 1987, a young woman came by their home asking to use the phone, and he refused to let her in. (I would do the same, tbh. I've watched Criminal Minds!)
On November 18, Keith's coworkers became concerned when the typically reliable guy didn't show up for work and didn't call in to report that he wouldn't be there. Calls to his home remained unanswered. His supervisor called Keith's parents, but neither of them had any idea why their son might not have gone into work.
Keith's father, Don, called the Jefferson County sheriff's office, and officers agreed to do a welfare check. Inside, they were horrified by what they found. (And you will be, too. Fair warning.)
Peter had been beaten to death with a baseball bat left at the scene, a birthday gift he had gotten from his father earlier that year. He was only 3 yeas old.
Elaine was bound and gagged with duct tape, and was beaten with the same bat her son was beaten with. Here's where it gets literally unthinkable. She was beaten so badly, she went into labor. She gave birth to a baby girl during her attack. The newborn was beaten to death with the same bat. When police arrived, they found the beaten and mangled bodies of Elaine, Peter, and newborn baby Casey tucked into the same bed.
I'll pause for one second because I have written about a lot of brutal crimes. Children being murdered is its own brand of horror... but to be born because your mother is being beaten severely, and then murdered within minutes of your life starting... it is honest to God one of the most terrible things I have ever heard. Okay, pause over.
Keith was nowhere to be found, and his car was gone. Obviously, this led police to believe that he had murdered his family and was at large, running away. Armed police officers went to his mother's house looking for him, but to no avail. The search ended the next day when a group of hunters found his body in a field, not far from the family's trailer. He had been shot fatally 3 times, and his penis was severed. His car was found parked outside of the police station, 11 miles away, spattered with blood.
The unthinkable brutality of the crime, added to the already significant volume of violent crime in the area, made residents even more terrified than they had already been. Shotguns were purchased, and children waited in the school for their parents to come in and get them, instead of socializing outside as normal.
The conflicting news also brought rise to the idea that Satanists were active in the area and had sacrificed the family. The severing of Keith's genitals was added to the support for this theory, and it was rumored that Casey was "ripped from her mother's womb", even though it was entirely possible she was delivered after Elaine had died.
Physicians in the area reported that people were coming to doctors about how the murders had disturbed them, citing loss of sleep, weight loss, and stress. Though the Franklin County coroner felt that the fear was unjustified, and that people were being irrational. (For instance, if someone ran out of gas, they would walk all the way to the nearest highway and hitch a ride instead of seeking assistance at a nearby home.) Despite this, as the case continued to go unsolved, people remained on edge.
I'll tell you right now, this case is cold and unsolved. Despite a total of 30 detectives and 100 interviews, nothing proved fruitful. A coworker of Keith's who had gotten into a fight with him was questioned, but released, as well as another possible suspect who ended up not being held.
No one who knew the Dardeens had anything but positive things to say about them. A small amount of weed was found in the trailer, but nothing to insinuate they were deeply in the drug business - some investigators even believe it may have been left behind by the killers. No drugs or alcohol was found in any of the victims.
The whole family had been killed within 1 hour of each other. Elaine, Peter, and baby Casey had been dead for about 12 hours when the police found them, while Keith had been dead for 24-36 hours. His body being found elsewhere threw a wrench into the timeline and theories, and it was unable to be determined if he was killed with his family, or driven away and killed where his body was dumped. Given the fact that the family had been tucked into bed, and some of the scene had been cleaned up, it did not appear the killer was feeling any sense of urgency, meaning Keith may have been dead when he was loaded into the car. It was also unclear how many people were involved.
There was no evidence of forced entry, and their money and valuable items were left untouched. Elaine had not been sexually assaulted in any way. So, robbery or rape didn't seem to be the motive.
There was also no evidence of any extramarital affairs that could have lead to jealousy. There was a possibility that Keith had some gambling debts, but his mother thought it was unlikely because he was really frugal and was saving up for Peter's college fund.
The Franklin County coroner did not believe the family was chosen at random, even though nothing in their history suggested they had bad relationships with anyone. They do concede that it could have been a case of mistaken identity, but in that case, their murders were a mistake, not a random selection. They also shut down any rumors about Satanism.
Keith's mother thinks that perhaps someone wanted to Keith to get involved in selling drugs and he refused, or someone liked Elaine and she wouldn't accept her advances. But, she admits she just has no idea who could have done this to her family.
Tommy Lynn Sells cut the throats of 2 young girls at the tail end of 1999 in Del Rio, Texas. One survived and was able to identify him, and he was sentenced to death for that murder. (He was also found responsible for another murder). While he was awaiting trial, he confessed to other murders he claimed to have committed while drifting around the country, including the Dardeens.
He said he didn't remember the details, but said he met Keith at a truck stop, and Keith invited him over for dinner. According to Sells, he was going to leave, but then Keith asked if he wanted to have a threesome with he and Elaine, and he became enraged. He drove Keith at gunpoint and killed him where his body was found, and then he returned to kill Elaine and Peter. He said he was so enraged, which was how he was able to bludgeon a newborn baby to death.
In another version of events from Sells, he said he saw that the trailer was for sale, and so he saw an opportunity. He got drunk, and then overpowered Keith, forcing him to gag his wife and son. He also claimed, in this version of events, that he raped Elaine.
For some, Sells execution was justice for the family, even though he was never charged. He remains the number 1 suspect in the case.
But a lot of people doubt his involvement. Including me! First of all, he changed his story a lot. And, investigators admitted when he was pressed on elements of the case that weren't public knowledge, he was not very reliable. There was no evidence of rape, so at least one of his accounts is phony. And, Keith was being very overprotective of his family. He wouldn't let a woman inside to use his phone. You think he would meet some random guy at a truck stop and invite him over for dinner with his family? Absolutely not.
Friends and family also do not believe he was involved. (For the same reasons I said above. Almost exactly. I should have continued reading.)
They also find it extremely unlikely (as do I) that he would proposition this random man with a threesome with he and his wife. He never had any interest in men, so that would be very out of the norm for him. Investigators agree, but some believe that he made up that detail to seem more justified, when in reality, he just wanted to kill.
Though Keith's mother originally was quite sure Sells was the killer, by his execution in 2014, she had come to believe he wasn't involved. She wanted to meet with him to talk, but it never happened before he was killed.
While there aren't a whole host of other fully developed theories, some Redditors have brought up some good thinking points about the homicides that could spark some other theories as to what happened. (Though, most comments are about the whole labor and newborn thing.)
One user thought it was a little bit suspicious that Keith wanted to move so quickly, even without having a job lined up, which does seem a little odd when you know that his whole family was brutally murdered soon after. The user thinks it was a little strange that he would be okay moving with no job with a baby on the way. Perhaps he had gotten involved in some sort of shady business (though I do watch too much Breaking Bad) and he felt like he needed to move soon. The level of brutality just doesn't seem random. However, no evidence of anything shady turned up during investigations.
Others think that Sells could have been onto something with the "For Sale" sign, but still not involved. For instance, someone else could have seen the Fore Sale sign as an opportunity to enter the home. Of course, again, the brutality of the family and genital mutilation of Keith suggests a more personal element, but it at least could have been used for entry to the house.
Some believe that the killing was done by a slighted romantic interest. One user believes the killer was female (which is hard for me to believe, as I can't imagine a woman bludgeoning a newborn baby) but was a previous romantic interest of Keith's and she was jealous. Cleaning up afterward and tucking the family into bed are both, according to Criminal Minds, signs of remorse, and cleaning is more common for a woman to do. The mutilation of his genitals seems like an angry, slighted person as well. Using a gun on Keith makes more sense, as well, if she was a female, because he would have been more difficult to overpower.
One last thought on this - some people think the woman who was turned away asking for help was a mistress. He "turned her away because he was scared" but actually turned her away because he didn't want his wife to find out he was cheating on her. She became angry at the slight and wanted revenge. Or her husband found out she was cheating on him and decided to get revenge. But again, there was no evidence at all found of an extramarital affair. (That said, if there was an affair and no one came forward, it would makes sense that the person was the killer.) This version of events seems like a movie, but still worth considering.
This is quite literally one of the most horrifying and brutal crimes I have ever written about, and I will be taking a shower now. Not only were the murders so absolutely and unthinkably monstrous, the person who did it may have continued to walk free for their entire life. They may be free now! Living among us!
Rest in peace to the Dardeen family. I truly hope that someone solves this one someday.