When something dark and sinister occurs in a small town, the news media always says the same thing: “Things like this don’t happen here.” But isn’t a small town the perfect place for darkness to hide?
In the 1980s, the village of Ina, Ilinois, was a sleepy small town where the crime rate was increasing. Murders were not unheard of, but the massacre of an entire family was not something that people expected or feared.
That is why, for the last 33 years, residents of Ina have been haunted by the unsolved murders of three family members, including a toddler, that was so inexplicably brutal that it struck fear in the hearts of locals and permanently changed the way many residents went about living their lives.
A Happy Little Family
In 1987, Keith and Elaine Dardeen were happily raising their two-year-old son, Peter, in a mobile home near a wooded area in Ina beside Route 37.  The family was anticipating the arrival of a little girl that they planned to name Casey.
Money was tight, but Keith and Elaine worked hard to provide for their growing family. Keith was a treatment plant operator, while Elaine worked in an office supply store.
There wasn’t much to do in Ina, but Keith and Elaine played in a musical ensemble at a nearby Baptist church, where they were known as dedicated church members.
With crime on the increase, Keith decided to put the family home up for sale and move his wife and children back to his hometown.nIn the meantime, the Dardeens were dependable employees who were saving their money for both the move and the arrival of their second child.
So, when Keith didn’t arrive at work on November 18, 1987, it was an unusual event.  He was known as a dependable employee. What made his absence especially concerning was the fact that Keith failed to notify his job that he wouldn’t be coming in to work at the Rend Lake Water Conservancy District that day.
Keith’s employer placed calls to both of Keith’s parents, neither of whom had seen their son. Calls to Keith and Elaine’s home also went unanswered, so that evening, the police stopped by the mobile home to do a welfare check. Keith’s father, Don Dardeen, brought a set of extra keys for the officers to get inside the home.
Said Keith’s sister, Anita Dardeen Knapp: 
“Keith’s boss kept calling and was giving us information about trying to get a hold of Keith. And so, that really scared me then.”
Keith’s mother, Joeann Dardeen, added:
“Knocked. No one answered. So, he went to the back door and he turned the knob. And he just took the flashlight. Shined in there. And he seen them.”
What they found would horrify them and linger in the minds of Jefferson County residents for decades to come.
With great caution, the police, along with Don Dardeen, opened the door to the mobile home. The smell of blood hit them like a tidal wave of horror as their eyes widened and struggled to adjust to the scene before them.
The bodies of Elaine, Peter, and tiny Casey were discovered lying together on one bed.  The killer bound and gagged Elaine and Peter before brutally beating them with Peter’s baseball bat, a gift from Keith. Both died from blows to the head that caused skull fractures.
It was during the attack that Elaine gave birth to Casey. Casey, too, was beaten to death with Peter’s baseball bat.
It was a level of cruelty and viciousness that no one in Ina had ever seen before.
Joeann said: 
“And I just went to the floor. I was just overwhelmed.”
Keith was missing from the scene, leading investigators to initially believe that he had committed the brutal murders and fled the scene.  The next day, however, hunters stumbled across his body in a wheat field just over the Franklin County line, a mere mile away from the Dardeens’ mobile home.
Keith had been shot once in the front of the head, as well as on the right side of his face and through his left cheek. His genitals had been mutilated.
Approximately 11 miles away, the police discovered Keith’s 1981 Plymouth parked outside the police station. The inside of the vehicle was covered in blood, suggesting that Keith had either been murdered, mutilated, or both, in the car.
Ice cold terror gripped Ina as news of the slayings began to spread. Guns, ammo, and security system sales skyrocketed as it began to sink in that life would never be the same.
Those who had previously felt safe enough to leave their doors unlocked suddenly began securing their houses like fortresses. A quick trip to the local market seemed to take forever, as residents started looking over their shoulders every minute or so to make sure they weren’t being followed or watched.
Residents were later shocked to learn that whoever killed the Dardeen family felt comfortable enough in the home to linger for some time after the murders.  The killer made an effort to tuck Elaine, Peter, and Casey’s bodies into bed before making a haphazard effort to clean up the scene.
Before Keith’s body was discovered by hunters the day after the murders, these details added to investigators’ certainty that Keith was the perpetrator.
Law enforcement had to determine not only why the family had been killed, but also why the killer felt so comfortable being in the Dardeen home, and why the killer felt the need to separate Keith from his family.
The Grizzly Possibilities
An Invitation to Murder?
While there were still plenty of Ina residents who felt safe enough in their community to leave their doors unlocked, the area had been experiencing an explosion of violent crime. In the two years leading up to the Dardeen family murders, there had been 15 other murders in Jefferson County.
One of those cases involved a man who killed his parents and three siblings. But he couldn’t have been responsible for the Dardeen murders because he was already in prison paying for his crimes at the time of the massacre.
One possibility that deeply concerned locals was that the killer saw the “For Sale” sign in front of the Dardeens’ mobile home and saw an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. Had the sign been as good as an invitation to murder for the perpetrator? The mobile home was visible to the highway in 1987, though it is blocked by a large building today.
The idea that the killings could have been random made the crimes that much more chilling.
After all, there was nothing going on in the lives of the Dardeen family to explain why anyone would have wanted to kill them, especially in such a brutal, heartless fashion.
Keith and Elaine were God-fearing people who attended a local Baptist church where the couple played in a musical ensemble. Neither of them was found to be having an affair, and though a tiny amount of marijuana was discovered in the home, it wasn’t nearly enough to suggest drug dealing of any sort.
It’s not even clear how the marijuana got there. Blood tests showed that neither adult had any drugs in their system, and those who knew the Dardeens said they never used drugs of any sort.
The police theorized that the marijuana had fallen out of the perpetrator’s pocket during the assault on the Dardeens.
The Dardeen home hadn’t been ransacked and nothing of value was missing, so robbery wasn’t believed to be the motive. There was no sign of forced entry.
None of the victims had been sexually assaulted. Having your genitals mutilated certainly suggests a sexual motivation, but no one was raped.
So, why did the killings seem so…personal? Could it be that the genital mutilation was intended to throw the police off the killer’s trail?
Could the murders have been a case of mistaken identity? FBI profilers were brought in to examine the case but came up empty-handed.
Nothing about the Dardeen murders seemed to make sense.
The Lone Suspect
Tommy Lynn Sells
Tommy Lynn Sells was a serial killer known as the “Coast to Coast Killer” who took responsibility for more than 70 murders. 
Sells was arrested on January 2, 2000, after a police sketch linked him to the murders of a 10-year-old and 13-year-old girl. He knew why the police had come for him; he didn’t bother to ask why they were there or why he was being arrested.
Over the coming months, Sells confessed to killing multiple men, women, and children from one side of the country to the other.
Sells readily confessed to the murders of the Dardeen family in the early 2000s.  He claimed that Keith let him into the residence, but friends and family of the Dardeens argued that Keith never would have let a strange man in the house — not with the increasing violence in the area and with a pregnant wife present.
Just days before the murders, Keith had refused to allow a teenage girl into the house to use the phone. He wasn’t about to let a random man into his home.
According to Sells’ tale, he met Keith Dardeen at a gas station. Keith invited Sells back to the mobile home for dinner and asked him to participate in a threesome with him and Elaine. 
But Tommy Lynn Sells changed his story about how he killed the Dardeens numerous times, and many of the details he gave the police were extremely vague.  As a result, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office declined to charge him for the murders because there were too many inconsistencies in his story.
Even Keith’s mother, Joeann Dardeen, didn’t believe Sells was responsible for the killings.
There are a number of reasons why convicted killers might make up stories behind bars, including the hope of receiving a reduced sentence. Some are so narcissistic and proud of their crimes that they falsely admit to crimes purely for attention.
Sells was given the death penalty and executed in 2014 at Huntsville Prison in Texas.
If Tommy Lynn Sells didn’t kill the Dardeen family, who did? There are several theories as to what might have happened inside the mobile home that day.
- The Franklin County coroner believes it was a case of mistaken identity.  It was obvious that the crime was personal, but he believes the extreme violence was intended for someone else.
- Keith’s mother, Joeann, theorized that her son’s family was killed not because of what they did but because of what they refused to do.
She said in 1997:
“I think someone wanted Keith to sell drugs and he refused. Or there’s a possibility someone liked Elaine and she wouldn’t accept his advances and he took out his rage on both of them … We just don’t know.”
In fact, drug involvement was one of the readily accepted theories in the case, considering the growing drug and crime problem in the area. But police found no evidence of drug use or sale.
- Were the murders part of a Satanic ritual? In the 1980s, the Satanic Panic was in full swing and many Americans lived in fear of Satan-loving lunatics carrying out gruesome and murderous acts on people to satiate the devil’s cravings. Following the murders, a rumor quickly spread that the killings were carried out by Satanists as part of a ritual. However, there was zero evidence to suggest that Satanism was the motive. It was simply locals’ way of explaining the brutal nature of the crime.
- Many people wondered if Keith or Elaine was having an extramarital affair. Might a jilted lover or a jilted lover’s new beau have killed the family? Again, there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that the husband and wife were cheating on one another. They had a solid marriage, a solid faith, and were in the midst of growing their family.
- Despite no evidence that Keith or Elaine was having an affair, and no suggestion that Keith was secretly gay, investigators have left open the possibility that the crime was somehow sexually motivated, based on the mutiliation to Keith’s genitals. 
You might be wondering if there was any useable DNA in the case, and if so, has it been tested? Anita asked the same question of Captain Scott Burge in 2019. 
“I just asked [Joeann Dardeen] the other day, why haven’t they done DNA? Did whoever, did they eat supper with them that night? As long as they were there, surely they opened the refrigerator. There has to be something.”
“We want to try to do some DNA testing on some items. I think we can. But I need to see collectively where it has been before, to where it can go.”
Nothing more has been mentioned about possible DNA evidence in the case that I have been able to find.
So who did it?
Tommy Lynn Sells remains the one and only suspect in the case, though many still think he had nothing to do with it. Rather, they believe that he was looking for notoriety, and/or he wanted to procure a lighter sentence for himself by seemingly tying up the loose ends of various cold cases.
But Tommy Lynn Sells was executed in 2014, so if he did commit the crime, he can never be prosecuted for it. And if he lied about committing the crime, he will never have another opportunity to confess that he made it up.
Joeann said in 2014: 
“I know that the things he said do not match up with what I know about Keith. A lot of people think it’s done and over with, but to me it’s not.”
However, Captain John Kemp came to believe that Sells did kill the Dardeen family after interviewing him in Texas. Kent claims that Sells “provided us with information that only the investigators knew.”
Sheriff Roger Mulch, another believer in Sells’ guilt, added:
“In our minds, we have enough confidence to believe that he did it.”
It’s possible that Tommy Lynn Sells chose the Dardeen family after a random encounter and simply made up a motive that was sexual in nature. Sells was notorious for crafting stories in which he ultimately blamed the victims for their own murders.
“He was completely wired up differently from anyone I’ve ever come across.”
According to Kemp, Sells was a “cunning and smart” sadist who lacked remorse for what he allegedly did to the Dardeens, with the exception of the beating of baby Casey.
Really, it could have been anyone. Remember, crime was on the rise in Ina and the surrounding areas.  Jefferson County contended with 15 murders in only a two-year span.
If you take Tommy Lynn Sells out of the equation, it’s possible the family was targeted at random. A drug dealer could have insisted that the Dardeens sell drugs for him and then snapped when they refused.
What if the teenage girl who asked to use their phone was involved in criminal activity or was somehow associated with someone who was, and the family was killed for refusing to help her?
What if they were, as the families suggest, killed in a case of mistaken identity?
When an entire family is murdered in such a brutal fashion, including a newborn baby, it’s either the doings of a serial killer like Tommy Lynn Sells, or an extremely angry individual looking to make the victims suffer as much as possible.
Short of revelations drawn from DNA evidence, this is one case that may tragically never be solved.