Mount Carmel, Ill. (KFVS) - Imagine laying bare the worst thing that ever happened to you. Then imagine choosing to talk about it at every opportunity.
That’s been Joeann Dardeen’s life in the three decades since the brutal murders of her son and his young family.
Have you ever thought at some point, I can’t do it anymore? I ask her.
“No,” Joeann responded. “I’ll never give up. Never.”
The murders of Joeann’s son Keith, his wife Elaine, 3-year- old son Peter and the couple’s unborn daughter are considered one of the worst unsolved mass murders in U.S. history. Joeann Dardeen wants to make sure we never forget what happened as her search for answers continues.
"How did you get through it? How can you stand it?"
Eighty-one-year-old Joeann Dardeen repeated the most common questions she hears regarding the brutal murder of her son and the slaughter of his family.
“I always say I’ve got through it because I’ve got God on my side. He takes care of me. And he’s helped me every step of the way.”
Is there ever a time when you just want to take a break? I ask her.
“No. No. They told us in the beginning that we need to keep the story out there. We need to keep it going. We need to keep rolling.”
The Dardeen murders sent shockwaves through Jefferson County. The details almost too sickening to describe. And yet Anita Dardeen Knapp fears the crimes forever tied to her family name could be forgotten.
“I doubt seriously that the majority of the people in Mount Vernon even know who we are.”
So sitting at Joeann’s dining table in Mount Carmel, Illinois, I spoke with her, her daughter, and two of Keith’s lifelong friends.
“I was the best man at their wedding,” Kevin Harris said, choking back tears. “Two of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.”
“I’m still numb to this day,” Anita said. “I know I’m not the same person that I ever would have been."
They take us back to November 1987. The nightmare began with 29-year-old Keith not showing up for his Tuesday night shift at the local water treatment plant.
“Keith’s boss kept calling and was giving us information about trying to get ahold of Keith,” Joeann remembered. “And so, that really scared me then.”
An officer arrived at the family’s trailer in Ina at 6:30 p.m. that Wednesday.
“Knocked," Joeann said. "No one answered. So, he went to the back door and he turned the door knob. And he just took the flashlight. Shined in there. And he seen them.”
Elaine and Peter Dardeen looked to be carefully tucked into the family bed. In reality, someone had beaten them to death. Elaine, 7 to 8 months pregnant, gave birth during the assault. The baby girl they’d planned to name Casey was also dead of blunt force trauma.
“And I just went to the floor,” Joeann recalled. “I was just overwhelmed.”
“It was gut-wrenching to think, you know, that Elaine and Pete was dead,” said Bill Reed. “It was gut-wrenching not knowing where Keith was, you know.”
“Where’s your son? Where’s your son?” Joeann Dardeen recalled being asked. "Well, I didn’t know where he was, you know? I had no clue.”
The first major break in the case came early the next day, when someone found the Dardeen’s car. Nearly 24 hours after that horrifying discovery inside the Dardeen home, Keith’s body was found in a nearby field. He’d been shot several times and castrated.
“They were such loving, caring people,” said Harris. “It’s hard to imagine how somebody can do something like this.”
Joeann quickly established a relationship with the officers working her son’s case.
“Well, I just about called every day, you know, to find out if there was anything new or anything going on.”
The unspeakable brutality of the crimes immediately raised questions about a possible cult-related attack. Investigators quickly ruled that out, along with robbery, since there was no forced entry to the trailer and nothing missing.
“There are theories that it’s drug-related or possibly a sexually-related crime," Investigator John Kemp said back in 1997. "Could be. We’re not going to rule those out.”
A few years later, Kemp would interview Tommy Lynn Sells, a convicted killer in Texas, who claimed responsibility for the Dardeen murders.
“I talked to him the next day. And then he told me about Tommy Lynn, which at first, I thought maybe he did. But the more came out, the more I realized he didn’t.”
Bill Reed recalled Sells’ claim that Keith made an offer to Sells related to sex.
"You think about who your best friend is, ok? Would they have done this? Would they offer, ask someone to come home? You know these things. You know if you know a person that way, you just know. And that's not what happened."
Sells was executed in 2014, and despite what you might read online, was never charged in the Dardeen murders.
“They need to know who we are,” Anita said. “They need to take care of this.”
Joeann Dardeen has been a consistent voice, in public and to law enforcement, since the 1987 murders of her son Keith and his young family.
Mike Anthis served as the detective captain in charge of the Dardeen case until he left the department in 1994.
Dardeen and Anthis stayed in contact; her persistence gaining his trust, and his respect.
“Well, I just about called every day,” Dardeen recalled during Anthis’ time on her son’s case. “You know, to find out if there was anything new or anything going on. You know if they heard from anybody.”
“As ironic as it is here in law enforcement, and you’re dealing with a lot of the negative that happens, I became quite close with Joeann Dardeen,” Anthis said.
And she's not going to stop, I told him.
“She’s not,” Anthis responded.
You know that better than anybody. I added.
“She’s persistent,” he acknowledged.
I had the chance to speak to Anthis at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.
That’s where I met with current investigators.
Jefferson County Detective Captain Scott Burge currently heads up the Dardeen investigation.
“It feels like it moves slow,” Burge admits=ted. “To me, even. I want to so much know more, more, more about this case. It just takes time for me to get through...there’s actually 21 4-inch binders completely full just on this case.”
The Dardeen family has lots of questions for Burge and his department. Do they have any new leads? Are they re-testing any evidence with new technology?