In 1987, the Darden family tragically perished in the sleepy Illinois town of Ina. A serial killer on death row in Texas would claim to have committed the murders along with more than 70 other killings more than ten years later. However, the Dardens’ actual circumstances are still a mystery, just as they were on the evening of November 18, 1987, when police discovered their brutalized bodies.
When Russell Keith Darden, then 29 years old, failed to show up for work as the operator of the nearby Rend Lake Water Conservancy District’s water treatment plant, the police went to the trailer. When Keith—who preferred to go by his middle name—didn’t show up for work or call in to let his supervisor know he was absent, the supervisor called both of Keith’s parents, who said they hadn’t seen him. By evening, the police had arrived at the Darden family residence to conduct an investigation. There, they were met by Don Darden, Keith’s father, who had brought the trailer’s keys.
They found a crime scene inside that was so gruesome and brutal that it would trouble everyone involved for years. A baseball bat that Peter’s father had given him for his birthday earlier that year had crushed Elaine Darden and her three-year-old son Peter to death.
Elaine had been expecting the couple’s second child, a daughter, and the beating caused her to give birth, which made matters worse. However, the murderer or murderers had shown no mercy, and the newborn child—who, by the way, was born as she was being crushed to death—was also killed by being crushed to death. All three of them were folded into bed together while Elaine was gagged and bound with duct tape. Even after cleaning up the area, the murderer or murderers clearly weren’t in a rush to leave the scene of the crime. Keith did not make any early appearances.
When Keith Darden’s body was found in a nearby meadow the next day, any initial concerns that he had brutally murdered his own family were quickly put to rest. His penis was severed, and he had received three gunshot wounds. About 11 miles from the Darden residence, in the nearby town of Benton, police found Keith’s car parked outside the police station. It was clear from the blood on the interior that Keith Darden was murdered there.
Such a vicious crime would have been sufficient to alarm a rural community, but the reality was that the Darden’s were not the first casualties in the area. Over the past two years, Jefferson County had been home to 15 murders, including one especially tragic case in which a youngster living in Mount Vernon murdered his parents and three siblings.
Even though the recent killings seemed unimportant, they were enough to put the locals in a serious state of fear. The coroner in nearby Franklin County was quoted as saying that locals were so afraid to let strangers into their homes that if he ran out of gas on a country road, he wouldn’t even worry about knocking on the door and would instead simply walk to the highway and hitch a ride. This was during the days and weeks after the discovery of the Darden family killings. Locals started openly carrying shotguns.
Despite an enormous inquiry involving 30 detectives devoting full-time work to the case and surveying more than 100 people, the police were not able to deduce an intention for the killings, let alone discover a likely suspect.
Keith Darden’s mother Joeann Darden continued to put pressure on authorities to try to solve the murders of her son and his family as time went on and the case grew colder and colder. In an effort to convince The Oprah Winfrey Show to air a segment on the killings, which were deemed too graphic for daytime television, she gathered more than 3,000 signatures. America’s Most Wanted did the same thing, passing on the case at first but later airing a segment in 1998 that produced no new leads.
The brutal carnage of the Darden family wasn’t given new insight until the year 2000. Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer who had been apprehended after slitting the throats of two girls near Del Rio, Texas, began confessing to additional killings that he claimed to have committed over the years while riding the rails and working at travelling carnivals. The massacre of the Darden family was one of the homicides for which Sells claimed responsibility.
Sells claims that he first met Keith at a truck stop or perhaps a pool hall. After inviting him to dinner, Sells claims that Keith then asked him to play threesomes with him and Elaine. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Sells simply noticed the “For Sale” sign on the Dardens’ trailer and the opportunity that came with it. The fact that Tommy Lynn Sells didn’t always stick to his own story, let alone the facts of the case, contributed to the difficulty with his admission.
When Sells first admitted in 2000, Joeann Darden was convinced of his guilt. As the years went by, nonetheless, her conviction waned, and by the time Sells was enforced in 2014, her suspicions were substantial. “Tommy deserved to die for what he did, but I wished him to stay alive until I know [sic] fully he didn’t do it,” she told the Associated Press soon after his execution.
Though Sells admitted to more than 70 killings, at the time of his execution, authorities were only sure of his guilt in 22 of his nominal killings. Unfortunately, the vicious massacre of the Darden family wasn’t one of them, and to this day the chilling Illinois killing case officially stays unsolved. He was known to confess to many Murders he had nobody to do with to make himself look like more notorious than he ever was.