Five years after the Villisca Axe Murders, Presbyterian minister Reverend Lyn George Jacklyn Kelly makes a shocking confession – that he murdered the Moore family and Stillinger girls. He claims that God commanded him to “slay utterly” and gives a convincing account of the murders. But did he really do it?
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie look at Reverend Kelly and other suspects, including a transient railroad worker, an army deserter, an Iowan State Senator, and a serial killer.
After hours of questioning, Reverend Lyn George Jacklyn Kelly begs the interrogator to leave him alone. Kelly tries to bargain – a confession in exchange for time in a mental hospital, rather than a prison. The interrogator makes no promises but still persuades Kelly to confess. Kelly tells a bizarre story about following a shadow to the Moore house and hearing God’s voice commanding him to “slay utterly.” The vivid details of Kelly’s account make the confession even more convincing.
In a flashback to 1912, police arrest Andy Sawyer, a transient man who worked a brief stint in railroad construction. Sawyer first raises suspicions when he approaches Thomas Dyer, the head of the construction team, at 6:00 am on June 10th with shoes splattered with mud and trousers soaked by water. Desperately in need of an extra hand, Dyer hires Sawyer anyway, a decision he soon regrets. Other employees complain about how Sawyer falls asleep with an axe beside his bed and constantly talks about the Villisca murders. Sawyer also tells Dyer’s son J.R. what path he thinks the murderer took to escape the bloodhounds. Dyer turns him into the sheriff.
Despite Sawyer’s unhealthy interests in the case, he has a rock-solid alibi and authorities release him. The sheriff of Osceola reports that he arrested Sawyer on the night of the murder for vagrancy and put him on a train out of town at 11:30pm. Other transients are similarly arrested and released.
When no progress is made on the case, the victims’ families raise money to hire a detective from the Burns Detective Agency. In April of 1914, a Burns detective named James N. Wilkerson goes undercover in Villisca as a Texas land agent. After two months on the case, Wilkerson reveals his true identity to Ross Moore and claims that Joe Moore’s former boss and business rival F.F. Jones hired someone to kill the entire family. In addition to being competitors in business, Joe was also having an affair with Dona Bentley, Frank’s daughter-in-law.
For two years, Wilkerson builds a case against F.F. Jones. Jones, now a State Senator, ignores the rumors until the time comes for reelection. Timed with the start of the primaries, Wilkerson feeds a story to the local paper claiming that a prominent community member hired an army deserter named William “Blackie” Mansfield to kill everyone in the Moore household. Everyone knows that the “prominent community member” the paper refers to is F.F. Jones.
Mansfield’s connection to the Villisca Axe Murders is tenuous. Apparently, Mansfield’s wife, child and in-laws were dispatched in the exact same manner as the Moore family, but there’s no evidence he ever interacted with the Moores. In June of 1916, Mansfield is arrested for the Villisca Axe Murders but police are unable to force a confession, even after dangling him off a bridge by his ankles. An attempt to indict Mansfield also fails due to insufficient evidence.
Wilkerson learns that one of the jurors was a cashier at F.F. Jones’s bank and spreads a rumor that he was paid off. The detective also holds meetings in Villisca to incite public anger against F.F. Jones, derail his campaign and convince people of his guilt. Unsurprisingly, F.F. Jones sues Wilkerson for slander. With the help of a lawyer named Ed Mitchell and a few surprise witnesses, Wilkerson turns the slander trial into a murder trial.
Vina Thompkins testifies that she overheard Frank Jones offering money to two men to get rid of someone. Alice Willard claims three men were casing the Moore’s house a day before the murders, and she recognized one of the men as Mansfield. Then later that night, the three men returned and were met by Bert McCaull and F.F. Jones behind the Moore’s house. According to Willard, F.F. Jones instructed the men to kill Josiah Moore first. The crowd gathered in the courthouse gasps when Noel McCaull says he overheard F.F. Jones talking to his sons, Albert and Bert, about getting rid of Wilkerson next. The jury finds Wilkerson not guilty of slander.
However, during a second trial to indict Mansfield, the army deserter has an alibi and witnesses like Alice Willard become evasive and vague, afraid of committing perjury. Without actual evidence tying F.F. Jones to the murders, Wilkerson cannot pursue a court case against him.
Attentions then turn to Reverend Lyn George Jacklyn Kelly, who’s obsessed with the case. He was also visiting Villisca at the time of the murders and watched the Moore and Stillinger children perform in the Children’s Day play. In the summer following the murders, he wrote dozens of letters to the victims’ family members, the attorney general, and the Burns Detective Agency. Authorities also question his intimate knowledge of the murders. A few weeks after the slayings, Kelly posed as a member of Scotland Yard. While this could explain his intimate knowledge of the crime scene, it’s also possible he was a criminal returning to the scene of the crime.
A known pervert and peeping Tom, Kelly’s sexual deviance further fuels suspicions. In 1917, Kelly places an ad for a stenographer, and after hiring a high school girl, he demands that she type in the nude. Terrified, the girl notifies her pastor, who in turn tells the police. Investigators pose as the girl and write to Kelly, asking for more details. Kelly’s responses are explicitly sexual, and he is charged with sending obscene material through the mail. When he is arrested, he begs the officers not to take him back to Iowa.
Focused on the evidence of his sexual perversions, his comment about Iowa and intense interest in the Villisca Axe Murders case, investigators charge Kelly with the murder of Lena Stillinger. They believe he repositioned her body and masturbated into a greasy slab of bacon after killing her. Investigators don’t charge Kelly with murdering the others.
Unsolved Murders host Carter mentions that Kelly sent a bloody shirt to the laundry right after the murders, he was left-handed like the murderer, and he talked about the murders to an elderly couple on a train out of town before the bodies were discovered.
After a long night of interrogations and conversations with his cellmates – who were a reporter and deputy posing as criminals – Kelly finally breaks down and confesses. Detective Wilkerson and his supporters, however, are still convinced that F.F. Jones was responsible for the murders and strive to prove Kelly’s innocence. As a result, the town becomes divided over who killed the Moore family and the Stillinger girls. Half believe Reverend Kelly is responsible, while the other half has it out for F.F. Jones. At Kelly’s trial, Ed Mitchell pokes holes in the eye witnesses’ stories, whose recollections have grown dim and distant in the past five years. Even Kelly’s confession doesn’t hold up. The bruises on his face lead the jury to suspect he confessed under duress.
Carter suggests that the Villisca Axe Murders may have been the work of a serial killer active in 1911 through 1912. Much like Moore family, the victims of this killer were bludgeoned to death by an axe. In several of the crime scenes, their faces were covered by pieces of cloth and lamps were left with their chimneys removed. Also, every single one of the murders took place near train tracks, which if traveling by train, explains how the serial killer left a string of bodies stretching from Illinois all the way to Washington. The perpetrator for those slayings was never caught.
Aside from the serial killer theory, Carter and Wenndy rule out all of the others. But let’s hear what you think. Who seems to be the most likely culprit of the Villisca Axe Murders? Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.