Mary Margaret “Peggy” Gill 24, a student at Sawyer Business College had been working overnights as a night auditor at the local Days Inn for a year-and-a-half to help pay for school. “Peggy”, she was called by friends and family; was the youngest of four children and was described as “very soft-spoken, quiet and shy”. She grew up in Ross Township in the Merrillville area, was single and still living with her parents Anna & Terry Gill until she finished school. Looking through Merrillville High School yearbooks, she was a member of the “Future Homemakers of America Club” and regularly competed in local baking contests.
According to her boss Betty Pierce, Merrillville Days Inn general manager, “She was kind of shy and timid”, she explained, “[she] preferred the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. because the nights were quieter and not as hectic”.
Peggy and her father Terry Gill spent the better part of the evening, Thursday March 2, 1989, talking. She was putting the finishing touches on a birthday party planned for the next day. He was turning 51 on March 3rd. She baked him his favorite cake and was telling him everything she planned on getting him. He finally asked her, “do you plan on working tonight?”, as it was getting close to her 11 p.m. start time.
She laughed and asked, “What do you think?”
She gave him a hug, wished him a “early Happy Birthday old man”, and set off to work. Little did the career inspector at US Steel know, that moment would be the last time he would hear the voice of his “babygirl” and get to tell her, “I love you”.
It was an icy and breezy evening leading into the early morning hours of Friday March, 3, 1989, in Merrillville, Indiana. Certainly not unusual for the time of year. It was just 25°F before the 6:21 AM sunrise, but with 12 to 13 mph sustained winds and occasional gusts up to 30 mph, it felt like it was in the lower teens. While it hadn’t snowed in the last few days, small snow mounds still outlined and packed the the sides of the parking lot from the times it had been plowed over the week prior. The day prior and later this particular afternoon it would get nearly 40°F slightly melting ice around the old filthy scattered salt.
When darkness finally fell, the dark gray slush would freeze over again.
Forty miles from downtown Chicago is Merrillville, a town located in Lake County, Indiana. With a population just over 27,000 in 1989, Merrillville had become prime real estate for retailers, hospitality and even the central headquarters for a couple of fortune 500 companies. This was largely due to Interstate 65 & US 30 intersecting in downtown Merrillville while neighboring cities and towns on all sides were of similar or larger sizes. With Chicago an hour away, Merrillville ultimately is one of the last motorist friendly exits before you get into the flow, traffic and prices of Chicago; and one of the first exits when you get out. Ten miles north of Merrillville in Gary, Indiana, I-65 merges into I-90 and I-94/I-80. No matter which direction you’re taking- there is a lot of exiting, merging and traffic going forward. Stopping to get food, lodging and/or fuel could get rather complicated and frustrating. It is easy to get lost and several areas that are extremely dangerous. Despite being in a large metropolitan area with skyrocketing crime in neighboring towns, Merrillville was and still remains one of the safest communities to live in the entire Chicagoland area.
The former Days Inn of Merrillville is a Motel 6 in 2018
In 1989, the Merrillville Days Inn located at 8290 Louisiana Street was one of six economy hotels clustered together just south of US 30/E. 81st Ave exit 253 off Interstate 65. The two-story 130 room hotel had a U-shaped footprint with the front office and small lobby right in the middle. Betty Pierce had been the general manager for the past nine years. Days Inn internal security protocol categorized it as the “lowest risk” security classification, based almost entirely on the building’s location and design. The front office and perimeter was well lit and highly visible to majority of the rooms. As a result, between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. no additional security measures were taken. Only the night auditor was scheduled during overnight hours. The lobby was left unlocked so guests could still check in and out at the front desk by going through the lobby. Other Days Inn locations given higher risk security status either employed security guards and/or the night auditor locked the lobby between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. A bullet-resistant window that separated the night auditor from the customer would be used for overnight transactions. The hotel also had a vacant wing on the second floor and it is unclear if it was being remodeled, rooms placed on hold for an upcoming event or used for overflow.
While Merrillville, Indiana, was and still is considered a very safe community, the Merrillville Days Inn had been robbed three times prior to Peggy Gill’s murder. Robberies had increased significantly between the six economy hotels in the past couple years. Most of them used a bullet-resistant glass after midnight and one employed security guards as a deterrent. While violent crime in the town was almost non-existent, there always has been an elevated risk of crime in areas that tourists frequent. Criminals know tourists are unfamiliar with what would be usual or suspicious activity in an area. Robberies, sexual assaults and theft was significantly higher around hotels/motels between the seventies and nineties. Cell phones were only few and far between in the later half of those years and video surveillance while readily available, was viewed as unreliable and expensive. In those days, there was a lot more opposition to establishments having video surveillance on premises out of privacy and productivity concerns. Employees and customers felt it was intrusive and could be used outside of it’s stated purpose and managers at times felt it was costly and unproductive to watch grainy video all day.
Timeline of Events
It was an icy and breezy evening going into early morning hours of Friday March, 3, 1989, in Merrillville, Indiana. Certainly not unusual for the time of year. It was just 25°F before sunrise, but with 12 to 13 mph sustained winds all day with and occasional gusts up to 30 mph, it felt like it was in the lower teens. While it hadn’t snowed in the last few days, small snow mounds still outlined and packed the the sides of the parking lot from the times it had been plowed over the week prior. Since yesterday and later this particular afternoon it would get nearly 40°F, it would slightly melt then freeze over.
Thursday March 2, 1989, shortly before 11:00 p.m.- Mary Margaret “Peggy” Gill arrived at the Merrillville Days Inn to begin her regular 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. It was a busy Thursday afternoon with just over seventy rooms booked for the night. The clerk she relieved finished closing out her shift, updated her with the day’s events and left ten to fifteen minutes after her arrival.
Friday March 3, 1989, approximately 12:30 a.m.- Peggy spoke with general manager Betty Pierce indicating an uneventful evening so far.
1:30 AM and 1:40 a.m.- Peggy checked in her last guest and he went to his room.
Approximately 2:00 a.m.- A Hyles–Anderson College student entered the lobby and waited at the front desk to get a room. After waiting around the lobby an estimated five minutes, he left for a neighboring hotel.
5:00 a.m.- Mary Margret “Peggy” Gill failed to call Betty Pierce at home. It was custom for the night auditor to call Betty Pierce every morning. From what I could gather, this was standard practice for Days Inn in general from both a security perspective and for staff coverage updates. Someone may have called out or there may have been problems with maintenance or customers, so Betty Pierce was contacted each morning. Betty woke up after not receiving the call and attempted to get in contact with Peggy. “If it’d been a different clerk I wouldn’t have thought much of it. But it wasn’t like Peggy to miss a call”, Betty told The Indianapolis Star in an interview.
5:51 a.m.- Betty Pierce called the Merrillville Police Department to report Peggy Gill missing.
Crime Scene and Investigation
Merrillville Police Department dispatched a couple units to the Merrillville Days Inn. Shortly after 6:00 a.m. the first officer arrived in the parking lot. There had already been a couple customers outside getting ready to resume their travel and stated no one was at the front desk. The officer entered the lobby to make contact with Peggy Gill at the front desk and she wasn’t there.
The police then called Peggy’s parents Anna and Terry Gill. The green Plymouth Volare she drove was in the parking lot. Initially police felt this may have been a targeted abduction. “They told me to stay by the phone in case she called”, recalled Anna Gill. Terry Gill left for the hotel. As other officers began to arrive they decided to hold off on containing the scene, as police checked the lobby again and found no signs of a struggle. Peggy Gill’s keys and purse were behind the front desk. With no signs of struggle in the lobby and her belongings there, police weren’t entirely alarmed. “I waited for the manager to arrive, pretty confident she’d be somewhere on the premise… with people outside and nothing out of the ordinary. A large hotel she may have had to attend to something and it wouldn’t be the first time an employee crashed in a room either”, one of the responding patrol officers recalled years later.
Betty Pierce arrived at the hotel at 6:30 a.m. and police began a search of the hotel. The cash drawer had been pried open and money was missing.
Merrillville Police officers began to search the hotel. Once on the second-floor, officers finally entered the vacant wing. At the very end of the hall next to the fire exit, the farthest point from the main office, the five-foot six-inch nude body of twenty-four year-old Mary Margaret “Peggy” Gill was found. She had been raped and shot twice behind her left ear with a .22 pistol. She had a fresh cut on her left shoulder. Her Days Inn uniform was folded and neatly stacked next to her body.
Just outside the office of the Merrillville Days Inn on March, 3, 1989. Photo courtesy of WLFI
The cash drawer at the front desk had been pried open with “significant force”. When I asked for clarification exactly what this meant, it was said that the steel drawer was industrial grade and secured to the desk. When it was pried, it nearly ripped the entire drawer out of the enclosure and the entire lock mechanism was still attached to the part the lock latches on. The initial money count and audits determined that $179 had been stolen.
Fingerprints lifted from the front office, desk area, drawer and doors didn’t match anyone with a prior arrest in state and national databases. Police examined current and former employee files and pulled guest lists from the prior months looking for leads.
Jovan Savich(left) and Terry Coady of Stillonovich and Wiatrolik Chapel remove Peggy Gill from a side guest door downstairs from the vacant second floor wing at the Days Inn of Merrillville. It was the furthest point from the main office. Photo courtesy of The Times, by Michael Zajakowski
Within a couple hours, police would learn that 52 miles southbound on I-65 another Days Inn night auditor was abducted from the Remington, Indiana, location. Her body was discovered 20 miles on a rural road twenty miles from her abduction site, about an hour after Mary “Peggy” Gill was discovered. By 9 a.m. the other victim was identified as thirty-four year-old Jeanne Marie Gilbert. Police immediately theorized that the killer(s) robbed, sexually assaulted and murdered Gill then proceeded south on I-65 for 52 miles to the Days Inn at 4278 US-24 in Remington, Indiana, and abducted Jeanne Marie Gilbert after stealing $247 cash.
Evidence and Analysis
Merrillville Police Department wasted no time in contacting the Indiana State Police, records indicate they were contacted by 7:00 a.m. There was some confusion in the first few hours, as another Days Inn night auditor had been reported abducted and then her body found in White County, Indiana. A helicopter was deployed to assist in examining the crime scenes and look for discarded evidence along projected routes.
Sorting through the information reported by police and the media were often misreported, or speculated by reporters, other agencies and family members. While initially it was reported that Mary Margaret “Peggy” Gill was found executed in an unused portion of the hotel parking lot or dumpster area, Indiana State Police stated it was a vacant wing. I have been able to clarify that she found at the end of the hall in the vacant wing of the hotel. Other issues were in the reporting of whether her clothes were ripped off or removed. While Merrillville Police detectives wouldn’t release the information, the Indiana State Police have clarified that her clothes were found removed, folded and neatly stacked next to her body.
In my opinion, I do not believe these inconsistencies was the result of miscommunication or poor investigative practices/training by detectives and officers, but the strategy which agencies felt information should be handled at the time. Fortunately, Merrillville Police Department does not handle a lot of homicides, they averaged between zero and six per year for the past two decades. They average about the same with rapes. Indiana State Police took the lead in the murder of Peggy Gill and it appears Merrillville remained quiet on specifics to not play ISP’s hand for them.
Another issue was with times reported. In early reports of the Days Inn murders it was often reported that Peggy Gill was last known to be alive at 2:40 a.m. This could be explained due to the timezone differences in Indiana. In northwestern Indiana, they observe Central Standard Time because they are considered part of the Chicago Metropolitan Area. Residents work in or near Chicago and follow Chicago news and weather. Oddly enough, the hotel where Jeanne Gilbert worked follows CST. Where her body was dumped less than 20 miles away is under Eastern Standard Time. Indiana State Police and their news agencies out of the state capital observe EST.
Merrillville PD Detective Daniel Demmon was the lead detective working the case for Merrillville and Indiana State Police detective Sgt. Herb Clear was the head of the task force. Initially the police publicly theorized that either before or during the arrival of the Hyles–Anderson College student, “a sexual deviant on a rampage” had entered the hotel lobby; then robbed, raped and executed Peggy in the front office and then drug Peggy’s body from the lobby to the vacant second floor hallway. Other cases and the Jeanne Gilbert murder played a major factor in this reasoning. Sadly, evidence did not support this then and certainly doesn’t now. The contributing factor in this theory was mostly due to the believe in 80s and 90s that offenders just don’t change their MO or signatures even, so abduction was logically part of the offender’s modus operandi.
Focus would later turn to the twenty year-old Hyles-Anderson College student. At least two former investigators support the “multiple attacker” theory to this very day. Questions as to why he needed a hotel that night are still unanswered. His dorm room was just miles away and he did not register at another hotel/motel within one hundred miles of Merrillville that day. More on him at a later date.
Within a few weeks, the Indiana State Crime Lab determined that the .22 bullets recovered from both Gill and Gilbert came from the same handgun.
Not long after, the FBI determined that both women had been sexually assaulted by the same offender using new DNA technology.
In 1990, FBI linked DNA found in the rape and murders of Gill/Gilbert to an unidentified Days Inn night auditor who was victim of armed robbery, rape and attempted abduction in Columbus, Indiana.
In 2010, Kentucky State Police linked the DNA recovered from the Gil/Gilbert/Columbus victim to DNA recovered from the 1987 rape and murder of Vicki Heath in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. She was a night clerk for a Super 8 Motel.
In 2013, police in Rochester, Minnesota linked DNA recovered from a 1991 sexual assault victim to the DNA recovered from the rape and murders of Heath, Gill and Gilbert.
In subsequent years once this killer was linked via DNA to other murders and attacks, we got a snapshot in how he operated. The offender would enter the premises and speak with the night auditor. More than likely to case out the victim and situation he was entering. This would also disarm the victim. He was friendly, would say he is a truck driver looking for something to eat in the early morning hours. About fifteen minutes later he would enter and blitz attack the victim often throwing scorching hot coffee in their face, jump the counter and gain control of them. He would proceed to steal the money himself by prying open the cash drawers and then sexually assault them in the back office on the spot. When he was finished, he would escort the victim outside the building and execute them. The offender in DNA linked cases and other suspected attacks was extremely violent with his victims, regardless if they fought or not.
Peggy Gill was not a small girl and friends and family described her as very shy. Even if she knew her life was in danger, she would cooperate and be kind. It is believed that while he held her at gunpoint, she led him to the second floor vacant hallway pleading for her life because he pressured her with extreme force for a place where he could rape her, she obliged thinking that this area of the hotel would put him at ease. Little did she know, his plan was to kill her.
Something isn’t right though. In his prior and subsequent attacks, he would lead the victim to their demise. In the Vicki Heath murder, his first known attack, he used extreme violence and when she fought back, he rose to the occasion and escalated it. While all rape and murder is horrific, he went the extra mile and punished her. One clue that sticks out, is that much more money was involved.
Peggy Gill’s autopsy revealed a fresh cut on her shoulder. In simplified terms, this could be a wound she sustained during the initial robbery when he gained control or during the rape. Police oddly enough, though this may have been the product of being dragged through the hotel lobby, up some stairs and into that vacant hallway. The shoulder is a very general area. Was the wound on the lower blade, actual shoulder blade, or near the clavicle? Perhaps on top by the neck, in the front near the throat or behind by the neck? He did use a knife in a later attack and repeatedly stabbed the victim who survived.
How did he know about the vacant hallway? After speaking with a reporter who covered the case and former employees recently, I learned that this vacant upstairs wing was closed for the season. Usually they’d have it open for the summer season and from Thanksgiving to New Years. Not only was this to save costs of having to clean rooms daily and cut down on electricity and maintenance- it allowed them to remodel sections at a time pretty regularly. From my understanding, this is not entirely unorthodox in the industry, however, it’s not common either. Most hotels do fill one section or wing at a time. If there is a large reservation for a wedding where rooms are just placed on hold for wedding guests to book on short notice, this might be advertised. I have my doubts, since it was never mentioned in nearly 400 articles I’ve read on this case.
I believe the killer was deterred for one reason or another. While it certainly is possible that “she volunteered it”, I don’t believe that or that he cased the entire hotel for any length of time. Unless the hallway was completely darkened or there was notice that the entire wing was down for the season, I’m not convinced this was common knowledge for anyone outside of the industry. Personally, I’ve stayed at hundreds of different hotels over the years, sometimes weeks at a time. I never knew this.
One piece of evidence that is quite troubling is her clothes, folded and neatly stacked next to her nude body. On the surface, Peggy Gill involved in actual homemaking clubs and events from a young age. There is no doubt that she folded the clothes either when she took them off in the hallway or when she carried them with her after being assaulted in the back office. The current accepted theory is that she disrobed while being held at gunpoint in the vacant hall, was raped and executed.
Problems with small bits of information is that tiny nuances become a major focus and on the surface could be arbitrarily explained. Many cases with the bulk of their cases publicly available are dissected, rehashed, disputed, spun, reexamined and better defined for it all to really be irrelevant anyway. Much like EAR-ONS composites and suspicious vehicle descriptions. Even victim statements and verbiage, what someone wrote or presumed on whim in reality because it was irrelevant to them, yet, for investigators and sleuths it is the “key”.
Perhaps those clothes appeared to be in neat pile because she washed and ironed them daily. When she disrobed, they fell in a neat looking pile and a detective simply wrote, “folded neatly by her nude body?”. It’s not uncommon for investigators to imply or slightly spin and weave their theories in reports with innuendo and descriptions, but if we just assume it’s a red herring, then everything else could be too. Most troubling, however, is our killer didn’t stop at the Merrillville Days Inn on March 3, 1989. He would drive 52 miles south on I-65 and strike again that morning. Initially everyone believed this was all the proof needed- he was a deviant so overpowered by sexual urges and rage, he was going on a rampage across Indiana raping and killing women.
That was kinda true. Perhaps it was the other way around though. Our killer motivated by money wasn’t quite satisfied with $179 and he needed a little more. Not much time to plan, he needed a place he was familiar with and it had to be quick?
The question then is, why would a robber escalate to rape and murder? Anger? Hate of women? Some perceived wrong?