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Joeann Dardeen remembered me when I called this week. I had bumped my head on a hanging light in her kitchen during our last visit and she still recalled it more than 16 years later.

We chatted this week about the same thing as then: Who fatally shot and mutilated her son, and beat his wife and two children to death with a baseball bat? Grim stuff.

I’ve covered scores of homicides and lost sleep over just a few. The savagery and complete mystery of this one, on Nov. 17, 1987, haunted me the most.

Worried when nobody answered the phone at her son’s home in Ina, Ill., about 80 miles southeast of St. Louis, Joeann sent police to check. They found Elaine Dardeen, 30, and son Peter, 3 fatally beaten. Elaine had given birth during the attack, and the newborn, a girl who would be named Casey, was bludgeoned as well.

The killer cleaned the scene, arranged the bodies on a bed and slipped into the night without raping Elaine, taking any loot or leaving any evidence.

Suspicion fell on the missing husband, Keith Dardeen, 29. Hunters found his body a day later in a wheat field a mile away. He had been shot three times, and his penis was severed.

A small legion of police (and reporters like me) eventually walked away baffled. The victims led open-book lives. No drama. No affairs. No enemies. No drugs, except for a little pot in their rented mobile home.

That’s how it stayed until 2000. A tormented drifter named Tommy Lynn Sells, who once lived in St. Louis, was arrested for sneaking into a home in Del Rio, Texas, and fatally slashing a girl, 13.

Sells would confess killing as many as 70 people, including the Dardeens. The confirmed body count reached perhaps 22. He was known to embellish his accounts, leaving authorities to wonder if he was as busy a monster as he claimed.

His story was that Keith Dardeen, a stranger, picked him up at a truck stop in Mount Vernon, Ill., and drove him home to nearby Ina for a meal, and perhaps sex. Sells said that after the men left together later, he murdered Dardeen in anger over a sexual advance. Sells said he returned to the residence to eliminate witnesses.

Illinois detectives wanted to take him to Ina to test his familiarity with landmarks of the case. But he had been sentenced to death in Texas, where state law forbids removal of the condemned from death row.

Douglas Hoffman, the state’s attorney in Jefferson County, where the Dardeens lived, said it was a major setback. Sells was never charged, but Hoffman said this week, “He remains the No. 1 suspect.”

That’s a suspect who can never be prosecuted. Texas executed Sells, 49, a week ago. So it seems like a good time for me to tie up some loose ends.

Joeann, who lives in Mount Carmel, Ill., figures that Sells deserved what he got. But she does not accept him as her loved ones’ killer.

“I know that the things he said do not match up with what I know about Keith,” she told me. She insisted that her son could not have been at the truck stop when Sells said, and would never have invited a stranger into his home — for sex or otherwise.

“A lot of people think it’s done and over with, but to me it’s not,” she said.

That led me to ask sheriff’s Capt. John Kemp, who had interviewed the suspect in Texas, if he thinks Sells did it. Kemp is in the fact business, not the opinion business, he reminded me. And the fact is that Sells “provided us with information that only the investigators knew.”

Sheriff Roger Mulch was more direct: “In our minds, we have enough confidence to believe that he did it.”

That doesn’t mean they accept Sells’ version, the one with details that make Joeann uncomfortable. He was known to tailor his stories to blame victims for provoking his temper, Kemp said.

“He was completely wired up differently from anyone I’ve ever come across,” Kemp explained. He described Sells as a “cunning and very smart” sadist. He said Sells showed no particular remorse, except perhaps for clubbing the Dardeens’ newborn.

Sells told interviewers long ago that he tried never to use the words “love” or “sorry.”

Detectives will never be sure if Keith Dardeen picked up Sells, or whether something sexual was involved. But any Sells scenario points to the kind of evil chance encounter that police initially were inclined to dismiss.

“It’s not the random act of a hitchhiker off the road,” Kemp suggested to me for a 10th anniversary story in 1997. But in the end, it appears to have been exactly that.

Pat Gauen is a former assistant metro editor, public safety, for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.