A new national television series will kick off tonight with the story of a Joplin woman whose mysterious death went unsolved before the exhumation of her body revealed clues that she was murdered helped authorities link her death and that of another woman.
“EXHUMED,” a new true-crime series, will tell the stories of Diana Kelley and Christy Kelley, who died three years apart in the early 1990s but shared one common link — they both had been married to Doyle Kelley of Joplin.
Kelley, now 61, was eventually charged with the murders of both women after investigators worked years to unravel the cases. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole though his conviction in the death of Christy Kelly was later overturned. He remains in prison for killing Diana Kelley.
Executive producers of the new series are actors Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos. “EXHUMED” airs on the Oxygen network, and the Kelley episode will be shown there at 7 p.m. today.
Diana Kelley’s body was found in the passenger’s seat of her car in a downtown Joplin parking lot on Sept. 26, 1990. At the time, there were rumors that she died of a drug overdose, but police suspected that was not the case. For one reason, the couple had been separated about two weeks and Doyle Kelley had filed a missing persons report on his wife the night before her body was found. He said they were supposed to meet at a designated time that night, and she had not shown up.
Additionally, friends who saw Diana Kelley the night before her body was found said she was wearing a cross necklace and a St. Christopher medal. The friends testified in court during Doyle Kelley’s trial that after they learned of her death, they visited him and watched him crush those necklaces with a hammer.
He contended that a funeral home director had given him the jewelry, but police said those items were not on her body when it was found.
The next year, Doyle Kelley met Christy, a young woman from Independence, Kansas, and they were eventually married. They separated in March 1993. Witnesses saw them together in the parking lot of her apartment house the afternoon before her body was found in her bathtub.
Her family had called police when she was late picking up her daughter. Police forcibly entered her apartment and found her body floating face down in her bathtub. An autopsy revealed that she had sustained blunt force trauma to her head and had died of drowning, however there was not enough evidence at the time to charge anyone with the homicide.
“The difficulty in this case was we believed there were so many similarities in the cases,” said former Joplin police Chief David Niebur. One of those similarities was the fact that the women died after separating from Kelley.
“He (Doyle Kelley) was so controlling that he had both of them cut their hair the same, and he had a new girlfriend and he had her cut her hair the same,” Neibur said.
“He had told them that if he could not have them, nobody could,” Neibur said, citing the work of a now retired assistant chief, Richard Schurman, and now retired Detective Keith Meyer.
“The exhumation is what really solved this case,” because the pathologist who examined Diana Kelley’s body could see the injuries that pointed to strangulation that were not evident when the body was found. Investigators have said that bruises and hemorrhages from suffocation or strangulation are sometimes more pronounced after death.
Niebur also credited Diana Kelley’s father, the late Paul Stubblefield for giving consent for the exhumation, which Doyle Kelley would not give. State law requires that consent come from an immediate relative.
Diana Kelley’s brother, Gary Stubblefield, said that the police finally cracked the case by gaining the permission of their father for the exhumation, coupled with the idea of obtaining a search warrant for the body and the casket. The search warrant was swiftly carried out and a forensic pathologist from Kansas was on hand to immediately examine the body for clues.
“As soon as the lid went up on the casket, the pathologist knew what had happened,” Stubblefield said.
Niebur, Meyer and Stubblefield all are interviewed in the TV episode.
Stubblefield said it was painful for him to have to recount his sister’s death and the struggle to learn what happened to her.
The family learned that some things they noticed before her death, such as Kelley’s domination of her and keeping her away from her family as much as possible, were signs of domestic abuse they did not recognize at the time.
“We did not know all the signs,” Stubblefield said. “If we had known, we would have pulled her out of that situation, obviously.”
And while he has not before interviewed publicly before about her death, “The show airs on a national level and many people around here know Diana’s story and Christy’s story,” he said. “But on a national level, maybe we can reach just one person” who might escape from a domestic violence situation or help a survivor solve a loved one’s death.
“All we have to do is reach one person. This is a show about exhumation, not DNA. Not many people know about exhumation. If it reaches one person who has tried every other way (to solve a case), and thinks ‘what if we tried a search warrant.’
“For that we have put our personal feelings aside if it will save just one,” Stubblefield said.