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Missing Kansas Pastor’s Wife and Friend Confirmed Dead, Both Were Victims of “Brutal Crime”

By Liz Lykins
kelley butler dead murdered pastor's wife
On Sunday, Jilian Kelley (left), wife of a Christian minister in Nebraska, and her friend, Veronica Butler, were found deceased in Texas County, Oklahoma. (Photos: OBSI

Two weeks after a pastor’s wife and her friend went missing, they were found murdered in Oklahoma— victims of an “absolutely brutal crime,” authorities said in a conferencia de prensa Monday.

Jilian Kelley, wife of Pastor Heath Kelley, a new minister at Willow Christian Church in Nebraska, and her friend, Veronica Butler, were discovered Sunday in a “very rural area” in Texas County, Oklahoma. Nearby, police also found the abandoned vehicle in which the women were traveling.

Kelley, 39, and Butler, 27, of Hugoton, Kansas, were first declared missing and at risk on March 30 in a Facebook post from the Texas County Sheriff’s Department.

The woman had been on the way to “pick up children,” according to the sheriff’s office, but never made it to the pick-up location.

Their car was found abandoned on the side of the road, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) said in a Facebook post. The OSBI found evidence of “foul play” at the scene.

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On April 13, four people were arrested in connection to the case, the OSBI said. Tad Bert Cullum, 43, Tifany Machel Adams, 54, Cole Earl Twombly, 50, and Cora Twombly, 44 were booked into the Texas County Jail on two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping, and one count of conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree. 

At the press conference, FBI Special Agent Sanya Garcia said she hopes that the four arrests will “provide a sense of closure” for the victims’ families and that the bureau will be “an advocate for Jillian and Veronica.”

“This case did not end the way we had hoped. It’s certainly been a tragedy for everyone involved,” OSBI Director Aungela Spurlock said.

When Butler and Kelley’s vehicle was first found, it immediately showed signs of a crime, according to an affidavit obtained by ABC Noticias.

“Blood was found on the roadway and the edge of the roadway. Butler’s glasses were also found in the roadway south of the vehicle, near a broken hammer. A pistol magazine was found inside Kelley’s purse at the scene, but no pistol was found,” the affidavit said.

Kelley and Butler disappeared while traveling to Oklahoma to pick up Butler’s 6- and 8-year-old children for a birthday party in Kansas, ABC News reported. They were picking the children up from Tifany Adams, Butler’s grandmother and one of the arrested suspects. Adams was romantically involved with another one of the suspects, Tad Cullum.

The women were allegedly killed by the four suspects over a custody dispute, according to the affidavit.

Butler and Adams were in a “problematic custody battle” over the children, the affidavit said. The children lived with their paternal grandmother, Adams, while the children’s father is in a rehabilitation facility in Oklahoma City.

Butler was allowed limited visitations with her children, and Kelley was Butler’s court-authorized choice to supervise visitations, the affidavit added.

Butler had recently petitioned for more time with her children and unsupervised visitations. This request was likely to be granted at a hearing in April, according to the affidavit.

Officials on Monday did not confirm the relationship of the suspects to the victims, or address the custody battle, but they did say the two children involved are now safe.

OSBI spokesman Hunter McKee said the causes of death are currently pending a medical examiner’s report.

The four suspects were also a part of an anti-government group called, “God’s Misfits,” according to the affidavit. 

“This case is tragic,” McKee said. “You have two people who are dead and four people who committed an absolutely brutal crime.”

He added that law enforcement is “extremely grateful” that the arrests were made “without incident.”

It took a massive law enforcement effort to find the answers for this case, said District 1 District Attorney George Leach.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Texas County Sheriff’s Office, and the District One District Attorney’s Office among others, had to partner together to bring about justice, Leach said.

“Everybody came together — somewhere of the neighborhood of 100 law enforcement officers, truly no exaggeration — working night and day,” Leach added.

Online, many have posted prayers and condolences for the pastor’s wife and her friend.

On Sunday, Willow Christian Church’s parent church, McCook Christian Church, shared a prayer for the two women.

“Heavenly Father, thank you for hearing our prayers. For guiding officers to the clues needed to begin to receive the answers necessary to find Jilian and Veronica,” the church said in a Facebook correo. “In a situation that is scary and maddening, we can rest knowing that you are at work in all the details.”

Freelance journalist Liz Lykins escribe for WORLD Magazine, Christianity Today, Ministry Watch, and other publications.



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11 Respuestas

  1. Don’t know what’s happening anymore. To people and this nation/world. I’m 76 and don’t recognize this ‘new’ world. Lord, please come quickly

    1. The world has always been full of such brutality. The fact is that such murders are very rare these days compared to just about any other time in history. (They would be much rarer if the country wasn’t so flooded with guns.)

      We often look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but as terrible as these murders are, aside from the blip in the murder rate caused by the turmoil of the pandemic, the last decade has been one of the safest periods (from being murdered) in over 120 years (and probably much longer).

      1. Crime in our country is underreported at several levels. Victims have many reasons why they don’t report crime. LE is generally understaffed and often unavailable to respond to reports of crime in a timely manner. Something as simple as a car accident caused by driver distraction doesn’t get LE response anymore, just civilian report takers. The at-fault person gets off uncharged leaving the victims to resort to civil means of resolution. Cities, counties, states, Feds can “tweak” individual reports and reporting stats to favor the governing party’s priorities. Often in progressive areas, previously unlawful activities have been decriminalized or reduced to petty offenses. Just as often, progressive DAs refuse prosecute and charges are dropped. The public is not getting the true picture of crime in our country because the stats lie. BTW, both sides of the “more guns=? are wrong. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/crimjustsysintro/chapter/3-3-underreporting-of-crime/ https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/restoring-america/fairness-justice/2953562/bad-data-from-the-fbi-mislead-about-crime/ https://manhattan.institute/article/more-guns-same-amount-of-crime-analyzing-the-effect-of-right-to-carry-laws-on-homicide-and-violent-crime

      2. Miguel,

        I really appreciate your the facts of your reality – and push-back against the sort of blinding hand-wringing dominant in so many evangelical churches…

        Even a brief study of history shows massive brutality – vastly beyond anything we ever see or hear about… Especially when we put into place the massive size of our population compared to the past where violence was almost normative.

        That being said, this is a very sad tragedy.

  2. There are no words to describe how unbelievably horrifying this is. My prayers are with the family and friends of the murdered women. Not to mention the children left motherless.

  3. This world is just sick now!I grew up in the 50’s and people were kind ,good and caring to each other. I don’t know what happened, I think when GOD was left out of family life everything went down hill.Everybody back then went to church, hardly any stores were open on Sunday.It was a calm,trusting and wonderful world for children to grow up in. To bad it all changed, the world I knew is gone forever!!! So sad!

    1. Not sure the many in African American community would share your opinion of the 1950s given the rampant racism they were suffering through at the time. 14 year old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 just for (allegedly) wolf-whistling at a white woman.

      It was never the “calm, trusting or wonderful world for children to grow up in” you were fortunate to enjoy, thanks to your parents protecting you from the troubles and worries of life back then. I had a great childhood in the 1970s, but I know from talking to my parents that life was anything but easy for them.

    2. There is nothing new under the sun. What is new is that all these horrific crimes come into the spotlight through the 24/7 news cycles and social media – thanks to the internet. If you would disconnect rom the internet and live off the grid you would likely again feel like the people around you were kind, good and caring. You would know very little about the suffering and pervasive evil in the world around you.
      A light is being shined in the darkness. I for one am thankful for what Julie Roys is doing to reveal what has been hidden.

  4. Scriptures like Matthew 24 and 2 Timothy 3 do indicate things will get worse regardless of previous evil and sin.

    But John 16:33 reminds us Jesus has overcome the world. We can only rely on The Holy Spirit to help us share that hope and be faithful and faith filled.

    Deep condolences for the families and friends of these two women.

  5. Not to take anything away from the horror of theses murders but, you are right the murder rate has been dropping in the United States for about 30 years. I had a great childhood in the 1970’s too but, I was white, solidly middle class and had trustworthy parents. But I realize that was not the universal experience.

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Hola. Vemos que este es el tercer artículo de este mes que ha encontrado que vale la pena leer. ¡Estupendo! ¿Consideraría hacer una donación deducible de impuestos para ayudar a nuestros periodistas a continuar informando la verdad y restaurar la iglesia?

Su donación deducible de impuestos ayuda a nuestros periodistas a informar la verdad y responsabilizar a los líderes y organizaciones cristianos. Haga una donación de $30 o más a The Roys Report este mes y recibirá una copia de “¿Y si Jesús hablara en serio acerca de la Iglesia?” por Skye Jethani.