JOLIET – Jurors deliberating for less than an hour convicted a suburban Chicago computer specialist of murder Thursday in the deaths of his wife and three school-aged kids during what he told them was a road trip to a water park.
Christopher Vaughn, 37, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Family members of the victims cried and hugged each other in a hallway outside the courtroom immediately afterward.
Vaughn killed his family because he saw them as inconvenient obstacles to his dream of a new life subsisting in the Canadian wilderness, prosecutors told jurors Thursday before they withdrew to deliberate. The prosecution argued he had compiled survival guides and posted wistful Internet messages about constructing a cabin and settling for good in the Yukon cut off from the world, state attorneys said.
“This case is not just a murder, it’s an atrocity,” said Will County States Attorney James Glasgow. “To annihilate your family, I can’t think of a more unspeakable crime.”
Vaughn was eligible for the death penalty when the case began, but Illinois has since abolished capital punishment. That means he faces a maximum life term when he is sentenced Nov. 26.
Prosecutors said Vaughn pulled the family SUV off the highway after 5 a.m. June 14, 2007, placed a pistol under his 34-year-old wife Kimberly’s chin and fired. They say he then meticulously shot 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and 8-year-old Blake – each in the chest and head.
Abigayle was found holding a stuffed animal and a Harry Potter book. Forensics experts said the trajectory of the bullet into Blake’s chest indicated he had raised his arm up as Vaughn shot him.
Vaughn had awoken his wife and children that morning promising a surprise trip to a water park downstate.
During nearly a full day of closing arguments Thursday, prosecutor Chris Regis read emails Christopher Vaughn wrote to a friend before the murders saying he longed for a life unencumbered by cellphones and other hallmarks of modernity. He cited poet Henry David Thoreau about the virtue of shrugging off obligations.
“I just want to live plain and simple,” Vaughn wrote in one email.
Regis said that Vaughn felt “he was held back by four major obstacles...Those four obstacles were eliminated on June 14, 2007.”
He had long since written off his wife and kids, Regis told jurors.
“He’s ready to drop off the face of the earth and disappear,” he said. “This is all about him. ... Me, me, me, me. I, I, I.”
Vaughn took notes during the nearly six straight hours of closings but displayed little emotion as he sat at the defense table, even when prosecutors displayed crime-scene photos of his wife, her head hanging back and dried blood near her nose and mouth.
In his closing, defense attorney George Lenard repeated Vaughn’s contention that his wife was suicidal over marriage troubles and affected emotionally by antidepressant medication, The defense claimed she shot Vaughn in the wrist and leg, then killed the children and herself.
Lenard added later that Kimberly Vaughn may have seen the murder of her kids as a twisted act of mercy.
“(She) was of the mindset that if she was gone, they were better off with her ... ‘Come with me to heaven,’” Lenard said, depicting what the mother might have been thinking.
Prosecutors balked at that idea.
In his closing, Mike Fitzgerald cited witnesses who testified that Kimberly Vaughn was upbeat around the time and that, just the evening before, she had fussed cheerfully over a recipe for “cheesy potatoes.”
Moreover, he asked how the wife could have just grazed her husband with two bullets as he sat right next to her – yet somehow managed to put a bullet into each of her kid’s heads.
“No way, ladies and gentlemen,” Fitzgerald said. “No way that’s possible.”
In their more than three-week presentation to jurors, prosecutors called more than 80 witnesses.
One was a stripper Vaughn a confided in about his marital troubles. She said Vaughn never asked her to dance, but that they discussed the outdoors and poetry. The manager of a suburban strip club, Scores Chicago, testified that in the days leading up to the killing, Vaughn spent nearly $5,000 at the establishment.
Prosecutors had wanted to go into Vaughn’s obsession with Druid beliefs, which typically involve worship of nature. But the judge barred them from direct reference to any such beliefs, saying it could unfairly prejudice him in jurors’ eyes.
A series of forensics experts testified that blood splatter, the angle of the shots and other evidence proved Vaughn pulled the trigger. An investigator described finding a magazine at Vaughn’s home with an article on how to make a murder look like a suicide. And prosecutors entered evidence that he visited a gun range the day before the slayings.
They also entered emails into evidence where Kimberly Vaughn expressed admiration for her husband, in one message calling him her “hero.”
Several emails of Christopher Vaughn’s to a friend were also read in court. In one, he wrote his wife, Kimberly, will “be just fine” because he planned to fake his own death so she could collect on his life insurance policy.
Jurors also watched hours of videotaped police interviews of Vaughn from the day of the shootings.
At one point during the interrogation, state Trooper Cornelious Monroe brought out pictures of Vaughn’s children, questioning Vaughn’s cool demeanor and Monroe adding that, if his own kids had been murdered, he would be crying.
“Good for you,” Vaughn replied.