CHICAGO (MCT) — A few months after allegedly killing his wife and three children, Christopher Vaughn wrote a jailhouse poem in a coded alphabet that referred to a stripper with whom prosecutors say Vaughn dreamed of starting a new life.
And now they want jurors to see the scribbled poem, which was written in runic symbols that the Oswego, Ill., man likely learned during his study of Druidism and pagan religions, attorneys said.
The poem was “decrypted” by the FBI, prosecutors say. The poem, written as a list of things to do, includes the enigmatic phrase “Ask Maya the question,” according to a court filing.
Prosecutors believe this is a reference to Maya Drake, a stripper Vaughn frequented. Drake was “an unwitting part” of Vaughn’s plan to start a new life in the Canadian wilderness, prosecutors say the evidence will show when his trial begins next week.
Vaughn is charged with the 2007 shooting deaths of his wife, Kimberly, 34, and their three children, Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8. All four were found dead inside the family’s Ford Explorer when Vaughn, who suffered minor gunshot wounds, flagged down a passing car near Interstate 55 in Channahon Township.
The family was traveling on what was supposed to be a last-minute trip to a Springfield water park, authorities said. Prosecutors believe Vaughn pulled over near Channahon on the pretense of checking the roof rack and then shot his wife followed by his children as they sat buckled into the SUV.
Vaughn has called the slayings a murder-suicide committed by his wife.
The use of runic symbols is still popular among those who adhere to various pagan religions, said Jack Cole, leader of the Wild Onion Grove, a Chicago Druidic group. There are four well-known runic alphabets, but many of the characters are similar to the modern alphabet familiar to American school children, even if the sounds they make are different, Cole said.
The runic alphabets are therefore not difficult to learn — there are even flash-card style runic apps pagans can use to learn the characters on their phones, he said. Cole said it’s likely, based on prosecutors saying the FBI “decrypted” the poem, that Vaughn simply wrote his poetry in English using the runic symbols.
A Will County judge set a hearing for Thursday to decide whether the cryptic “Maya” poem, which was seized from Vaughn’s jail cell about four months after his 2007 arrest, should be heard by jurors.
If it is, prosecutors may call an FBI cryptanalyst to testify at the trial that is already expected to feature testimony from numerous forensic experts, a gun shop owner and exotic dancers.
No matter how the judge rules, Vaughn’s apparent love for writing poetry may still be heard at trial. Prosecutors have previously mentioned a one-page poem he gave a stripper before the murders.
But Judge Daniel Rozak has already barred prosecutors from mentioning Vaughn’s Druid beliefs. He will allow several of Vaughn’s postings to a Druid Listserv that mention his desire to “live off the land” to be heard at trial.
On Monday, eight men and four women were selected to serve on the jury for the trial that is expected to last between four and six weeks. Selection of six alternate jurors will continue Tuesday.
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Much of the Monday’s questioning of would-be jurors at the Joliet courthouse centered on whether they suffered from migraines or mental health problems or had ever taken the drug Topamax.
Kimberly Vaughn was taking Topamax to treat her migraines, and defense lawyers plan to argue that she had become suicidal while on it, noting that months after her death the drug’s maker began warning that it can increase the risks of suicide.
Defense lawyers have previously said Vaughn’s 12-year-old daughter told a classmate her mother “was hearing thoughts in her head” and was a “psycho.”
Prosecutors say Kimberly Vaughn was not suicidal and the forensic evidence points to her husband as his family’s killer.
Vaughn’s case has moved slowly through the courts because it began as a death-penalty case. Experts were hired to do a painstaking analysis of a bullet’s path through a jacket Vaughn was wearing in an attempt to show what direction it traveled.
Even the defendant has complained about the delays.
“I’m done; I’m tired; I’m finished,” Vaughn said in a loud whisper to his attorney before a court proceeding in 2010. “I’ve had nothing to do for the past three years.”
The Oswego private investigator told police he was having marital troubles after cheating on his wife on a 2006 business trip to Mexico. The two also clashed when his wife didn’t want to adopt his Druid beliefs, he said.
But prosecutors allege Vaughn never told his wife about the affairs, telling a stripper at a club in Chicago that he would divorce her and “she would never see it coming.” He left another stripper he visited two days before the shooting deaths with a “strange feeling,” according to court records.
Investigators interviewed Drake in July, court records show.
Vaughn also allegedly spoke with a Canadian friend about possibly faking his own death, records show.
The night before the slayings, he practiced shooting with his handgun at a Plainfield firing range. The gun was found between his wife’s feet after her death.
Opening statements in the case are scheduled for Monday.