Opening statements set to begin in trial of Vaughn
JOLIET, Ill. (MCT) — It's been more than five years since the early summer morning when Christopher Vaughn flagged down a passing motorist on a dusty frontage road near Channahon, sparking one of the most horrific cases in Will County history.
Prosecutors say Vaughn shot his wife and three children to death after pulling off Interstate 55 on the way to what he said was a last-minute trip to a Springfield water park.
Since his arrest shortly before his family's funeral, the former Oswego private investigator has contended that his wife, Kimberly, shot the children, tried to kill him and then turned the gun on herself. Vaughn sustained minor gunshot wounds to his leg and wrist.
On Monday, opening statements in Vaughn's trial are set to take place in a courtroom next door to where former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson has been on trial for weeks in the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. The convergence of the two sensational cases at the cramped Joliet courthouse has even veteran court watchers taking notice.
"To have two cases like that going on at the same time is unprecedented, certainly in Will County, and maybe in the country," said Terry Sullivan, a veteran attorney. "The Vaughn trial is the kind of case that should get national coverage … (but) it might be overshadowed with all the tomfoolery going on in the courtroom next door."
A link between the two cases could emerge in court with the expected testimony of crime scene investigator Robert Deel. Prosecutors say Deel botched the investigation into Savio's drowning death. Deel, who already testified at the Peterson trial, could take the stand in the Vaughn case to say he believes the four deaths could have been a murder-suicide committed by Vaughn's wife as the defense maintains.
Unlike in the Peterson case, there has been no made-for-TV dramatization of the Vaughn tragedy. His lawyers are less-than-flashy public defenders, and Vaughn has never hammed it up for the cameras or cracked wise with reporters.
But Vaughn's trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks, promises to have plenty of sensational elements.
At its heart is a crime of horrible brutality. The childrenAbigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8were still strapped in their seat belts when they were shot. If convicted, Vaughn, 37, faces mandatory life in prison.
Prosecutors allege that Vaughn planned to escape his suburban family life and disappear into the Canadian wilderness. The state is expected to use postings that Vaughn made to a druid Listserv shortly before the slayings that show his intent to leave his family behind. "Does anyone know of anyone in the Yukon territories by chance?" one asked.
While Judge Daniel Rozak has barred testimony about Vaughn's alleged druid beliefs, as many as four exotic dancers are expected to testify that Vaughn frequented strip clubs in Chicago and the suburbs in the months before the murders, talking strangely of "ancient souls."
Prosecutors are also expected to call an FBI analyst who decoded a daily journal Vaughn allegedly scribbled while in jail, using an alphabet of dashes, circles and interconnected lines. In the diary, a poem references "Maya," a Chicago stripper who became an unwitting part of Vaughn's alleged plan to start a new life, prosecutors said.
With no witnesses to the crime other than Vaughn, the jury will be asked to piece together a puzzle of complex forensic evidence, including detailed testimony about bullet trajectories, blood spatter and fiber strands.
Investigators have said they believed that after Vaughn pulled the family SUV over June 16, 2007, he retrieved his 9 mm handgun from a roof rack, wrapped it in his fleece jacket, then shot his wife once under the chin and then each of his children twice from the vehicle's passenger side.
Vaughn told police and hospital staff that his wife had shot him, according to court records.
In videotaped interviews with police that will be played at trial, Vaughn said his wife of 13 years was upset over his religious beliefs and because he had recently told her he had cheated on her during a 2006 business trip to Mexico.
"I made a bigger mistake of telling her," Vaughn allegedly told police. Investigators have said they think Vaughn made up the story about the affair.
To bolster their defense, Vaughn's attorneys might be allowed to call an expert to testify that Kimberly Vaughn, 34, was taking Topamax, a migraine medication that the Food and Drug Administration has said can increase the risk of violent or suicidal thoughts. The judge has said he would rule on the admissibility of that evidence at trial.
A defense expert will also testify that blood spatter found on Kimberly Vaughn's hand is consistent with her holding a gun under her chin and firing it with her left thumb.
But in what could be the trial's most poignant evidence, the jury is expected to hear some of Kimberly's words through emails that she wrote in the months leading up to the killings that offer a glimpse of the Vaughns' family life through her eyes.
It's unclear which of the dozens of messages could be shown to the jury, but excerpts read by prosecutors in court this year appeared to show a devoted mother and wife.
Kimberly wrote often about her kids and seemed to take joy in the trials and tribulations of parenting. She noted how Cassandra had a pet frog and loved to wear the color green. She called Blake "a natural genius." And she wrote to her sister about how her girls were so injury prone she might "have to wrap up the kids in bubble wrap," prosecutors have said.
And just a month before the killings, she wrote Vaughn while he was traveling, asking that he call her when he arrived because she "won't be able to sleep well anyway until I know you are safe."
©2012 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services