A Will County jury deliberated for less than an hour this afternoon before convicting Christopher Vaughn of killing his wife and three children in the family’s SUV in 2007 in a bid to start a new life in the Canadian wilderness.
The jury of eight men and four women got the case about 3:30 p.m., after six hours of closing arguments without a break for lunch, and told the judge they had a verdict at about 4:15 p.m.
Vaughn, 37, was charged with killing his wife, Kimberly, 34, and their children, Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8, inside the Oswego family's Ford Expedition in 2007.
Members of Kimberly Vaughn's family cried softly as the verdict was read, but Crhistopher Vaughn showed no emotion, only rubbing his mouth with his right hand as the judge finished reading the guilty verdicts on four counts of first-degree murder.
Vaughn didn't say a word as he was shackled and led from the courtroom, as Kimberly's family embraced each other.
After the verdict authorities led the family to a different room down the hall for a moment of privacy.
The family issued a short statement thanking investigators for their hard work on the case.
David Butsch, an attorney and spokesman for Kimberly Vaughn's family, said the jury's quick verdict "speaks volumes" and offers some measure of closure to her parents, Del and Susan Phillips.
"They've been through a horrible ordeal, but they are people of faith, and that is what has gotten them through this," Butsch said.
He said Vaughn's claims that Kimberly was the killer "sort of added insult to injury." The family is still wondering how Vaughn could have committed such an unspeakable act.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," Butsch said.
Chuck Pelkie, spokesman for Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow, said her family did not wish to speak to reporters. They were going to have dinner at a bar and grill across the street from the courthouse, he said.
The jury foreman, Dan Lachat, said in a brief news conference that there was no doubt in the jurors' minds of Vaughn's guilt, and they never even considered the defense argument that Vaughn's wife committed the murders.
He also said jurors were struck by Vaughn's lack of emotion during often gruesome testimony.
"If you watched (Vaughn) throughout the trial as we did, I think you'd come to the same conclusion," Lachat said.
Glasgow said the quickness of the jury's deliberations showed there was "little doubt in their mind" as to Vaughn's guilt.
He also said the case was one of the most brutal he'd seen.
"This case is not just a murder, it's an atrocity," Glasgow said in remarks outside the courthouse. "To annihilate your family -- I can't think of a more horrific crime."
"He'll spend the rest of his life staring at the cold walls of his prison cell, then he'll meet his maker for his real punishment," Glasgow said.
Vaughn faces a life sentence. The judge set sentencing for Nov. 26, the same date as sentencing for the defendant in another recent high-profile murder trial: Drew Peterson.
Closing arguments in Vaughn's trial began this morning after jurors spent five weeks hearing from dozens of witnesses, viewing horrific crime scene photos and watching hours of police interrogation videos.
Christopher Vaughn’s story about what happened the day his wife and three children were shot to death in their SUV is “so ridiculous” that it alone proves his guilt, Will County Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Regis said in closing arguments.
Regis took jurors point-by-point through Vaughn’s statements to the police in the hours after the killings, saying Vaughn purposefully fed police "a back story" to try to get them to think his wife had shot and wounded him, killed the children and then committed suicide.
With his family slain, Vaughn claimed he couldn't remember what happened, yet offered up unsolicited details about problems he and his wife, Kimberly, were having in their marriage and the plans they had to visit a Springfield water park.
“His story is so contradictory and so filled with holes that it completely reeks of guilt,” Regis shouted.
Regis said that a few hours into the first interview, when police detectives confronted Vaughn with information that his family had been killed, his response was almost laughable. The prosecutor likened one part of Vaughn’s statement to a bad, 1980s-era Chuck Norris film, clunky dialogue and all.
“Think about the worst movie you’ve ever seen in your life and how bad the acting was,” Regis said of Vaughn expressing disbelief over what the police were saying. “This was worse.”
Vaughn’s assertions that he had panicked and bailed out of the SUV after noticing his leg was bleeding were equally implausible, Regis said.
“He’s a hunter, he’s an archer, he’s a sportsman. And he’s going to panic at the sight of blood, freak out and leave his family? That’s ridiculous,” Regis said.
Regis said that Vaughn’s lies alone were enough to convict him. But he also noted for the jury the other evidence he said pointed to Vaughn’s guilt, including forensic evidence from the scene and the detailed plan he had to leave his family behind.
And he said only Vaughn had the motive, the means, and the skill with firearms to pull off the murders, particularly the "forehead shots" to each of the children.
"There is not one other person on the face of this earth who wanted those people dead," Regis said.
Vaughn had a “secret crush” on a stripper, kept a “top-secret storage locker” filled with survival gear, exhibited “bizarre behavior” by going to a gun range the night before the killings, then sleeping in his clothes, Regis said.
“There is no question as to this man’s guilt -- none whatsoever,” Regis said.
During his closing argument, defense attorney George Lenard agreed that Vaughn wanted to leave his wife and three children for a life in the Canadian wilderness, but Lenard insisted Vaughn is no murderer.
In fact, the evidence proves that Vaughn’s wife was the one who shot and wounded him, then killed the kids and turned the gun on herself that morning in June 2007, Lenard said.
Lenard said prosecutors had “put on a strong case” that Vaughn wanted out of his suburban family life, but they failed to prove first-degree murder.
“Christopher is not on trial for planning to leave his family,” Lenard said. “And there is a big difference.”
Lenard pointed to two expert witnesses put on by prosecutors who testified it’s possible based on forensic evidence that Kimberly could have shot herself under the chin in a suicide.
“That’s reasonable doubt,” Lenard said. “That’s the problem with this case . . . from the beginning that there is somebody else who could have committed the crime. Their witnesses told you that and our witnesses told you that.”
Lenard also described his client as a “private person” who was feeling guilty because his admitted adultery and infidelities had driven his wife to commit an unspeakable act. That guilt drove Vaughn to initially lie to police, saying he could not remember what had happened in the SUV, Lenard said.
“Christopher has made mistakes in his life, there is no doubt about it,” Lenard said. “Nobody is saying that Christopher is a perfect husband or a perfect father.”
During the prosecution’s closing argument, Will County Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Fitzgerald said Vaughn murdered his family because they were “obstacles” in his plan to ditch his suburban family life and start a new solitary life in the Canadian wilderness.
"They were obstacles to him -- obstacles to the way of life he wanted to lead," Fitzgerald told jurors.
Fitzgerald said Vaughn couldn’t find anyone to help him with his initial plan to fake his own death, and he knew that “divorcing his wife Kimberly was not an option” because he’d still be responsible for supporting his three children.
"They were holding him down, and he had to find a way to get out the life he was in,” Fitzgerald said. “And the way he chose was to murder his wife and children and make it look like Kimberly did it."
In his nearly two-hour closing argument that concluded this afternoon, Lenard said testimony about Vaughn’s plans to move to Canada actually helped his defense.
He noted Vaughn wrote to a friend that Kimberly was “going to be fine” and would be able to move on without him because she’d get a large life insurance payout if he pulled off faking his death.
One of the former strippers Vaughn frequented, Maya Drake, testified he told her his wife was going to “get what she deserves,” which could be construed as the life insurance money, Lenard said.
“That just shows, OK, maybe he’s planning on leaving his wife, but he’s also making sure she’s going to be taken care of,” Lenard said.
Lenard said the evidence was clear that Kimberly Vaughn was stressed out about her marriage and worried about how she’d support the children if she and Christopher split up.
She’d even told a family member about anxiety, migraines and personality changes, and that she was working with a doctor to try new medications and keep it all under control, Lenard said.
The medications, he said, carried serious side effects, including one that warned of a possible increase in suicidal thoughts, albeit only among patients younger than 25.
“I’m not standing here and telling you that Kimberly killed her family because of the medication,” Lenard said. “But that is one piece of the puzzle that has to be considered."
Lenard also asked why, if Christopher Vaughn wanted police to believe his wife had killed herself and the children, he didn’t have a better story to tell detectives when they interviewed him.
“She’s not here anymore. The kids aren’t here. He could have made up stories for days,” Lenard said. “He could have said a lot more if he really wanted this to look like a story of how Kimberly did this.”
At the conclusion of his remarks, Lenard said that however horrible and unthinkable it is for a mother to kill her children, “it does happen.”
“Maybe Kimberly was of the mindset where her children were better off – if she wasn’t going to be there, to say ‘come with me to heaven. Come with me to heaven where you will be safe,’” Lenard said.
During the prosecution closing argument this morning, Fitzgerald took jurors through a detailed analysis of the crime scene, saying everything from the positions of the bodies, the blood spatter in the SUV and Vaughn’s statements to police showed he committed the killings.
Evidence that Kimberly’s blood was found on Vaughn’s jacket was particularly damning, Fitzgerald said, because it does not agree with Vaughn’s story that he bailed out of the SUV before his wife was shot.
“Why is her blood on him?” Fitzgerald said. “There is no reason, no way, no how Kimberly’s blood should be on that jacket. That fact alone, based on his statement, convicts him because it should not be.”
In his closing, Fitzgerald painted dueling portraits of Vaughn and his wife, noting that Vaughn expressed no concern for his family’s safety to police after he was taken to a hospital on the day of the shootings or was initially questioned by police the next day.
Instead, Fitzgerald said, Vaughn expressed concern about his clothes.
“So as he sits in that hospital room, you know he’s made complaints about not wanting his boots cut up, not wanting his jacket ruined, but he has not made any inquiries about his children,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said testimony from two former exotic dancers that Vaughn visited them at Chicago-area clubs in the weeks before the murders show he wanted out of the marriage. He recalled Vaughn's "scouting" trip to the Yukon a month before the slayings, internet postings Vaughn made on a social media site talking about his plan to disappear.
The prosecutor mocked Vaughn’s statements to police that he was trying to work on their marriage after admitting he’d cheated on his wife during a recent business trip to Mexico.
“That’s got to go down as one of the biggest lies in this entire case,” Fitzgerald said of Vaughn’s claim about rebuilding his relationship with his wife.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald said, emails and witness testimony showed Kimberly Vaughn was a caring wife and mother who was looking forward to graduating with a degree in criminal justice and possibly starting a investigations business with her husband.
“After graduating, she wanted to do something with her husband,” Fitzgerald said. “Not kill him --- go work with him.”
Fitzgerald ripped into the defense’s theory that Kimberly was distraught over problems in their marriage and taking headache and anxiety medication that gave her suicidal and homicidal thoughts.
If Kimberly was so bent on killing her husband, the prosecutor asked, why did Vaughn suffer only superficial wounds while the rest of the family was shot point blank in the head?
“It’s unbelievable how she could only do that kind of damage to Chris Vaughn, yet she annihilates her children and then finishes herself off with a shot to the head,” Fitzgerald said.
He read to the jury the last email Kimberly sent before her death, at 11:08 p.m. the night before the killings. In it, Kimberly told a classmate she would help out with a project the next day.
“Let me know what I can do to help you,” Kimberly wrote. “I don’t want to leave you with more than you have.”
Fitzgerald said the email proved her mindset was “focusing on school, on class work, helping somebody."
“Six hours later, she’s dead, and her children are dead, left behind by Christopher Vaughn,” the prosecutor said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times