Alleged serial killer tried to set girlfriend on fire 10 years ago

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Darren D. Vann doused himself and his girlfriend with gasoline 10 years ago in Gary.

Vann wrapped his left arm under the woman’s throat, held a lighter in his right hand and threatened to set them both on fire.

He flick-flick-flicked at the lighter. But it wouldn’t light. He ranted to police that he wanted to die.

And then he told Joe Hamer, a Gary patrolman at the time, that his name was “Harvey.”

The dangerous stand-off in April 2004 ultimately ended without injury after Hamer made a risky decision he described Monday as the “dumbest mistake of my career.”

“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Hamer said. “That’s one of those things you’ll never forget.”

Now, Vann has new notoriety after Indiana prosecutors charged him with murder for the strangling death of a 19-year-old woman found at a Hammond motel Friday. He is also a suspect in the deaths of six other women in Gary.

Hamer, meanwhile, is chairman of the critical incident and memorial team for the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police.

Vann was convicted 10 years ago of misdemeanor residential entry, records show, after Hamer said someone called police in 2004 about a suspicious person walking down the street with a gas can. It could not be immediately determined why Vann was convicted of only a minor offense. When officers approached Vann, he said Vann suddenly doused himself with gasoline and fled to a nearby home. He ran inside, came out with his arm around a woman’s throat and poured gasoline on her.

“I’ll light both of us up and kill us both,” Vann told the first officers to encounter the couple.

A SWAT team was on its way, but Hamer said it was his job to keep Vann occupied as Vann dragged the woman across busy Fifth Avenue to the 400 block of Madison.

“He kept saying I was going to shoot him,” Hamer said.

The Gary patrolman denied it. Still, Vann kept flicking the lighter.

But Hamer knew members of the SWAT team — and all of their weapons — were approaching.

So Hamer ultimately gave up his gun.

“You should never give up your weapon,” Hamer said Monday.

But he added later: “My biggest thing was trying to save that woman’s life.”

Vann let Hamer get closer. And when the SWAT team finally used a set of stairs to descend on Vann from behind, Hamer was close enough to grab the lighter away.

“The first thing I went for was his hand,” Hamer said.

Even as police brought Vann down, “he was still trying to light the lighter,” Hamer said.

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