4 life terms for Vaughn

First published Nov. 28, 2012: Christopher Vaughn shot his wife, Kimberly, under the chin on June 14, 2007, before putting two bullets through each of their three children. He was sentenced to four life sentences.

Christopher Vaughn mug shot

This undated booking photo provided by the Will County Sheriff’s Office in Joliet, Ill., shows Christopher Vaughn, of Oswego, Ill. On Monday , Aug. 13, 2012, jury selection began at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., in the murder trial of Vaughn, who is of accused of shooting his wife and three children in June 2007.

AP Photo/Will County Sheriff’s Office

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 28, 2012 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times:

When Jennifer Ledbetter looks in a mirror, she still sometimes sees Kimberly Vaughn.

Even in her own laugh, she said, she’ll hear echoes of the identical twin she lost in a brutal murder more than five years ago.

And to this day, she silently wonders if that brings even more pain to her parents or her older sister.

“Kim and I share not only our looks but also many of our personality traits,” Ledbetter said in court. “I have a deep ache in my innermost being with the knowledge that the defendant, Christopher Vaughn, took a part of me.

“Kim and I,” she said, “were supposed to grow old together.”

Vaughn shot his wife, Kimberly, under the chin on June 14, 2007, before putting two bullets through each of their three children. And he, too, had to look at Ledbetter as she struggled Tuesday to tell Will County Judge Daniel Rozak about her family’s heartache.

The Oswego man, whose fate was nearly inevitable, had nothing to say before Rozak handed down his sentence — Vaughn shook his head and said “no thank you” when the judge gave him his chance.

The judge, himself, had little to add. Illinois law gave him few options, not even the death penalty, for punishing Vaughn.

“I find that very frustrating,” Rozak said.

So he gave Vaughn four life prison sentences, one for each murder.

A quick sob rose up from Kimberly’s side of the courtroom when Rozak handed down the sentence. Vaughn, who has been called a “psychopath” for his stone-cold reaction to the deaths of his children, betrayed no emotion. Members of his family said they had no comment when they left the courtroom.

“Nothing you could write,” they said.

It took a Will County jury less than an hour Sept. 20 to convict Vaughn for the murder of his wife and their children — 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and 8-year-old Blake. Prosecutors said he did it so he could disappear into the Canadian wilderness with a man he met online, leaving society behind.

He gathered the family up in their red Ford Expedition, parked it in a small gravel drive off a frontage road west of Interstate 55, and got out of the car. He shot Kimberly then reached over her body to fire two close-range shots through each of the children. Prosecutors believe Blake was last to be shot as he pushed his body into the back seat and held his left arm up in a defensive position.

“Our hearts ache in the knowledge that they were priceless to everyone but the one man who should have loved them more than his own life,” Ledbetter said.

Kimberly’s mother, Susan Phillips, said she learned of the murders on Fox News. She said she’s still taking medicine and seeing a therapist who is treating her for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“What a coward,” Phillips said. “If you do not want your family, divorce is always the first option. Or even just walking away. Kimberly was a strong woman.”

Phillips told the judge how Abigayle and Cassandra loved learning to sew with her and that Blake “was a fantastic reader with an incredible vocabulary.”

“His first-grade teacher told us the story of Blake telling two scrapping boys in his first-grade class to quit being so ‘acrimonious,’” Phillips said. “As a teacher myself, I love that story.”

She called Abigayle an adventurer who wrote on the mat around her mother’s graduation photo shortly before the shootings, “Remember, Mom, tassels to the left.” Cassandra, meanwhile, loved animals and was trying to convince Kimberly to let her start a dog-walking business.

“What kind of person can take the life of such vivacious children?” Phillips said.

Kimberly’s parents said Vaughn, when they met him, was quiet and buried himself in computers. But looking back, they said, there was never a hint of what was to come.

“He’s the evil in the night,” said Del Phillips, Kimberly’s father.

Despite their loss, the family has been resilient. Speaking to the media after the sentencing there was even a lighthearted moment when Del Phillips referred to Ledbetter’s husband, Wade Ledbetter, as “my good son-in-law.” He said he has another in Nebraska.

“I got two out of three,” he said.

Wade Ledbetter said the family celebrates “the living and the things that are going on in their lives.”

“You’ve got to keep going on with your own life,” he said. “You can’t let this bog you down and just tear you down to the stub.”

George Lenard, Vaughn’s defense attorney, fought this week to get his client a new trial knowing Vaughn faced a mandatory life sentence. Rozak rejected his arguments Tuesday, and when sentencing time came Lenard asked only that the judge consider the respect Vaughn has shown courthouse personnel since his arrest in 2007.

“I’m not going to stand up here and tell the court not to follow the law,” Lenard said.

After court, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow said no punishment would have fit Vaughn’s crime.

“You could lock him up for 500 lifetimes, and it would not compensate the victims in this case or the family members,” Glasgow said.

Though Vaughn committed the murders before Illinois abolished the death penalty, it was no longer available to prosecutors by the time his case made it to trial. When asked whether their former son-in-law deserved to die, Del Phillips said Vaughn is already in a death sentence.

“He’s been in a death sentence for a long time,” he said. “Five years he’s been sitting, looking at walls, not doing much. He’s certainly not going to Canada and enjoying the great outdoors.

“He is in effect in a death penalty right now. It’s just a question of degree.”

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