‘You wouldn’t expect something like this to happen out here’ - Trial to start for Oswego man accused of killing wife, kids
First published Aug. 12, 2012: Christopher Vaughn’s trial began in Will County. He was accused of murdering his wife and their three children.
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 12, 2012 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times:
The secret world of Christopher Vaughn is finally getting ready to unravel.
The Oswego man played the proud husband in spring 2007, standing beside his wife, Kimberly on her graduation day while their three beautiful children squinted toward a camera.
Twelve-year-old Abigayle gave a crooked smile, 11-year-old Cassandra put her hand on her hip, and 8-year-old Blake beamed straight ahead.
But that picture doesn’t tell the whole story. Vaughn was a private eye. An outdoorsman. Prosecutors said he might have wanted to abandon his life in suburban Chicago to live in the Canadian wilderness. He’d claim he had an affair in Mexico months earlier, and stories would leak out about trips he allegedly made to strip clubs and a poem he wrote to a dancer.
Then there was his wife’s $1 million life insurance policy listing him as a beneficiary.
Whatever was going on behind the scenes, it led to a gruesome discovery on June 14, 2007, near Interstate 55. That’s when court records show a wounded Christopher Vaughn flagged down a passing motorist near Channahon.
His whole family — Kimberly, Abigayle, Cassandra and Blake — was dead. Gunned down in their SUV. And he blamed his wife.
Prosecutors didn’t buy it. Within days Vaughn was charged with the murder of his wife and three children, and he soon faced the death penalty. His trial is finally about to begin with jury selection Monday — in the courtroom next door to the murder trial of Drew Peterson.
Once Vaughn’s trial is under way, his lawyers will try to convince the jury Kimberly had secrets of her own.
June 14, 2007
The 911 call came in early that morning — about 5:25 a.m. Officers found Vaughn standing with the passing motorist, and he led them to the four bodies in a red 2004 Ford Expedition. It had been parked on a frontage road just west of the interstate.
Vaughn said he had pulled over there to secure the luggage on the roof of the SUV. The family had been on its way to Knight’s Water Park in Springfield. Court records show the trip was planned just the night before.
Vaughn said he got back in the SUV, his wife started shooting and he fled. He had minor gunshot wounds in his wrist and leg, sources have said. By the time he returned to the car, he told police, his wife and children had all been shot.
Court records show the children were each shot twice — including once in the head. Kimberly Vaughn was shot once under her chin.
People living nearby said they heard the gunshots around 2:30 a.m.
Christopher Vaughn was free to go that day, police said. He answered their questions and didn’t ask to leave. Authorities kept quiet about the investigation, but national experts told reporters Vaughn’s story didn’t make sense.
About a week after the shootings, Vaughn was in Missouri planning a funeral for his family. Police said he was not a suspect in their deaths.
But moments before he planned to lay them to rest, a funeral home staff member ushered Vaughn into a room, telling him there was something wrong with a piece of jewelry on his wife’s body.
Two detectives were in the room waiting for him, according to a friend of Vaughn’s in-laws. Vaughn was arrested for his family’s murders as their bodies lay nearby in their caskets. The service went on as scheduled as Vaughn was fingerprinted, photographed and put into orange prison garb.
Three months later, Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow said Vaughn deserved the death sentence.
The long walk
What followed was a nearly five-year slog of pre-trial hearings, where word of the evidence against Vaughn slowly trickled out. Will County Judge Daniel Rozak sealed the case file in October 2007 and didn’t open it again until June 2011.
Meanwhile, Illinois abolished the death penalty, meaning Vaughn won’t pay the ultimate price if convicted of his family’s deaths. Prosecutors have said they have five weeks’ worth of evidence to show the jury, though, and he faces life in prison.
Court records show police found a magazine article about staging crime scenes and “making the death appear to be a suicide” in Vaughn’s home after the shootings. And they show he spent a half-hour at a Plainfield shooting range the night before. He fired at targets there with the gun later seized by police from between Kimberly Vaughn’s feet.
It turned out the trip to Springfield was planned at the last minute because Kimberly accused her husband of not spending enough time with the kids.
Other records said Vaughn visited dancers at strip clubs. One said Vaughn wrote her a poem about “ancient souls” and bad timing. Another dancer said Vaughn lied about who he was. She tried to avoid a subpoena ordering to testify at Vaughn’s trial, but she eventually told prosecutors she’d cooperate.
Finally, court records led to the discovery of an ominous blog entry made under a moniker attorneys said Vaughn used online — “dewoodsman.” One, still online and signed “Flint,” was posted one month before Vaughn’s wife and children were killed.
“I am working on wrapping up a few last things and then I am headed out for the long walk,” it reads.
“I’ve been taking continually longer and more remote trips figuring that when the times comes I’ll be ready.”
Did Kimberly pull the trigger?
Vaughn’s legal team has changed since his arrest, but his story has not. His attorneys still insist Kimberly pulled the trigger, a defense the judge called “very rare.”
Vaughn said Kimberly was angry the day of the shootings because he’d confessed he had an affair. And he told family members two weeks earlier he wanted a divorce.
The judge said in June he’d let jurors hear about Topamax — the anti-seizure drug Kimberly was taking when she died — and U.S. Food and Drug Administration warnings that the drug can increase the risk of suicidal behavior.
Vaughn’s team said 12-year-old Abigayle called her mom a “psycho” while arguing jurors should hear about the Topamax side effects.
They fought just as hard to keep out several emails written by Kimberly, but the judge said jurors will get to read them. He said they offer a glimpse into Kimberly’s state of mind.
They show Kimberly was planning for the future, looking forward to her graduation and a new career. And in a class assignment, he said, Kimberly called her husband a hard worker.
She even called him a hero.