Dream roadtrip ended in nightmare for Christopher Vaughn’s family

First published Aug. 20, 2012: Christopher Vaughn stood trial for the murder of his wife and three children.

SHARE Dream roadtrip ended in nightmare for Christopher Vaughn’s family
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Christopher Vaughn’s defense team (from left to right) Jaya Varghese, Steven Whitemore and George Lenard depart after day one of the Christopher Vaughn murder trial started at the Will County Courthouse Monday, August 20, 2012, in Joliet.

Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 20, 2012 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times:

The Vaughn children bundled themselves in blankets and pillows, settling into the back of mom and dad’s SUV for a surprise early morning roadtrip to a water park on a late spring morning.

Eleven-year-old Cassandra sat in the middle. Twelve-year-old Abigayle sat behind her father on the driver’s side. She clutched a stuffed animal and a Harry Potter book. Her little brother, 8-year-old Blake, sat behind his mother, Kimberly, on the other side of the car.

They dressed for summer. Mom too. But not Christopher Vaughn. He wore cowboy boots, blue jeans and a fleece jacket. Prosecutors said he’d quietly dreamt of isolation in Canada. On that morning of June 14, 2007, as his children imagined a day at the water park, prosecutors said Christopher Vaughn’s thoughts turned to his escape from life in suburban Chicago.

Vaughn gathered his family together around 4 o’clock that morning, they said. The children buckled up, and Vaughn guided their Ford Expedition south on Interstate 55. But soon, after he passed up nearby restaurants and gas stations as rest stops, prosecutors said Vaughn decided to get off on Bluff Road and turn south onto a secluded frontage road. He pulled into a path near a cell phone tower, and he got out of the car.

Police photographs — splashed repeatedly in front of a Will County jury Monday — captured the horrific result of what came next. And as her voice rose on the first day of testimony in Vaughn’s trial, Assistant State’s Attorney Debbie Mills said Vaughn began with his wife, Kimberly.

“He took his gun, shoved it in her chin, and shot her in the head,” Mills said.

Then she said Vaughn reached around. He shot Abigayle. Then Cassandra. Then Blake. He fired twice at each of his young children, once in each of their heads.

“All shots with precision,” Mills said.

But he wasn’t done.

“He had to make it look like he didn’t do this,” Mills said.

Vaughn got back into the car, she said. And he shot himself twice. Once in his left wrist, where he wore a watch, and once in the leg. He hit no significant arteries, Mills said, and did no real damage to himself. Then she said he dropped the gun between Kimberly’s feet, unbuckled her seat belt and walked away, hoping he’d finally set his exit plan in motion.

He left behind the scene jurors saw in the gut-wrenching photographs.

They could see the tiny head of Blake Vaughn leaning out of the rear, blood-stained passenger-side door opened that morning by police. Abigayle slumped over her pillow and blanket on the other side. Cassandra lay in the middle. And Kimberly leaned over the car’s center console, a bloody gunshot wound under her chin.

Prosecutors flashed the images up on a television screen Monday as they questioned the police and paramedics from Channahon who first arrived at the scene. Jurors subtly wiped their eyes. One woman on the jury could be seen covering her mouth.

Dressed in the same tan jacket, white shirt and brown pants he wore to jury selection last week, Vaughn showed no emotion. He fiddled with a pen as his trial began in earnest more than five years after his arrest, gripping it between his thumb and index finger as he watched the scene play out.

By doing so, he lived up to the portrait painted by his defense attorney, George Lenard. Vaughn, he told the jury, is a “very, very private person.” He’s quiet. He doesn’t engage people in conversation. He doesn’t gossip. And he doesn’t talk about everything that goes on inside his home.

“Mr. Vaughn is one speed,” Lenard said. “One speed only. That’s the way he is. He’s monotone.”

Kimberly Vaughn, meanwhile, was bubbly and outgoing. And Lenard repeatedly referred to her as a “fixer” — someone who constantly sought out bad situations to repair.

Together they loved their children, Lenard said, but their marriage wasn’t going well. Vaughn admitted he’d had an affair in Mexico in December 2006, he said, and things with Kimberly weren’t the same once he did.

Vaughn wanted to go live in the Yukon, Lenard said. And in an email exchange with another man as he considered the idea, Lenard said, Vaughn once wrote his wife would be “fine” when he did. Life, Vaughn purportedly suggested, would go on without him.

Lenard said his client’s quiet personality made him vulnerable to suspicion and accusation. But he said it was Kimberly who was troubled on the inside. She suffered from migraines and high blood pressure. And she took drugs that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned increases the risk of suicide. In a note to her husband about a trip to the doctor, Lenard said, she acknowledged changes in her personality and anxiety.

For five years, Vaughn’s attorneys have argued Kimberly shot the children before killing herself.

“This is a case of murder-suicide,” Lenard said at the top of his opening statement.

Prosecutors called Sgt. Steve Weiss and officer Mark Soustek of the Channahon Police Department to the witness stand Monday. They described how, after Vaughn flagged down a passing motorist who called police, they approached the Vaughn family’s SUV with their guns drawn, unsure of what to expect. Jurors also heard from Matthew Skole, Ryan Jandura and Jacob Randich of the Channahon Fire Protection District.

Finally they heard from Susan Phillips, Kimberly’s mother. She testified Monday about how she learned her daughter and three grandchildren had been shot to death.

“When I saw their Ford Expedition on Fox News and I could see Kimberly in the car,” Phillips said. She also heard the ages of the three children in the back seat.

Lenard questioned Phillips about her son-in-law, and whether her memories of him matched the description he gave the jury. She agreed Vaughn never showed emotion. But she said he’s raised his voice in the past. At least to her.

He also asked her if Vaughn was a loving father.

“Actually, I would say I don’t really know,” Phillips said.

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