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Effort underway to free Christopher Vaughn 9 years after conviction for murdering wife, kids

A new attorney on the case says he is “looking down a number of avenues, all of which lead to actual innocence.” There are also plans to seek clemency from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Christopher Vaughn
Christopher Vaughn booking photo
AP

Nearly nine years after a judge handed four life terms to an Oswego man for the murders of his wife and three children, an effort is underway to free the person convicted of one of suburban Chicago’s most troubling crimes, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

A jury took less than an hour in September 2012 to convict Christopher Vaughn at the end of a five-week trial that featured more than 80 witnesses. Jurors found Vaughn guilty of the June 14, 2007, murders of his wife Kimberly, 34, and their children: 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra, and 8-year-old Blake.

But Thursday, Waukegan defense attorney Jed Stone told the Sun-Times he recently signed on as lead counsel for Vaughn and has been “looking down a number of avenues, all of which lead to actual innocence.” Stone and another longtime investigator on the case, Bill Clutter, said they will start by seeking clemency for Vaughn this year from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Richard Kling, another veteran Chicago defense attorney, confirmed he is part of the effort.

Meanwhile, the man whose office oversaw the prosecution said Vaughn would go free “when hell freezes over.”

“We proved beyond a reasonable doubt that [Vaughn] shot his children in the head and chest at point-blank range after putting a gun under the chin of his wife and pulling the trigger,” Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow told the Sun-Times.

Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow
AP Photos

Pritzker’s press secretary declined to comment.

The long-dormant Vaughn case has resurfaced through an iHeart Radio podcast, “Murder in Illinois.” An episode on Thursday offered a new theory of what happened in the Vaughn family’s SUV while it was parked in a secluded area along a frontage road near Interstate 55 and Bluff Road. Vaughn told investigators the family had been on its way to a water park in Springfield.

The podcast’s host, Lauren Bright Pacheco, said the theory offered in Thursday’s episode, its ninth, has already been tested in a crime-scene reconstruction July 15 in Kentucky. She said the results will be aired during the weekly podcast’s 11th episode.

Vaughn is being held in Pinckneyville Correctional Center, records show. He turns 47 on Sept. 26.

“Murder in Illinois” has taken heavy criticism for its generally negative portrayal of Kimberly and her family. Pacheco, a former Dr. Oz producer, has said Kimberly’s family declined her requests for comment. On Thursday, she told the Sun-Times that rifts in the family “contributed heavily to the public perception of Vaughn’s guilt.”

A member of Kimberly’s family declined to speak to the Sun-Times. Vaughn’s family did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Meanwhile, a producer for the Dr. Phil show said there are plans to tape an episode about the Vaughn case Sept. 15. And in Stone, Vaughn has enlisted the same attorney who represents Marni Yang, the woman convicted of killing the pregnant girlfriend of former Chicago Bear Shaun Gayle — another case being challenged.

At Vaughn’s 2012 trial, jurors heard that Vaughn had been discovered limping and bloody along the frontage road by a man on his way to work. Vaughn told him, “I believe my wife just shot me.” The man called 911, police were dispatched around 5:15 a.m., and they found the bodies of Vaughn’s family in a Ford Expedition parked in a gravel path beside a cellphone tower. Its driver’s-side window was broken.

Kimberly suffered an “angle-contact gunshot wound” under her chin, records show. Abigayle had been shot near the right eye and in her right lower chest. Cassandra was shot in the middle of her forehead and in her chest. Blake had been shot in the forehead and near his left underarm — indicating he had raised his arm defensively.

The shots to the children in the back seat came from over the left shoulder of the front passenger seat, where Kimberly was found, records show.

Prosecutors said Vaughn shoved his Taurus handgun under Kimberly’s chin from outside the SUV and shot her, then reached over her to shoot his children. They said, “he had to make it look like he didn’t do this,” so he then got back into the SUV and shot himself in the left wrist and thigh before dropping the gun between Kimberly’s feet, unbuckling her seat belt and walking away.

Crucially, prosecutors also argued that two bullet holes in a jacket he wore had been created when someone wrapped the gun in the jacket — to either silence or conceal the weapon, or to cushion a blow. A prosecutor said that, if Vaughn had been wearing the jacket when the holes were made near the right front pocket and in the back, “he might not be here today.”

Prosecutors said Vaughn had hoped to disappear into the Canadian wilderness, pointing to emails he’d exchanged with a Canadian man he’d met online. They said he spent nearly $5,000 at a strip club in the days before the murders. The night before the killings, Vaughn also visited a shooting range, according to trial testimony.

Though Vaughn claimed not to remember details of the shooting, he contended that he pulled the Expedition off the highway when Kimberly said she was feeling sick. His lawyers argued Kimberly shot him and the kids and then killed herself. They also pointed to FDA warnings that drugs Kimberly took — Topamax and Nortriptyline — could lead to suicide.

Still, even a bloodstain expert called by Vaughn’s lawyers agreed at trial that a defense claim — that Vaughn left the SUV before Kimberly was shot — didn’t make sense. Prosecutors said blood evidence suggested Vaughn was moving over Kimberly’s body after her death, and none of it pointed to a struggle.

Christopher Vaughn (second from left) sits with his family in his Oswego home before they were murdered in 2007. Vaughn was convicted of killing (from left) Blake, 8; Cassandra, 11, Kimberly, 34, and Abigayle, 12.
Sun-Times file

On Thursday’s episode of “Murder in Illinois,” a letter purportedly written by Vaughn is read, in which he admits he “lied about not remembering how Kimberly shot my kids then killed herself.”

“I pulled over and got out to give her a minute,” the letter said. “When I was around the back of the truck, heading back towards my door, it sounded like the inside of the truck was exploding. I opened my door, saw the gun Kim was holding and jumped into my seat to grab it. Kim fired at me. I fell back out the door preparing to make another attempt. Kim looked at me and said, ‘You will not take my kids. You killed them.’ She then turned the gun on herself and fired. I got back in to check the kids. Nothing could be done. I thought to drive the truck. Kim was slumped so I tried to buckle her. My hand shook badly. I couldn’t buckle the belt. I couldn’t drive the truck. I got to the road to get help.”

The letter said Vaughn trusted investigators to get to the truth. It also said he felt ashamed because he failed to protect his children and would have shot Kimberly if she hadn’t done it herself.

Clutter, founder of Investigating Innocence, said a crime-scene reconstruction has shown Vaughn couldn’t have unbuckled his wife’s seat belt. He said Kimberly’s arm blocked it. He also said there is “no question [Vaughn] was wearing that jacket” when he was shot — contradicting the theory that Vaughn had wrapped the gun in the jacket.

Though he had been an early member of Vaughn’s defense team when Vaughn initially faced the death penalty, Clutter said he was discharged when the death penalty was abolished and has mostly worked pro bono on the case. He also acknowledged that the new theory undermines one he’d previously held.

Clutter has previously written that a transfer blood stain on Kimberly’s right thumb “all comes together to prove it was the wife who unbuckled her own seatbelt, after her husband had been shot.”

“That was my working theory at the time,” Clutter said Thursday. “Now, it’s clearly wrong.”

Clutter also previously suggested that Vaughn had dissociative amnesia. He said Thursday he wants to find out when Vaughn’s memory returned.

Chris Regis, the former prosecutor who gave part of the closing argument at Vaughn’s trial, is now corporation counsel for the City of Joliet. When contacted by the Sun-Times on Thursday, he noted that Vaughn has “had 10 years to come up with this statement,” which Regis called “contrary to the evidence.”

Glasgow also said the new theory contradicts the scene, insisting “the angles are all wrong” and it means Vaughn’s car door, where a bullet was found, would have been open. He noted that he’s previously dismissed murder cases when he found he could no longer prove them. But in Vaughn’s case, he said the evidence was “overwhelming.”

“We’re ready for anything that occurs,” Glasgow said.