The Illinois State Police declined this month to refer questions to the FBI about the case of Christopher Vaughn, the Oswego man convicted of the murders of his wife and three children who has become the subject of a high-profile exoneration effort.
The rejection came after longtime Vaughn investigator Bill Clutter asked State Police Director Brendan Kelly for the FBI referral in a two-page letter dated Oct. 12, claiming “misleading and false” grand jury testimony was used to secure Vaughn’s 2007 indictment.
It’s an allegation Clutter has made before, including to the Office of Executive Inspector General in the months leading up to Vaughn’s 2012 trial, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Meanwhile, Clutter says plans to seek clemency for Vaughn from Gov. J.B. Pritzker are now on hold ahead of a Thursday petition deadline. He said he wants to further test a new claim about how Vaughn’s wife and children wound up dead in the family’s SUV while it was parked on a gravel path near Interstate 55 and Bluff Road on June 14, 2007.
Clutter shared a copy of his letter to Kelly with the Sun-Times, and the State Police shared its one-page response dated Oct. 18. Clutter argued Monday that an internal investigation should at least be conducted. A State Police representative declined to comment beyond the letter.
The State Police letter said copies were sent to Emmerson Buie Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI in Chicago, as well as to Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow. FBI spokeswoman Siobhan Johnson said the FBI would review any allegation of a federal crime that it received.
Clutter said his earlier complaint to the Executive Inspector General about the Vaughn case went nowhere. The Sun-Times obtained a copy of the March 2012 document through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
“They did nothing with that,” Clutter said.
Jed Stone, Vaughn’s new defense attorney, insisted there is evidence of Vaughn’s innocence, but Stone has not yet decided where it will be presented.
“We’re not going to litigate this in the Sun-Times,” Stone said.
A Will County jury took less than an hour in September 2012 to find Vaughn guilty of the murders of his wife Kimberly, 34, and their children: 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and 8-year-old Blake.
Kimberly suffered an “angle-contact gunshot wound” under her chin, records show. The children were each shot twice, in the torso and head. The shots to the children, in the back seat of the SUV, came from over the left shoulder of the front passenger seat, where Kimberly was found, records show. Vaughn also suffered gunshot wounds to his left wrist and thigh.
Prosecutors argued that Vaughn shoved his Taurus handgun under Kimberly’s chin from outside the SUV and shot her, reached over her to shoot his children, and then shot himself. Vaughn’s defense attorneys argued Kimberly shot Vaughn and the kids before killing herself.
Vaughn is serving four life terms in the Pinckneyville Correctional Center, records show.
Clutter’s letter to the State Police this month revolved primarily around grand jury testimony about blood evidence in the case, including blood found on Kimberly’s seatbelt. That evidence has long been seen as key to Vaughn’s conviction, because it contradicted the defense theory at trial. Prosecutors said it showed Vaughn had been moving over his wife’s body after her death.
Clutter alleged that Vaughn’s indictment was secured through faulty testimony from then-State Police Sgt. Gary Lawson. Records attached to Clutter’s letter said Lawson advanced the theory before the grand jury in 2007 that Kimberly’s seatbelt had been buckled when she was shot.
Those records claim “DNA testing had disproven this theory.” But a pair of attached DNA reports — one marked “draft” and dated before Lawson’s testimony, as well as one dated afterward — show only that the blood on the seatbelt belonged to Vaughn and not Kimberly.
A prosecutor did not ask Lawson who the blood belonged to, and Lawson did not say, according to an excerpt of a transcript Clutter sent to the State Police. Prosecutors went on to successfully argue at trial that Vaughn unbuckled his wife’s seatbelt after shooting Kimberly, the kids and himself.
Stone said it would be inappropriate to even imply to the grand jury that the blood on the seatbelt belonged to Kimberly.
“Lawyers are very good at using words to lead and to mislead people,” Stone said.
Lawson could not be reached for comment. The State Police letter to Clutter said “nothing in the information provided would warrant” a referral to the FBI.
Clutter also pointed the State Police to a demonstration performed by two actors based on a third letter, purportedly from Vaughn. First read on the iHeart Radio podcast “Murder in Illinois,” it claims to explain what really happened in the Vaughns’ SUV.
That letter says Vaughn was around the back of the SUV when it suddenly “sounded like the inside of the truck was exploding.” It said he opened his car door and saw Kimberly holding the gun, and she opened fire on him when he jumped into his seat to grab it. It said he fell back out and prepared to make another attempt when she turned the gun on herself.
The letter claims Vaughn checked on the children, but nothing could be done for them. It said he then thought about driving the SUV and tried to buckle Kimberly’s seatbelt, but his hands were shaking and he couldn’t do it. It said he eventually “got to the road to get help.”
Asked whether Vaughn had signed an affidavit or had otherwise sworn to the new theory, Stone declined to answer and said, “when we’re ready to file affidavits, we’ll file them.” Clutter said no affidavit had been signed.
Clutter insists the blood evidence from the SUV matches the new theory, but he acknowledged Monday that multiple portions of that theory were not tested in the demonstration. Among them was the contention that Kimberly shot each of her children in the time it took Vaughn to get from the back of the SUV to his door.
Clutter said a second test, this time of ballistics, will be conducted to help explain the shooting of Vaughn by his wife. He said he is working with an expert in Canada, and COVID-19 restrictions will likely prevent the test from taking place before spring.