JOLIET, Ill. — Jurors deliberated for less than an hour Thursday before convicting a suburban Chicago man of fatally shooting his wife and three children during what he told them was a road trip to a water park.
Christopher Vaughn shot his family, including one of his daughters as she clutched a stuffed animal, because he saw them as obstacles to his dream of starting a new, isolated life in the Canadian wilderness, prosecutors told jurors before they withdrew to deliberate.
Vaughn hunched forward as jurors re-entered the Joliet courtroom, but the 37-year-old computer specialist displayed no visible emotion as their verdict was read. Sitting nearby, his wife's sister smiled and cried quietly, and family members later wept as they fell into each other's arms in a courtroom hall.
"This case is not just a murder, it's an atrocity," Will County States Attorney James Glasgow said outside the courthouse. "To annihilate your family, I can't think of a more unspeakable crime."
Glasgow noted that Vaughn's two daughters and son were each shot in the chest and head, and he said the father's lack of emotion was the mark of "a psychopath."
Jury foreman Dan Lashat said jurors believed Vaughn's odd and inappropriate demeanor strongly suggested he killed his family. The jurors were later applauded by relatives of Vaughn's wife as they walked into a nearby restaurant.
Vaughn faces a maximum life prison term when sentenced Nov. 26.
The prosecution argued that he had compiled survival guides and posted wistful Internet messages about constructing a cabin and settling for good in the Yukon, cut off from the world.
Then early on June 14, 2007, Vaughn awoke his wife and children, promising a surprise trip to a water park downstate. Prosecutors alleged that he pulled the family SUV off the highway after 5 a.m. He placed a pistol under his 34-year-old wife Kimberly's chin and fired, then meticulously shot 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and 8-year-old Blake – each in the chest and head.
Abigayle was found holding a stuffed animal and a Harry Potter book. Forensics experts said the trajectory of the bullet into Blake's chest indicated he had raised his arm up as he was shot.
During nearly a full day of closing arguments Thursday, prosecutor Chris Regis read emails that Christopher Vaughn wrote to a friend before the murders saying he longed for a life unencumbered by cellphones and other hallmarks of modernity. He cited poet Henry David Thoreau about the virtue of shrugging off obligations.
"I just want to live plain and simple," Vaughn wrote in one email.
Regis said Vaughn felt held back by four obstacles, all of which "were eliminated on June 14, 2007."
Vaughn took notes during the nearly six hours of closing arguments but displayed little emotion as he sat at the defense table, even when prosecutors displayed crime-scene photos of his wife, her head hanging back and dried blood near her nose and mouth.
In his closing, defense attorney George Lenard repeated Vaughn's contention that his wife was suicidal over marriage troubles and affected emotionally by antidepressant medication. The defense claimed she shot Vaughn in the wrist and leg, then killed the children and herself.
Lenard added later that Kimberly Vaughn may have seen the murder of her kids as a twisted act of mercy.
"(She) was of the mindset that if she was gone, they were better off with her ... `Come with me to heaven,'" Lenard said, depicting what the mother might have been thinking.
Prosecutors balked at that idea. In his closing, Mike Fitzgerald cited witnesses who testified that Kimberly Vaughn was upbeat around the time and that, just the evening before, she had fussed cheerfully over a recipe for "cheesy potatoes."
Moreover, he asked how the wife could have just grazed her husband with two bullets as he sat right next to her – yet somehow managed to put a bullet into each of her children's heads.
"No way, ladies and gentlemen," Fitzgerald told jurors. "No way that's possible."
Prosecutors called more than 80 witnesses during their three-week presentation to jurors, including a stripper Vaughn confided in about his marital troubles. She said Vaughn never asked her to dance, but that they discussed the outdoors and poetry. The manager of a suburban strip club, Scores Chicago, testified that in the days before the killing, Vaughn spent nearly $5,000 at the establishment.
A series of forensics experts testified that blood splatter, the angle of the shots and other evidence proved Vaughn pulled the trigger. An investigator described finding a magazine at Vaughn's home with an article on how to make a murder look like a suicide. And prosecutors entered evidence that he visited a gun range the day before the slayings.
They also entered emails into evidence where Kimberly Vaughn expressed admiration for her husband, in one calling him her "hero."
Several emails of Christopher Vaughn's to a friend were also read in court. In one, he wrote that his wife would "be just fine" because he planned to fake his own death so she could collect on his life insurance policy.
Jurors also watched hours of videotaped police interviews of Vaughn from the day of the shootings. In one, state Trooper Cornelious Monroe brought out pictures of Vaughn's children, questioned Vaughn's cool demeanor and added that, if his own kids had been murdered, he would be crying.
"Good for you," Vaughn replied.
Regis said Vaughn didn't display a hint of guilty conscience until he was left alone in an interview room with a crime-scene photo of his son. Video shows Vaughn staring at the picture, then pushing it away, then covering it up.
The prosecutor likened the scene to the murderer in Edgar Allen Poe's horror story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," where a killer goes mad as he starts to hear his victim's beating heart.
"That picture is like a Tell-Tale heart. It's beating louder, louder, louder," Regis said, his voice rising in indignation. "That picture is screaming at him."
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