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Darren Deon VANN

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Serial rapist - Convicted sex offender
Number of victims: 7
Date of murders: July 2013 - October 2014
Date of arrest: October 18, 2014
Date of birth: March 21, 1971
Victims profile: Anith Jones, 35 / Teaira Batey, 28 / Christine Williams, 36 / Afrika Hardy, 19 / Jane Doe #3 / Jane Doe #5 / Jane Doe #6
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Gary/Hammond, Indiana, USA
Status: In prison awaiting trial
 
 
 
 
 
 
photo gallery
 
 
 
 
 
 

Darren Deon Vann is a suspected American serial killer. He was arrested in October 2014, at the age of 43, for the strangulation death of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Indiana and has confessed to the murders of six other women victims in Indiana. He led police to six of the women's bodies, all of which were found in abandoned structures in Gary, Indiana.

Background

Vann was born in Indiana. He was married for 16 years to a woman who was about 30 years older than him. He was reportedly arrested in Gary, Indiana for threatening the life of his girlfriend. He was charged with a class D felony and spent 90 days in jail. Vann was previously convicted in Travis County, Texas, of sexual assault and served five years in a state penitentiary, being released on July 5, 2013.

His wife filed for a divorce in August 2009 and their marriage was dissolved in April 2010. He also received an "other than honorable" discharge from the United States Marine Corps in 1993 after joining in 1991.

Arrest and investigation

When 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy was found strangled in a Motel 6, authorities used Hardy’s phone records and located Vann. Upon apprehension, Vann was found to have possession of several key pieces of potential evidence which included Hardy’s phone.

During police interrogation he allegedly confessed to his involvement in Hardy’s killing and told police he was involved in other killings. He is currently being held in Hammond, Indiana. His first court hearing was scheduled October 22, however he was held in contempt of court. His next hearing was held on October 28 at Lake County Jail in Crown Point where he plead to two charges of “not guilty” filed against him so far.

Victims

Vann is suspected of murdering at least seven people. Three victims remain unidentified.

Afrikka Hardy

Afrikka Hardy, 19, had recently moved to Chicago after graduating from high school. She met Vann at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Indiana after he hired her through an escort agency. She was found dead at the Motel 6.

Teira Batey

Teira Batey, 28, from Gary, Indiana, left to meet a friend but never came back. Her family waited to hear from her for a few days but reported her missing in late January 2014.

Anith Jones

Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville, Indiana, was last seen alive on October 8, 2014 and reported missing two days later. Her car was found parked in the driveway of an abandoned house in Gary, Indiana. After Vann was arrested, he pointed the police in the direction of an abandoned house in Gary where her body and two unidentified victims were found. He was charged on October 22, 2014.

Kristine Williams

Kristine Williams, 36, was a resident of Gary, Indiana and a mother of four. She was employed at the time of her death. Her mother-in-law stated that she had not heard from Williams since February 2014.

Jane Doe #3

One, who authorities refer to as "Jane Doe #3", was 5-feet tall and had shoulder length blonde hair with red tints. Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey described her outfit as size 3/4 twenty-one black blue jeans by RUE21, paired with white, size six Nike gym shoes.

Jane Doe #5

Another victim, known as "Jane Doe #5", was a five-foot, three inch tall woman of African American descent, who wore a silver-colored chain link bracelet with the engraving "Best Aunt", and two silver rings: one with scalloped engravings, and the other in the shape of a heart.

Jane Doe #6

The third unidentified victim is an African-American woman referred to as "Jane Doe #6".

Wikipedia.org
 



Vann pleads not guilty in two murder cases

By Elvia Malagon - Nwitimes.com

October 29, 2014

CROWN POINT - A shackled Darren Vann made his initial court appearance Wednesday in Lake County Criminal Court.

Vann, 43, of Gary, is charged in the strangling deaths of Afrika Hardy, 19, and Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville. He allegedly confessed to killing at least five other women in Northwest Indiana.

Vann was sworn in Wednesday and politely answered questions by Magistrate Kathleen Sullivan, which was in contrast to his behavior last week. During his first initial hearing last week, Vann refused to speak or participate in the hearing.

Sullivan entered a preliminary not guilty plea on his behalf. She read the charges he faces and asked if he understood the charges.

"Yes, ma'am," Vann said.

Lake County officers and correctional officers filled the courtroom. The gallery consisted mostly of journalists and court staff.

Vann, wearing a Lake County Jail uniform, appeared tired and frequently closed his eyes during the hearing.

He faces two counts of murder, two counts of murder in the perpetration of a robbery and two counts of robbery resulting in serious bodily injury.

Lake County Prosecuting Attorney Bernard Carter, who represented the state during Wednesday's hearing, said previously his office was in the initial stages of determining if the death penalty will be sought in the case.

The Lake County prosecutor's office already has a pending capital case against Carl L. Blount -- accused of killing Gary Patrolman Jeffrey Westerfield.

Vann indicated during the hearing Wednesday he will not hire a private attorney and will retain court-appointed public defender Matthew Fech.

Sullivan granted a new protective order in the state's case against Vann in the homicide of Anith Jones. The same order was granted last week in the state's case against Vann in Hardy's homicide.

The order means officials involved in the investigations cannot speak to the public or media about the case while it's pending.

The state is prohibited from speaking to Vann unless he initiates the conversations, Sullivan said. Fech said in court he must be present during any conversations the state has with his client.

Vann's next court hearing is set for Jan. 9.

Hammond police arrested Vann last week after discovering Afrika Hardy's body Oct. 17 at a Hammond Motel 6. According to court records, the two met through an online escort service.

Officials said Vann spoke in detail about Hardy's homicide, and then led detectives to the bodies of six women he allegedly left in abandoned buildings in Gary.

Jones was found Oct. 18 in an abandoned building in the 400 block of East 43rd Street in Gary.

According to court records, Vann told detectives a mutual friend offered him $500 in cash and drugs to make Jones disappear because of an upcoming legal matter.

Vann spoke to Jones several times by phone before meeting her in an empty Merrillville house sometime in October. Vann said he had sex with Jones and then strangled her to death, according to an affidavit.

A friend of Jones told police Jones used online escort services like Hardy.

Vann said he later moved her body to a vacant home in Gary, according to the affidavit.

Teaira Batey, 28, of Gary, and Kristine Williams, 36, of Gary, were among the women found in abandoned homes last week. The Lake County coroner's office has ruled their deaths homicides.

Vann has not been charged in the homicides of Batey or Williams.

Officials are still working to identify three other women Vann has allegedly confessed to killing.

Two women were found in a second house at the same property where Jones was found. Officials said the remains of the women were partially skeletonized and have not been able to identify them.

Another woman was found Oct. 19 in an abandoned home in the 2200 block of Massachusetts Street in Gary. She has not been identified.
 



Who is Indiana serial killer suspect Darren Deon Vann?

By Greg Botelho - CNN

October 23, 2014

Darren Deon Vann was no stranger to police.

Even before police caught up with him this weekend, Vann's record was well-established. He had gone to jail at least twice before on felony convictions. But -- if authorities are to be believed -- his time behind bars didn't prove much of a deterrent.

Authorities went after the 43-year-old Vann this weekend in connection with the death of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Indiana. Not only did he confess to that killing, but police said Vann also admitted to six other women's deaths. Police said he led them to the women's bodies in abandoned structures in Gary, Indiana.

"It disgusts me, because it's seven bodies," said Ronnie Williams, a resident of the Gary neighborhood where most of the victims were found.

Vann had an initial court appearance related to Hardy's killing on Wednesday morning, but was held in contempt of court when he refused to answer the judge's questions.

Vann was represented by a state-appointed public defender, Matthew Fech.

There's much more that's not known publicly about Vann, in fact, than is known. Like, what is his background? What did he do for a living? Why -- if it is proven he killed these seven women -- would he do such a thing?

What is known that Vann was born in Indiana but didn't stay there his whole life. Records, for instance, show he was arrested on unspecified charges while living in Cherry Point, North Carolina, in 1993.

It was in the 1990s that Edward Matlock first got to know Vann. Vann had married Matlock's mother, who was about 30 years older than Vann.

Matlock said he wasn't comfortable or happy with his mother's marriage, which lasted 16 years. Part of it had to do with the age difference between the couple. Then there were Matlock's observations that Vann talked to himself or sometimes seemed lost in thought, in addition to stories he heard about Vann spending time in a rough part of Austin, Texas, where the pair had moved.

"The guy is a nutcase. He is. And I'd watch him," Matlock told CNN's Ashleigh Banfield. "I'd never allow him near my kids or in my home, because he just freaked me out."

Matlock said things "went downhill" for Vann after he got fired from a temp agency, adding he had trouble finding good work after that. Eventually, Vann and Matlock's mother moved from Austin to Gary, Indiana, where Matlock said he found them "living in poverty."

Gary was where Vann had his first major brush with the law: in April 2004, with a woman (who wasn't Matlock's mother) who police described as Vann's girlfriend.

According to a police affidavit tied to that incident, Vann threatened to burn down or blow up the home of a man who he believed was sheltering his girlfriend. Then, in front of police, he "grabbed (his girlfriend) and told the police to back up or he would burn himself and (the girlfriend)," the affidavit stated.

With his left arm around the woman's neck and his right hand holding a gasoline can and lighter, Vann refused her requests for freedom -- right up until police grabbed and arrested him.

Vann was charged with a class D felony, and spent 90 days behind bars after his conviction.

At some point after his release, Vann went back to Austin. That's where, in December 2007, he was arrested again, this time for aggravated sexual assault.

According to the affidavit out of Travis County, a 25-year-old woman responding to "a service call from her employer" met Vann and the two went to an apartment.

After they got inside, "Vann asked her if she was a police officer and she told him that she was not," the affidavit said. "Vann then attacked her."

The court document details how Vann choked, repeatedly struck and raped the woman.

A grand jury indicted him in July 2008. He pleaded guilty and was convicted in September 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison. That led to -- accounting for time served -- his release on July 5, 2013, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.

Again, Vann didn't stay put for long after getting out of jail.

He registered as a sex offender in prison, then told officials there that he would move back to Gary, Indiana. Texas authorities alerted their colleagues in Lake County, Indiana, that Vann was to be considered a "low risk" sex offender, which is based on experts' assessment of the likelihood that a person will commit another sexual offense.

In the 15 months since Vann left Texas, police said, Vann killed seven women, with six of their bodies found in some of the estimated 10,000 abandoned structures in Gary.

There may have been more victims, police said.

After Hardy was found strangled in a Motel 6 bathtub, authorities used cellular phone records to track down Vann on Saturday, along with the blue Jeep he'd been driving. Police said Vann also had Hardy's pink phone and other potentially key pieces of evidence.

Police said Vann confessed, telling them he "messed up" and expressing surprise he had been found so quickly, Hammond Police Chief John Doughty said. A short time later, he led authorities to the six other victims.

Authorities have not detailed what relationship, if any, Vann had with the victims. (In fact, police have only identified four of those killed so far.)

As for why, Doughty said, "I don't have a specific reason he does this."

Vann's next court appearance is scheduled for October 29 at the Lake County jail in Crown Point.
 



Possible serial killer's victims: 'They're somebody's daughter'

By Catherine E. Shoichet - CNN

October 23, 2014

Who are the seven women who police say one Indiana man has confessed to killing?

"They're not forgotten, because they're not nobodies. They're somebody," said Lori Townsend, whose 19-year-old daughter Afrikka Hardy was found strangled at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Indiana, over the weekend.

"They're somebody's daughter," she told CNN affiliate WLS, "somebody's mother, somebody's sister."

Here's what we know so far about the suspected serial killer's victims:

Afrikka Hardy

"She could walk into a room and just light it up with her smile and her laugh and just her presence," Townsend told CNN's Don Lemon.

"Afrikka never met a stranger. She loved everybody. And that was kind of part of her problem. She was a little naive on trusting people."

Hardy, 19, had recently moved back to Chicago after graduating from high school and living for five years with her mother in Aurora, Colorado.

Authorities say suspect Darren Deon Vann hired a prostitute through the backpage.com site serving Chicago and arranged a meeting with Hardy at the Motel 6.

That was a surprise to her mother.

"I had no idea. That's not the way I raised Afrikka. She wasn't raised up like that," Townsend said.

"Her three months out there, she never said that anything was wrong. She never gave me any inclination she was doing this or thinking about doing this."

But even if true, that information is irrelevant, the mother said.

"What matters is that my baby be remembered for who she really is," Townsend wrote on Facebook Monday. "Remember her smile, laugh, tender heart and the fact that she is no longer with us!"

In Facebook posts, Townsend described her daughter as a princess and posted a YouTube video of her belting out a ballad.

Hardy's cousins told The Chicago Tribune that she enjoyed singing, loved kids and eventually wanted to own a day care.

"She had plans on going back to school, and we talked about it numerous times," one cousin told the newspaper. "But I guess she started hanging with different people and it took her towards another way."

Teaira Batey

The last time Gloria Cullom saw her daughter, they were grocery shopping together in Gary.

"She said, 'I love you. I'll be back, Mama.' That's what she said to me, and she left, and she went with her friend," Cullom told CNN affiliate KARE. "But she didn't come back that night."

When she heard from her the next day, Batey was crying, sounded scared and wanted someone to pick her up, Cullom said. She was never heard from again.

Batey's family reported her missing in late January, boyfriend Marvin Clinton told CNN's Poppy Harlow.

At first, they held off because Batey had been known to leave her home in Gary for days or even a week at a time, Clinton said. But as the days passed, he said, they became increasingly concerned and contacted police.

"We know her daily routine. She would go out, you know, and hang out, go visit friends and things like that," he said. "But she would always stay in touch with the family."

Batey, 28, didn't work, Clinton said.

"It was more being home, being a mom, raising her son, doing things as a family," he said.

Cullom said her daughter was mentally ill and often willing to trust people.

"Like I told (the police) there, she might be grown, but she had a mind like a 12-year-old. She's very vulnerable, but she's a sweet person," Cullom told KARE. "She's very trusting. She never thought that somebody would hurt her if she never gave them no reason to hurt her."

Authorities at one point suggested that maybe Batey had decided to leave and start a new life, but Clinton said he didn't buy it.

"Teaira would not leave her son like that," he said. "She was a loving, kind person ... a bighearted person. Teaira was the kind of person that ... would give you her coat to wear if you didn't have one."

Clinton told CNN affiliate WLS that he's been struggling to tell their 2-year-old son what happened.

"I don't know how to explain it to him right now. ... He's been asking for Mommy a lot, and the only thing I can tell him is, 'Mommy's not here right now,'" Clinton said.

Anith Jones

The 35-year-old was last seen on October 8, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. She was reported missing two days later.

Her sister told the newspaper that Jones, who lived in Merrillville, Indiana, ran a booth at a flea market.

"She was a kind, loving woman," Yolanda Nowell, a Chicago police officer, told the Sun-Times. "She was my favorite sister. She was everybody's favorite aunt."

Her 2001 Chevrolet Prism was found parked in the driveway of a vacant house in Gary earlier this month. Police with cadaver dogs had searched other vacant lots and abandoned homes to look for her, the newspaper said. They didn't find her, until Vann pointed them to an abandoned house in Gary.

The bodies of two other women were found at the same address. They have not yet been identified.

Vann had "some sort of connection" with Jones, Gary Police Chief Larry McKinley said, adding that authorities don't know yet what the connection is.

Kristine Williams

Williams, 36, was a resident of Gary and a mother of four, according to her mother-in-law, Deborah Berry.

Berry told CNN she had not heard from Williams since February but did not file a police report because Williams would often "disappear."

"I've been kind of wondering what happened to Kristine. She kind of disappeared," said Berry. "I haven't talked to her since February. She would call me every couple of months. I was like her mother. Her real family wouldn't have much to do with her."

Williams did not have a job, and according to Berry, she had two children from her marriage with Berry's son Siad, and two more children from different fathers.

All four were put up for adoption, said Berry.

Jane Doe #3

One victim, described by authorities as Jane Doe #3, was a 5-foot-tall woman with shoulder length blond hair tinted red. She wore a pair of size-3/4 twentyone black by RUE21 blue jeans and white Nike gym shoes size 6, said Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey.

"We may have a possible lead. We will be conducting DNA analysis with her possible family through the Indiana State Police. As well as all the victims that we have identified, to be able to make a positive identification," said Frey.

Jane Doe #5

Frey said a victim known as Jane Doe #5 wore a silver-colored chain-linked bracelet that said "Best Aunt" when investigators found her. Fray asked for help identifying the 5-foot 3-inch African-American woman, who she said was also wearing a silver-colored ring with scalloped engravings and another silver-colored ring with a heart shape.

Jane Doe #6

Frey said a victim known as Jane Doe #6 was an African-American woman.
 



Darren Vann: Indiana man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear more

Darren Vann was arrested for the murder of a sex worker in an Indiana motel on Friday before leading officers to six other bodies. They now suspect there are more victims, dating back 20 years

By David Usborne - Independent.co.uk

Tuesday 21 October 2014

A man charged with the killing of a prostitute in Gary, Indiana, has led police to the decomposing bodies of six other women in assorted abandoned homes in the city spurring speculation that he may be America’s latest serial killer with perhaps yet more murders to his name stretching back over decades.

So far Darren Deon Vann has been charged only with the murder of 19-year-old Afrika Hardy, a sex worker whose body was found at the weekend in a motel room in Hammond, just west of Gary and south of Chicago in neighbouring Illinois. He led police to the bodies of the six other women after being taken into custody.

“It could go back as far as 20 years based on some statements we have and that’s yet to be corroborated,” noted Hammond Police Chief John Doughty. “It is possible other victims could surface.” Of the other victims, three have been identified as Anith Jones, 35, Teiarra Batey, 28, and Christine Williams, 36, all from the surrounding area.

Investigators are combing through missing persons cases locally and in Texas in search of anything that could tie them to Mr Vann. He served five years in prison in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting and trying to strangle an Austin woman. He returned to Gary, where he had previously lived, after being released one year ago.

The capture of Mr Vann, 43, has gripped residents of Gary, a once-vibrant city on the southern end of Lake Michigan that over decades has become synonymous with rust-belt blight and violent crime. Residents expressed horror that its huge collection of abandoned structures had become a dumping ground for a suspected serial killer.

“It makes me very uncomfortable,” said Latonya Ramson, 36, whose own home is close to the house where Mr Vann had been living with a brother. “There’s abandoned houses everywhere you look. If we didn’t have all these abandoned houses, he wouldn’t have been able to leave people in them – that’s part of the problem.

Also going through people’s minds are memories of one of the region’s most infamous serial killers, John Wayne Gacy, a child entertainer from Chicago who was executed in 1994 after being arrested in 1978 and implicated in the killing of 33 men and boys. He had begun his killing spree after serving time for sexual crimes before being freed.

The first spark on the fuse that led police to Mr Vann came on Friday when Ms Hardy, a sex worker for an escort service called “Big Boy Appetite”, texted a co-worker to say she was meeting a “john” in the Hammond motel. When she failed to send a follow-up text, the co-worker tried to contact her. Suspicious that a return text had not in fact been written by Ms Hardy she went to the motel where she found Ms Hardy’s body in the bathroom.

Police said they were able to connect the murder to Mr Vann in part by tracing communications with the escort agency to his phone. He and his car were also captured by a motel surveillance camera.

Officials said that upon his arrest he confessed to killing Ms Hardy and then quickly told them of the six other bodies and where they were. Mr Doughty indicated that Mr Vann was co-operating with police in hopes of making a deal with prosecutors.

“The initial murder investigation led to the confession of six other murders committed by Vann with those bodies being recovered in the city of Gary in abandoned structures,” the city of Gary said in a brief statement. Gary Police Chief Larry McKinley agreed the news had alarmed residents.

“It’s put the community of Gary on heightened alert,” he said. “Any time you have this type of crime that happens in the city, in any city, there is some fear.” Ms Hardy had returned to the area recently from the Denver area in Colorado where her mother, Lori Townsend, continues to live.

“I can’t tell her I love her anymore. I can’t give her hugs. I can’t give her kisses,” Ms Townsend told local television station, adding she had expected her daughter home for Thanksgiving next month.

In another interview she said: “She was my best friend. When I didn’t have anything, she was all I had.”

A brother of Anith Jones, one of the other victims found at the weekend, aired on Facebook his grief at having to identify her body.

“The images I seen when I had to identify my sister’s body, the last words we had together, the many pictures I see with her smiling, and imagine what she went through during last moments, the thoughts of whether she called me for help during her final moments, and WHY this way!!??” he wrote. “Help me Lord!!! Help!!!”

A known survivor of the menace of Mr Vann is the woman cited in the criminal complaint that led to his conviction and incarceration in Texas.

She was said at the time to have been in his apartment in Austin after receiving a “service call from her employer. What happened there was described by a police report submitted to the court.

“Vann yelled at her that he could kill her,” it said. “Vann then told her to perform oral sex on him. She told him no. Vann hit her several times about the face.”

When the woman escaped she was treated for injuries that were consistent with attempted strangulation.
 



Darren Deon Vann's ex-wife: 'I never knew him to be violent'

By Chuck Goudie - Abc7chicago.com

Monday, October 20, 2014

GARY, Ind. (WLS) -- Darren Deon Vann's ex-wife says the alleged serial killer was never violent towards her. Vann, a convicted sex offender, confessed to seven murders in Indiana, police said.

Vann, 43, was arrested in his Gary, Ind., home after the body of Afrikka Hardy was discovered in a motel. He had arranged a meeting with the 19-year-old through Backpage.com, a website that is popular with prostitutes and their clients.

According to the police affidavit, Hardy and her friend, Shameeka Cunningham, ran an escort service. Cunningham became suspicious when Hardy's planned encounter with Vann, who called himself "Big Boy Appetite," went long. When Hardy did not answer her cell phone and Cunningham received "unusual" text messages that seemed to be from the male client, she and a male friend went to the Motel 6 where they discovered Hardy's body.

Vann told police he wore white gloves as he strangled Hardy with his hands and an extension cord, officials said. He then put her body in the bathtub of the motel room, turned on the shower, and left.

The discovery of Hardy's body led police in northwest Indiana on a fast track to numerous other corpses. Hours before his name was officially released, the ABC7 I-Team identified Vann through various law enforcement officials, police records and court files in Indiana and Texas.

As of Monday, the bodies of seven women, including Hardy, had been discovered at locations in Hammond and Gary, according to Lake County officials.

In Texas, Vann's ex-wife, who asked not to be named, said she last spoke with him just before he went to prison for a sexual assault that occurred in an Austin, Texas, apartment complex.

"This is all unbelievable to me," she said. "A total shocker. I never knew him to be violent, never."

According to a court file from his Texas sex conviction, Vann arranged to meet a 25-year-old woman and attacked her in December of 2007. Police say he tripped her and then began to strangle her. When he felt her body go limp, he raped her, according to the report.

Vann was convicted of the sexual assault in September of 2009 and sent to prison for five years.

His ex-wife says she knew a different kind of man, one who was friendly, protective and not abusive. According to her, they grew apart and divorced in 2011.

"He was so protective of those around him," she said. "He was a real friendly person, that's why all this is a shock to me. He had a job all the time; if he lost one, he would quickly get another one.

"He didn't drink," she added. "He was a loner more than anything."

After release, Vann moved back to his home state of Indiana in July of 2013, according to Lake County, Indiana, Sheriff John Buncich. Since then, Vann has complied with sex offender registration requirements, Sheriff Buncich told the I-Team.

"He last registered on September 11 - just last month," Buncich said. "We had detectives sent out to his address to make sure he lived there. He did."

Vann was found to be living in a home on 50th Court in Gary. He was on the neighborhood watch, according to his neighbor.

"He was quiet," the neighbor said. "He was a pretty good neighbor."

The last entry for Vann on the Texas sex offender registry lists his risk level as "low." But what police say has transpired the past 72 hours is anything but minimal.

The I-Team asked Buncich whether there could me more than seven victims.

"Who knows?" was his reply. "Our CSI forensic investigators are on the case right now."

Vann has a history with Indiana police before registering as a sex offender. In 2004, was charged with Residential Entry and Intimidation in an incident in which he allegedly threatened to set himself on fire, according to a Gary police affidavit.
 



Murder charges filed against suspect in deaths of 7 women in Gary, Hammond

By Lolly Bowean, Peter Nickeas, Jeremy Gorner and Annie Sweeney - ChicagoTribune.com

October 20, 2014

A convicted sex offender has been charged with the murder of one of seven women found dead in Gary and Hammond over the weekend as police continue their investigation, including the suspect's possible involvement in other murders stretching back decades, police said Monday.

Darren Deon Vann, 43, has been charged with murder in the strangulation of Afrikka Hardy, 19, at a motel in the 3800 block of 179th Street in Hammond Friday night. Investigators discovered the bodies of six other women in Gary after Vann was arrested.

Hardy moved to Chicago in the summer to live with family here and was going to “spread her wings,” her mother, Lori Townsend, said in a phone interview.

Hardy planned on going to school and was excited about starting a new life. Her devastated mother is now planning to celebrate her daughter’s life with a party back in Colorado so that she came remember how Hardy lived, not her tragic death.

“She was a 19-year-old beautiful, intelligent young lady. She walked in a room and lit it up,” Lori Townsend said. “With her laugh, her smile, her beauty. She could make you cry. She could make you laugh. She made you think about things.”

Vann was charged late Monday with murder, murder in perpetration of a robbery and robbery resulting in serious injury, according to court documents.

According to an affidavit filed with the charges, Hardy was found naked in the bathtub of the motel room with the shower running. Red marks could be seen on her neck where she apparently had been strangled with “something thin,” the affidavit said.

Police found a broken fingernail, a shirt button and a torn condom wrapper on the floor of the room. and the beds had been moved away from the headboards, indicating there had been a struggle, according to the affidavit.

Hardy’s friend and partner in an escort business told police Vann was using the online name “Big Boy Appetite” when he responded to Hardy’s ad posted on the website "backpage," according to the affidavit. The friend said Hardy texted her at 5:17 p.m. Friday indicating the man was at the motel with her, according to the document.

The friend said after Hardy “went past the normal time” for an appointment, she tried to call Hardy’s cell phone as many as eight times but there was no answer. She texted Hardy’s phone and received an response that did make sense, leading her to believe the man had sent the message.

The friend then called another friend and the two of them went to the motel room and discovered Hardy’s body, according to the affidavit.

ideo surveillance from the motel shows Vann getting out of a dark SUV and entering Hardy’s room around the time of the slaying, the affidavit said. Cell phone records of the man who answered Hardy’s ad with the name “Big Boy Appetite” led police to an address in the 600 block of West 49th Avenue in Gary, where a search warrant was conducted on Saturday.

After his arrest, Vann admitted to police he responded to an ad posted under the name “Octavia,” drove to the motel and killed Hardy as the two had sex.

Vann told police “at one point the sex was getting rough and she started to fight with him,” according to the document. “Vann said that he strangled the woman first with his hands and then with a cord before placing her body in the bathtub of the motel room.”

When Vann was arrested, he was wearing a shirt that was missing a button, the affidavit stated.

Hammond police Chief John Doughty said at a news conference earlier Monday that authorities were still investigating the deaths of six other women over the weekend, as well as claims by Vann that he had killed other people “going back 20 years in the state of Indiana.”

That information, Doughty said, has “yet to be corroborated.”

Asked about a possible motive for the slayings, Doughty said that investigators had been talking at length with Vann but “I don't have a specific reason he did this.”

When police took Vann into custody over the weekend, he not only admitted his involvement in Hardy's death but “expressed interest” in telling more.

“He was looking for some type of deal with the prosecutors,” Doughty said.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott said police “caught a break” and were able to surprise Vann with how fast they were able to track him down.

“I think he was shocked,” McDermott said after the news conference. “We caught him off guard, and he … started working with police.”

During questioning, Vann told detectives about the locations of other victims, including three women found in the 400 block of East 43rd Avenue, a block littered with vacant buildings and weed-choked lots. Two of those victims have been identified as Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville, and Christine Williams, 36, of Gary.

Another victim, Teaira Batey, 28, of Gary, was found in the 1800 block of East 19th Avenue in Gary on Saturday, police said, and an unidentified African American woman was found in the 2200 block of Massachusetts Street in Gary.

Around 7:50 p.m. on Sunday, the body of a still-unidentified woman was found in the 4300 block of Massachusetts Street in Gary, according to the Lake County coroner’s office. That woman’s cause of death was strangulation.

McDermott said that Vann has mentioned shootings in Hammond that go back to the 1990s. Police have to follow those leads to see if they can be verified, he said.

The Lake County coroner’s office continued trying to positively identify five of the women Monday afternoon, an official there said. Coroner’s office personnel were trying to use DNA to identify two of the women.

Vann was convicted in Travis County, Texas, of sexual assault and served five years in a penitentiary, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

According to the state’s records, he was arrested for a Dec. 15, 2007, attack on a “25-year-old Hispanic female,” whom he assaulted and “struck several times and attempted to strangle,” said spokesman Jason Clark.

Vann was sentenced in September 2009 and he was ordered to register as a sex offender after his release in 2013.

Vann last registered as a sex offender in Lake County, Indiana, in August 2013, using the address of 1428 E. 50th Ct. in Gary, according to online records.

Indiana court records show Vann was arrested in April 2004 and charged with residential entry and intimidation stemming from an incident in Gary. As part of an agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty in June 2004 to misdemeanor residential entry, while the felony charge of intimidation was dropped, court records show.

He was sentenced to a year in jail and a year on probation.

In September 2005, Vann admitted to violating rules of his probation and he was sentenced to 90 days in jail, court records show.

On Monday, Vann's brother, Reginald Beard, 30, stood in the front doorway of his Gary home and apologized to the victims' families.

“To the victims, I'm sorry for their loss,” Beard said. “I'm a father of two daughters myself. This comes as a shock to us and our household…This is a painful moment for us too.”

Reached by telephone Monday, a woman who identified herself as Vann’s ex-wife called the news a “shocker.”

“Oh … I don’t believe it,” said the woman, who did not want her name published. “I am half-way in shock,” she said.

The woman said she met Vann through a friend and they were married in 1995, but had been estranged since 2005. She said he never mistreated her.

“You know, he was always OK,” the woman said. “I don’t really know what else to say. He is nothing like that.”

Her son -- who also didn’t want his name used -- said he was often suspicious of Vann and said Vann sometimes talked to himself and had other odd habits. He also noted that his mother is considerably older than Vann and he never understood why Vann was interested in her.

“He was strange, he was weird,” the son said.

Vann’s former wife said he served in the Marines and is originally from Gary. He has worked security and maintenance jobs in Texas and Indiana.

Records show Vann’s wife filed for divorce in Lake County Circuit Court in August 2009, citing an “irretrievable breakdown,” according to the court file. The divorce was finalized in 2010 after Vann failed to show up for court proceedings, records show.

Beard said his brother had lived on East 50th Court -- a neighborhood of single-story ranch homes dotted with vacant lots and overgrown brush -- after he returned to Indiana from Texas. He had been splitting time between there and their sister's house, Beard said.

Beard said he found out about his brother's arrest Saturday before he went to work.

“They came to my sister's house,” Beard said. “Apparently all this went down at my sister's house. Like I said, he flops around a lot since he's been in and out.”

Beard said he needed to find a new place to stay out of fear for himself and his daughters. He froze for a second after learning the crimes could go back decades, his mouth slightly open. Then he drove away.

Like many of Gary’s residential neighborhoods, the 400 block of East 43rd Avenue is filled with overgrown yards, including the tan and gray wood-frame home where three of the bodies were found. On Monday, the door to the front door to the home stood open. The two houses next to the property also appeared abandoned and overgrown by trees and tall grasses.

The block was mostly silent except for a few people who wandered by to see where the bodies had been found.

Resident Joe Castillo said that for years he has tried to get the city to either clean up around the vacant homes or tear them down, but his pleas have gone unanswered.

“It used to be a nice community here, but slowly people started moving out,” said Castillo, 68, who lives next door to three vacant houses, including the one where the bodies were found. “My main concern was it made us unsafe. It's only me and my wife here. I'm afraid to leave her here by herself.”

Castillo said he never saw anyone coming or going to the vacant houses — but then again, he couldn't. The yards are so overgrown with tree limbs, bushes and grass that they are almost not visible. The houses have been vacant for nearly a decade, he said.

“I hope now the city will do something,” he said. “These are livable houses. There are good people here. But because of so many abandoned houses, it only attracts the rats.”

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said Monday authorities were “looking at what might be done with cadaver dogs and other investigative tools to ensure that we are not going to find dead bodies in other buildings.”

The mayor said she believed Vann preyed on individuals who “might be less likely to be reported missing.”

When asked if some of the remains were skeletal, Freeman-Wilson said: “Some of them were significantly decomposed. I wouldn’t characterize them at this juncture as skeletal.”

Tribune reporters Deanese Williams-Harris and Liam Ford contributed.