Published September 20, 2012
JOLIET, Ill. – Jurors convicted a suburban Chicago computer specialist of murder Thursday in the deaths of his wife and three school-aged kids during a road trip to a water park.
Christopher Vaughn, 37, traveled to northwestern Canada a month before the slayings, and 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, state attorneys said.
Jurors took less than an hour to convict him.
It started as a death-penalty case, but Illinois has since abolished capital punishment. That means Vaughn faces a maximum life sentence.
Prosecutors say Vaughn pulled off the highway after 5 a.m. on June 14, 2007, placed a pistol under his wife Kimberly's chin and fired.
They say he then shot 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and 8-year-old Blake in the chest and head.
"He was held back by four major obstacles," prosecutor Chris Regis said. "Those four obstacles were eliminated on June 14, 2007."
Just after 5 a.m. on that day, as they headed to a Springfield waterpark from their Oswego home, Vaughn pulled the family SUV off the highway, placed a 9-mm Taurus pistol under his 34-year-old wife Kimberly's chin and fired, prosecutors told jurors.
Regis read emails 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 e-mail.
He had long since written off his wife and kids, Regis told jurors.
"He's ready to drop off the face of the earth and disappear," he said. "This is all about him. ... Me, me, me, me. I, I, I."
Christopher Vaughn took notes during nearly six straight hours of closings 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 from her nose and mouth.
In his closing, defense attorney George Lenard repeated Vaughn's contention that his wife -- suicidal over marriage troubles and affected emotionally by antidepressant medication -- shot Vaughn in the wrist and leg, killed the children and then 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 they 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 kid's heads.
"No way, ladies and gentlemen," Fitzgerald said. "No way that's possible."