Investigators in two states were taking a fresh look at unsolved murders and missing person reports Tuesday, after the arrest of an Indiana man who police say confessed to killing seven women, led them to a half-dozen bodies and hinted there may be more.
Darren Vann, a 43-year-old former Marine who served time in Texas for sexual assault, was charged Monday in the strangulation death of Afrikka Hardy, 19, a prostitute whose body was found Friday in a bathtub at a Motel 6 in Hammond, roughly 20 miles southeast of Chicago and 10 miles from Gary, the gritty northwest Indiana city where police found six more bodies. Vann, who was taken into custody Saturday, confessed to killing Hardy, told police where the Gary bodies could be found and hinted at other victims since the 1990s, Hammond Police Chief John Doughty said.
"It could go back as far as 20 years based on some statements we have, but that has yet to be corroborated," said Doughty, adding that the killings in Gary slayings appeared to have happened recently, and that Vann told police he "messed up" by murdering a woman outside of Gary.
The bodies were found in and around abandoned homes in Gary, a once-thriving steel town that has struggled with crime and poverty for decades. Given Vann's chilling indication of more bodies, and Gary's abundance of abandoned homes, the search for more victims could be lengthy.
Gary Police Chief Larry McKinley noted in a press conference Tuesday that Gary has more than 8,000 abandoned commercial and residential buildings and it will take a long time to go through them. A team of police offers swept more than 120 buildings, which took nearly eight hours.
Also complicating matters is the fact that Vann is believed to have preyed on prostitutes or others who may have fallen through society's cracks, noted a former high-ranking agent at the FBI’s Chicago office. Unlike teenagers or adults who stay in close contact with relatives, those on society's fringes are not always reported missing quickly.
“If one of them goes missing for days or weeks, it might be that nobody cares,” said Joseph Ways Sr., executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission. “It’s a shame.”
The seven murders Vann is now suspected of committing came to light following a tryst at the Hammond motel. Doughty said Hardy had arranged to meet Vann via a Chicago-area website, and that police were called by someone who attempted to reach Hardy but received text messages that made no sense and that she believed came from the suspect. The police investigation quickly led to Hardy's pimp, and then to Vann, who was taken into custody Saturday and charged on Monday. Authorities in Gary hope to file murder charges against Vann later this week.
The body of one victim, Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville, Ind., was found late Saturday in an abandoned home. She had been missing since Oct. 8. Five additional bodies were found Sunday in other homes. Doughty identified two of the women as Gary residents Teaira Batey, 28, and Christine Williams, 36. Police have not determined the identities of the other three women, including two whose bodies were found on the same block where Jones' body was found.
The specter of a serial killer in the Chicago area brought to mind the notorious murderer John Wayne Gacy, a child entertainer who became known as the "Killer Clown" for luring his victims into his Windy City home before killing them. Gacy was executed in 1994 after being implicated in the murder of 33 men and boys. The total number of people Gacy killed may never be known, as he had moved around the country and later hinted that he was more prolific than police originally believed.
In Vann's case, police in Austin, Texas, where he lived for a time with his former wife, are reviewing missing person reports and unsolved murders to determine whether any may be connected to Vann. Maria Vann, who was married to Vann for 16 years, told The New York Times in a phone interview that she was “lightheaded” at the thought of her former husband’s being responsible for murder.
“I married a man who was kind, intelligent, very relaxed, very nice to everybody,” she told the newspaper. “He was a little bit of a loner. He could be on his own, listening to his own music, for a long time. He would stay at the library a ton of time. He was always by himself.”
Maria Vann said she met Vann in 1991 through friends in Indiana. They later moved to Texas and married in Austin, where he later worked a series of jobs for technology companies and as a security guard, she said. When they moved back to Indiana in 2000, he found work at a steel mill and a casino.
“That’s when things started getting kind of shaky,” Vann told the newspaper. “I didn’t want to be with him anymore. He had single friends. There were signs that he was going with somebody else.”
In 2006, Maria Vann returned to Texas. Darren Vann followed her and found work, despite their separation. The couple later divorced in 2011. Vann said she cut off contact with Darren Vann after she found out about his sexual assault conviction in 2009.
Vann is registered as a sex offender in Texas, where the Department of Public Safety listed his risk of attacking someone again as "low." He did not register in Indiana. Court records in Travis County, Texas, indicate he served a five-year prison sentence, with credit for the 15 months he was in jail awaiting trial, after pleading guilty in 2009 to sexually assaulting a woman at an Austin apartment two years earlier.
The woman told police that she went to Vann's apartment, where he asked if she was a police officer. After she told him no, he knocked her down, strangled her, hit her several times in the face and told her he could kill her. He then raped her. Vann allowed the woman to leave and she called police the next day.
The circumstances of that case had similarities to Hardy's death, according to the victim's mother and court records.
Lori Townsend said police told her that Vann asked her daughter to perform a certain sex act, and "when she said 'no' and put up a fight, he snapped and strangled her."
Vann told police Hardy began to fight during sex and that he strangled her with his hands and an extension cord, the probable cause affidavit says.
"This man is sick," Townsend said from her home in Colorado.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.