GARY, Ind. – The two-bedroom home in Gary's Bungalow Heights area went up in the Roaring '20s, when the Indiana steel town was thriving and filled with prosperous subdivisions. By the time Anith Jones' body was found in its basement Saturday, the building was one of thousands of dilapidated, abandoned houses serving as havens for crime in cities like Detroit and Chicago that have battled neighborhoods in decline.
Police say Darren Vann, a 43-year-old former Marine, has confessed to killing Jones and six other women. All but one of the victims were found in abandoned homes in Gary, including two whose bodies were placed in a vacant dwelling next door to where Jones was found.
Vann, a convicted sex offender, is charged in the strangulation deaths of the 35-year-old Jones, whose body was found beneath a pile of tires and teddy bears, and 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy, who was found in a Hammond motel. He is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday in those cases, and authorities say more charges are expected once more causes of death and identities are determined.
Officials say the estimated 10,000 abandoned dwellings in Gary serve as magnets for drug dealers, squatters and others seeking cover for criminal acts. It's unclear how long the victims' bodies went unnoticed in the deteriorating, weed-encircled homes. At least one woman, Teaira Batey, was reported missing in late January, and investigators say some of the unidentified remains are badly decomposed.
Cpl. Gabrielle King, a spokeswoman for Gary police, said the vacant structures "serve as a free-for-all."
"You may be able to get away with different types of crimes, for a season anyway, because it's abandoned, it's not being cared for — anything can happen there," she said.
Abandoned buildings make it harder for a community to spot criminal activity on the streets, because the residents who once provided police with tips or discouraged criminal activity with their very presence are gone, said Patricia Fron, author of a study that found about 2,600 crimes were committed in the more than 15,000 vacant or abandoned buildings in Chicago in 2012.
At least one-fifth of Gary's homes are abandoned, and a survey that is now 75 percent complete has found about 8,000 vacant homes so far, said Joe Van Dyk, director of Gary's Department of Redevelopment. That tally could jump as crews survey areas with high vacancy levels, he said.
In Chicago, investigators have been checking vacant buildings in the city's south suburbs as they track Vann's movements in the hours after Hardy's body was discovered.
Eliminating blight — and cutting the crime associated with abandoned buildings — has been a focus in Detroit. The city, which has more than 40,000 vacant and abandoned houses, has made demolishing them a part of its rehabilitation strategy as it goes through bankruptcy. Crews are demolishing about 200 vacant houses each week, and Detroit has stepped up lawsuits against owners of abandoned properties.
City officials say vacant houses often are used in drug deals and pose threats to children walking to and from school. In the early 1990s, a man used vacant buildings in Detroit and Highland Park, Michigan, to kill and leave the bodies of his victims. Benjamin Atkins was convicted in 1994 of strangling 11 women — primarily prostitutes. Police said at the time that Atkins, who died in prison in 1997, used drugs to coax the women into abandoned motels and other buildings.
For Gary residents, the blighted areas are depressing reminders of how far the city has fallen from its steel heyday, when it had a population of 178,000. More than 100,000 people have left, and the city's poverty rate hovers around 40 percent. The 1924 home where Jones' body was found is slated for a tax sale to pay some of the nearly $8,000 in back taxes on that plot, according to local township records.
Van Dyk said the city has received about $10 million in the past year to demolish vacant buildings and hopes to have about 150 razed by year's end, and up to 500 more leveled next year.
"We recognize this is only a start, but we're going to continue to find resources to take care of the staggering number of vacant buildings," he said.
Callahan reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press writers Corey Williams in Detroit and Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this report.