Homicide

Death penalty sought against Indiana man charged in slayings of 2 women, suspected in 5 others

Indiana prosecutors filed a request Friday seeking the death penalty against a man charged in the slayings of two women and suspected in the deaths of five other women whose bodies were found last fall in abandoned homes in Gary.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter filed the death penalty request for Darren Deon Vann if he's convicted in the deaths of Afrikka Hardy, 19, of Gary and Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville. The 44-year-old Gary man did not attend Friday's hearing in Crown Point. A judge had recorded not guilty pleas on his behalf in October.

During the hearing, Lake Superior Court Judge Diane Ross Boswell agreed to allow prosecutors to file amended information that consolidates the two murder cases under one charging document and adds two counts that seek the death sentence for the two homicides.

The case consolidation means one jury will determine whether Vann murdered Hardy and Jones. His trial is set for June 22.

Carter argued that the two cases were similar in that both women had been strangled, they were killed within 10 days of each other and DNA analysis shows the same weapon — a brown cord — was used in both slayings.

He also said similar kinds of victims were targeted. Both Hardy and Jones had advertised as prostitutes on social media, according to court documents.

Vann's attorney, Teresa Hollandsworth, opposed the motion, arguing that joining the two cases would be highly prejudicial to her client. She said Jones' strangulation appeared to be a murder-for-hire and not a rage killing as prosecutors contended in their filing.

Boswell said joining the cases could lead to prejudice against Vann, but added that could happen even if the cases weren't joined because of the wide media coverage the killings received.

"From a practical standpoint, we would be hard-pressed to find two juries with no exposure to this case," the judge said.

Hardy was found strangled in the bathtub of a Hammond motel on Oct. 17. While being questioned by police in her death, Vann led investigators to the bodies of Jones and five other women in abandoned homes scattered across Gary. He has not been charged in connection with the other five homicide victims.

Boswell scheduled a May 6 hearing to advise Vann of the amended information and death sentence request. She also took under advisement until May 6 a letter that Vann is suspected of writing to Carter.

The contents of that letter are not part of the public case file, and authorities are prevented from discussing the case outside of court because of a gag order.

Prosecutors are seeking a handwriting sample from Vann to determine if he wrote the letter addressed to Carter.

Hollandsworth told Boswell she objected to the handwriting sample, but she did not deny the letter was written by Vann.