JOLIET, Ill. — More than five years after an Oswego man was arrested for allegedly killing his wife and three children on a Channahon frontage road along Interstate 55, attorneys began opening statements in his trial Monday morning at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet.
While Will County Assistant State's Attorney Debbie Mills sought to portray Christopher Vaughn, now 37, as a man searching for an exit from his obligations to his family, his attorney George D. Lenard said the evidence will show that Vaughn was shot by his wife, who committed a murder-suicide.
Mills started, telling the jury, on the morning of June 14, 2007, Vaughn carried out his exit plan by rounding the family up under the guise of a trip to a Springfield water park, with his wife, Kimberly, 34, in the front passenger seat of the Oswego family's red Ford Expedition and children Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8, in the backseat.
The family had started down I-55 when Vaughn took the Bluff Road exit and drove south along I-55's west frontage road, where at about 5:19 a.m., Mills said he exited the vehicle and shot his wife in the head and shot the children, both in the chest and in the head.
"All shots with precision — no misses," Mills said.
Further, Mills said he had two self-inflicted gunshot wounds, a graze wound to his left wrist and a shot through his leg. He left the scene and flagged a passerby down, who called for assistance from first responders.
What Vaughn didn't factor in, Mills claimed, was removing incriminating evidence and leaving it behind. She said the state intends to bring witnesses who will testify to Vaughn having Kimberly's blood on the back of a fleece jacket, and Christopher's blood being found on Kimberly's seat belt, as well as additional crime scene evidence that call his testimony to law enforcement into question.
Mills said Christopher's story also changed between initial statements to the passerby and Illinois State Police.
"Both of these stories do not match the blood and physical evidence inside that vehicle," she said.
After setting the crime scene, Mills turned to focus on Kimberly, who was a mother, a credit and a half from finishing a college degree from the University of Phoenix and had gone about normal day-to-day interactions the day before she died.
"Kimberly Vaughn is a person who had plans for her future," Mills said, describing an anniversary trip with her husband and a trip with her parents and the family to the Wisconsin Dells.
Mills turned the person in focus to Christopher, who was seated feet away in a tan suit, with a clean-shaven face and trimmed hair.
"His plans are in stark contrast to what Kimberly Vaughn's plans in life were," she said.
She said leading up to the deaths, Christopher had visited a shooting range using the murder weapon, frequented gentlemen's clubs and was planning to leave to live in northern Canada, referencing posts made online and a trip he had made alone to allegedly scout it out while Kimberly thought he was traveling for business.
During his opening statements to the jury, Lenard also contrasted Christopher and Kimberly, calling out their different personalities.
He called her bubbly, outgoing and constantly on the computer, and calling Christopher as being more reserved, holding back his emotions and not being likely to engage others in conversation or have close friendships.
"Christopher Vaughn in an eccentric dreamer," he said.
He also said that Vaughn's eccentricities make him vulnerable to suggestions like the prosecutors' — that he wished to leave his family for Canada.
"Mr. Vaughn likes writing poetry, Mr. Vaughn is quirky," he said. "He dresses different than most people do."
Lenard also said the defense is planning to bring witnesses to the stand to talk about medications Kimberly was taking at the time of her death, which he asserts impacted her mental state of mind at the time, including medications for migraines and high blood pressure.
He also called into question the Illinois State Police's interrogation techniques with investigators talking with Vaughn and evidence the state claims as conclusive in showing Kimberly's wounds as inflicted by another person.
He asked the jury to keep a clear mind, and that the burden of proof rests on the state.
"When you listen to the case, he is charged with killing his family," Lenard said. "The state has to prove without a reasonable doubt that Christopher killed his family."
In addition to giving opening remarks, the state brought its first witnesses to the stand Monday, including first responders from the Channahon Police Department and Channahon Fire Protection District.
First responders spoke about what they saw when they arrived at the scene, first finding Christopher leaning against the passerby's vehicle, then traveling further to find the vehicle and its occupants.
With his and his partner's guns drawn, Sgt. Steven Weiss said the two approached the vehicle, which had heavily tinted windows, did a peek quick in and saw passengers, and shouted commands to the occupants to show their hands. He peeked in a second time after seeing no response.
"I saw a female (whose) left eye bulged out and was bleeding from the mouth and nose," he said, when questioned by an assistant state's attorney. He said he could see more victims in the back seat.
He opened the rear driver's side door to assess the children in the backseat, and called for EMS personnel. Jurors and people in the courtroom were shown photographs taken by Weiss after paramedics came to the scene, including photos of Kimberly from the driver's side and the gunshot wound under her chin and the children in the backseat.
Lenard questioned Weiss and officer Mark Soustek, who responded with Weiss that day while under field training, if they had moved any person in the vehicle or had any blood on them or their uniforms, and they said they had not and did not have blood on them after responding and checking vitals for the four. Additional firefighter/ paramedic Ryan Jandura, Lt. Jacob Randich and Lt. Matthew Skole also responded similarly.
Christopher's mother and father, who were seated behind the prosecution, covered and averted their eyes as photos flashed upon prosecutors' computer and a large TV set in front of the jurors when similar photos were shown as Randich testified.
"ABSOLUTELY" DEVOTED MOTHER
Kimberly's mother, Susan Phillips, of St. Charles, Mo., rounded out the day with her testimony. She described her last visit with Kimberly, the weekend before, as a celebration of her daughter's college graduation.
The photos shown during her testimony of a smiling Kimberly in her cap and gown, and the children's school photos, contrasted with the images shown earlier.
She also said she first heard about the family's deaths watching TV news before she was contacted by local and Illinois officials.
During cross examination, Lenard probed Phillips for her awareness of Kimberly's medical state, asking if she was aware of the medications her daughter was on, which Phillips responded that she knew Kimberly was on medications, but wasn't sure of how her prescriptions affected her other than making her tired.
She said her daughter may have said her migraines may have been the result of being on the computer so frequently. He followed up, asking if Kimberly was constantly on the computer.
"She was driven by finishing Phoenix, so she was online daily," she said.
In one line of questioning, Lenard asked if Kimberly was "a fixer" — indicating that she felt like she had to make sure situations that went wrong were made right. He brought up a high school event in which Kimberly allegedly became so frustrated by a situation in her life that she had to seek counseling, which was deemed irrelevant by Judge Daniel Rozak, as there was a significant gap between that and her death.
Lenard also asked Phillips about Christopher. She said he frequently could be found on his Blackberry or on a computer, while Kimberly was more active with the kids.
She paused when asked if he could be described as a loving father.
"I would say I don't really know," she said.
She also said she couldn't describe him as "even keel" and that she had seen him raise his voice.
When questioned by the state, she said Kimberly "absolutely" was a loving mother.