JOLIET, Ill. — A flurry of emails that document plans between a Canadian man and an Oswego man accused of killing his own family to escape to a simpler life in the Canadian wilderness were shown in court Friday.
Stephen Willott, a 31-year-old from near Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, told the jury he was using the social networking website "43 Things" to seek interaction with others who shared his interests in camping and survivalist topics when he came into contact in late 2006 with Christopher Vaughn.
Friday marked the end of the second week of Vaughn's trial at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet. While the state is claiming that, on June 14, 2007, Vaughn killed his wife, Kimberly, and their three children in an SUV along an Interstate 55 frontage road in Channahon, Vaughn's defense attorneys are claiming his wife shot her husband and then the children before committing suicide.
Willott said Vaughn seemed knowledgeable about camping, and the two began to email each other frequently – almost daily – as the two began to plan to travel to the Northwest Territories.
He read a series of emails that showed Vaughn plotting everything from how to bring weapons for hunting to Canada to learning how to forage for food and how to find a place where they could live undetected. The men shared Internet links, books, and even survivalist TV shows, from Man vs. Wild to a similar Canadian show, Survivorman.
"I look forward to going full native," Vaughn wrote.
While Willott said he was interested in camping for a few weeks, emails show that Vaughn was preparing for a long-term move and not looking to return to the United States. He describes waking up and realizing he doesn't want to continue in the life he's living, stuck in a job for 50 years with a woman he says is, 99 percent of the time, unpleasant to be around.
In one email, Vaughn shares a Henry David Thoreau quote expressing that if one is ready to leave family and friends, settle debts and other affairs that one is "a free man"
"I intend to walk into a different life with no regrets," he said.
In another correspondence, he says the reason why he wants to go through with the elaborate plan is basic.
"To me, it's to live a simple, peaceful life," away from government, big cities and other people, he writes.
The emails take a bizarre turn when Vaughn expresses that he needs someone he can trust to make a clean break from his life in Illinois, to help him go through with a plan to disappear and fake his death so that Kimberly can receive his life insurance money.
Assistant State's Attorney Chris Regis asked Willott if emails discussing those plans were weird to him.
"Absolutely," Willott said, without pause. "It was just the way he put it. For me it was just an extended camping trip — the way he put it was odd."
Vaughn also asks Willott if other people, including a girl he meets at a gentlemen's club, could join him. Willott also testified that while Vaughn mentioned his wife, he never mentioned his children.
Earlier in the morning, prosecutors also brought Mary Wong, an Illinois State Police forensic scientist specializing in trace chemistry and analysis, to the stand to testify about the traces of gunshot residue found on pieces of evidence.
She said while gunshot residue can consist of anything from a firearm, like lubricants or cleaner, she was interested in the presence of primer, associated with a discharged firearm, which consists of the elements lead, barium and antimony.
Using gunshot evidence kits, she took samples from the webbing between Kimberly Vaughn's thumb and index finger on both hands, as well as from Christopher's fleece jacket and the waistband of his underwear.
From the samples taken, Wong determined Kimberly could have shot the firearm, been in the vicinity of the discharged firearm, or have otherwise come into contact with the firearm's gunshot residue.
With Christopher's underwear and jacket, she said there were two options — that it was in the vicinity of a discharged firearm or otherwise came into contact with gunshot residue particles.
Another method Wong used to examine Christopher's jacket was element mapping, where the jacket was scanned and magnified by a scanning electron microscope, with areas of elements present in the gunshot residue shown in different colors on connected screens in varying intensities.
On the jacket, she examined the front gunshot hole and the back separately, dividing the area around the bullet hole up like pie pieces. On the front of the jacket, she said seven of the eight areas she magnified under the microscope contained elements that were consistent with primer gunshot residue. The back showed three of seven of the areas had traces of elements consistent with primer residue.
On cross examination Vaughn attorney George Lenard asked if it's conclusive who shot the gun.
"I'm not a ballistics expert," she said, adding she is only an expert in examining evidence for traces of material.
Lenard asked her if she had processed additional items and fabrics from the crime scene, in an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the evidence items. He also asked if the residue could have transferred from other clothing if balled together — possibly to tie that to the handling of Vaughn's clothing when it was collected.
The trial will resume Tuesday, after a Labor Day break.