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Steinberg: Vaughn case another reminder that America excels at murdering kids

Members jury listened as Foreman Dan Lach spoke reporters outside Will County Courthouse Joliiet after they found Christopher Vaughn

Members of the jury listened as Foreman Dan Lachat spoke to reporters outside the Will County Courthouse in Joliiet after they found Christopher Vaughn guilty of the murder of his wife Kimberly and their three children. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 22, 2012 6:17AM

The murderer who shot Christopher Vaughn did a far less effective job than was done shooting his family.

The Oswego man suffered a slight bullet wound to the thigh that June day in 2007, while his daughters Abigayle, 12, and Cassandra, 11, and his son Blake, 8, were executed at close range, each with a bullet to the head and a bullet to the chest as they sat, strapped in their seat belts in the family’s red Ford Explorer, parked on the side of an access road off Interstate 55. Vaughn’s wife, Kimberly, was shot by a gun jammed under her chin.

On Thursday, it took a jury an hour to decide the difference in thoroughness was because Vaughn himself is guilty of the shooting.

As with the other horrifying, captivating murder trial of the summer, the Drew Peterson case, Vaughn was in law enforcement — a private investigator for a company focusing on computer fraud. As with Peterson, the murder of the Vaughn family lacked a single piece of dramatic, damning evidence, though here there was a literal smoking gun — a 9mm Taurus pistol, found at Kimberly Vaughn’s feet. Vaughn insisted his wife abruptly shot him first, before turning the gun on her children and herself while he fled. Though a far more convincing case was built by evidence inconsistent with his story — if he left their SUV after being shot, why was his wife’s blood on his jacket? Plus Vaughn’s strange activities before the murders — spending $5,000 in a strip club, visiting a gun range the night before the shootings, planning an escape to Canada with a pal. After a passing motorist picked Vaughn up as he limped along the highway, Vaughn expressed no concern about his wife and kids, only asked paramedics cutting his jeans away to look at his wound not to damage his cowboy boots.

Unlike Peterson, there were no voices from the grave to accuse the killer. Just the opposite. The Vaughns were a “fantastic family” with a “bright future” and no obvious discord. Rather, Vaughn accused himself, the way his story kept changing — a drive-by shooting, no, his wife suddenly snapped. Then there was the trip itself — a surprise early morning family trip to a water park, supposedly. What father springs that on his family?

Criminals are notoriously stupid, and the tale that Christopher Vaughn obviously thought would excuse him — look, I’m shot, too! — and net him his wife’s $1 million insurance policy looked pathetic and fraudulent.

In fact, the mind wants to reject the whole scenario as tawdry and tragic beyond contemplation. We want to put this away — guilty, good, stick him next to Drew Peterson. We’ll think about Vaughn again in 20 or 30 years, when they yank him out of whatever hole he’s been moldering in, to be denied parole and dropped back into oblivion. Oh yeah, right, that guy. Killed his family, and for what? Dreams of Canada? Hot for a stripper?

But before we do, one uncomfortable closing thought: This case is not the rarity we’d like it to be. The number of children murdered in the United States is surprisingly high — 1,363 victims under age 18 in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which means the death rate of children by murder is 1.6 per 100,000; to put that in perspective, the death rate for auto accidents in Illinois is 8 per 100,000. Americans excel at killing their children — in Great Britain, one child under 16 is murdered every week, on average — in the United States, it’s 20 children under 16 killed each week. Factor in differences in population and our child murder rate is four times theirs.

In some ways, the Vaughn case is not at all freakish but depressingly average. Murder is an overwhelmingly male activity, 90 percent of the time. When a child is killed, it’s usually a parent who does it — 59 percent, in children under 5. Ten percent are killed by another family member, and 30 percent by a friend, so if you do the math, you realize that Stranger Danger is one of the bigger lies we tell our kids, since 99 out of 100 cases are committed by someone the child knows and trusts. Perhaps that’s too grim a message to convey.

The most unusual thing about this case, from a statistical viewpoint, is the age of the child victims — 8, 11 and 12, a time in life when kids are the safest, with far more victims either babies and toddlers abused to death, or older teens caught up in street violence.

To view it another way — the Vaughns weren’t even the only family slain in the Chicago area the week of June 14, 2007. At least three other cases: six people were found dead in a home in Delevan, Wis., a woman and her son on the South Side of Chicago, and a teenager and her stepfather in Griffin, Ind. In every case, the man pulled the trigger.

Why didn’t Chris Vaughn just leave? Why did he have to kill his family first? For the insurance, maybe, to make a clean break, maybe, for reasons we’ll never know — something we probably should be grateful for. Whatever the plan was, it didn’t work. Which should also be comforting. In a third of all homicide cases, police never even make an arrest.

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