Of all the tens of thousands of men and women locked up in Illinois prisons, the least wrongfully convicted just might be Christopher Vaughn.
Vaughn stuck a gun under the chin of his wife, Kimberly Vaughn, and put a bullet in her head.
Then he turned his pistol, the same one he practiced with at a gun range the night before, on their three children — Blake, 8, Cassandra, 11, and Abigayle, 12 — and shot each of them in the head and in the chest. He supposedly killed his family so he could go off alone to live in the Canadian wilderness.
Vaughn, 46, was sentenced to a life term in prison for each of the killings. The jury was out for less than an hour before it found him guilty.
Now, nine years after he was convicted of murder four, there’s a movement afoot to prove those convictions were wrongful.
Vaughn’s recollection of the 2007 killings likely didn’t help him. He told the police how he left home about 5 a.m. to take his family to a Springfield water park. On the way, Kimberly felt sick, so he pulled off Interstate 55 in Channahon and headed down the secluded frontage road.
Vaughn got out of the family SUV to check the luggage carrier on the roof. When he got back in the vehicle he noticed his leg was bleeding, so he got out again and walked up the road to find help.
A passerby found Vaughn and called for help. At the hospital, a doctor informed Vaughn he’d been shot.
Vaughn later told the police that Kimberly shot him. His attorney, George Lenard, made the case that Kimberly also killed all the children.
One of the prosecutors who tried the case, Chris Regis, called Vaughn’s story “ridiculous,” “full of holes,” “ludicrous,” “bizarre,” “laughable,” “unbelievable,” “absurd,” “insane” and “silly.” The jury apparently agreed.
It’s taken him 14 years, but Vaughn has since come up with another, possibly less ridiculous version of what happened in the SUV. In a letter read by his father on the Podcast “Murder in Illinois,” Vaughn explained he never actually forgot that his wife shot his children and then killed herself. That was just a lie he made up because he “did not know how to, or want to deal with what happened that morning.” He also thought the police would figure it out on their own without his having to come out and call his wife a murderer.
What had really happened, Vaughn said, was that he pulled off the interstate and got out of the SUV. Then as he was getting back in, he said, “it sounded like the inside of the truck was exploding.”
Kimberly had shot the children, Vaughn said, and she “turned the gun on herself and fired.”
With the benefit of time, Vaughn has realized that not being more forthcoming about how it was really his wife who killed everyone might have been a bad idea.
“Saying I did not remember the morning of the tragedy was a mistake and I am sorry,” his father read from the letter.
If you buy Vaughn’s latest revelation, it means an innocent man has spent nine years surviving the hazards of prison life. But when you think about it, it doesn’t really matter, at least not for Vaughn.
After all, prosecutors said he killed his family so he could live out his days alone in a dangerous, hostile environment like the Yukon. In prison, he should feel right at home.
• Joe Hosey is the editor of The Herald-News. You can reach him at 815-280-4094, at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoeHosey.