BY BILL CLUTTER, DIRECTOR OF INVESTIGATIONS, “INVESTIGATING INNOCENCE”
THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
Around 5:20 a.m. on June 14, 2007, a man driving to work along the frontage road of Interstate 55 south of Joliet, Illinois encountered Christopher Vaughn, 32, limping away from the Ford Expedition he had been driving. He had two survivable gunshot wounds. One bullet pierced his left wrist, while another went through his left leg. When the man asked if he had been in a motorcycle accident, or if he had been stabbed, he replied, “No, I think my wife shot me”.
His family, Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8, were found dead, seated together in the rear passenger seat, each shot twice. His wife, Kimberly, 34, was in the front passenger seat, slumped over the center console with a single contact gunshot wound under her chin. Chris’s 9mm Taurus handgun was found on the floorboard near her feet.
A few years before, Chris Vaughn had started Stone Bridge Security, a licensed private detective agency in Bellevue, WA. Kimberly planned to get her degree in criminal justice and join him as a PL In 2004, Chris purchased a 9mm Taurus and joined the Washington Association of Legal Investigators (WALI). One of the members suggested he get a gun for serving process. But Chris’ specialty was computer forensics. His wife passed a certification course and practiced shooting at a Seattle range.
Plans changed when Chris landed a job with Chicago-based Navigant. He moved the family to Oswego, Illinois. He traveled all over the U.S and Mexico downloading computer hard drives and mobile devices for some of the largest law firms, Navigant clients. It was a lonely life for Kimberly.
Transported to the hospital, Chris Vaughn believed his family was still alive. He told a nurse, “You should call my wife. She gets mad when I don’t call her.”
Interviewed by detectives, the only memory Chris had was that Kimberly wanted him to pull off the highway because she was feeling nauseous, a symptom of her stress-induced migraine headaches. He remembered pulling off, parking in front of a cell phone tower along a frontage road and getting out of the car to check the back tires. He had re-secured the strap on the topper, got back into the vehicle, noticed that his leg was bleeding, but had no memory of being shot.
The ISP crime scene investigator listed Kimberly as Suspect #1 and Christopher Suspect #2. The contact wound under her chin was a classic sign of self-infliction. The CSI said he was persuaded by the physical evidence that this was a murder-suicide committed by the wife.
So why was Christopher Vaughn arrested?
Police detectives found at the Vaughn home a copy of PI Magazine with a cover story called Crime Scene Staging and Alterations: The CSI Effect On Criminal Investigations. The magazine was collected as evidence and sent to the crime lab in an attempt to prove chat Chris had read the article, and became an expert on crime scene staging. The lab was able to find his fingerprints on the article. He told investigators he had been too busy to read the magazine.
The ISP CSI described how the phenomenon of tunnel vision infected the Vaughn case. He said, “Every time I would come up with something that the evidence would suggest or support or you would be able to at least follow the evidence to come to a logical conclusion, basically I was just given some other crazy way that this could have occurred or they would change their theory of what happened to try to match the evidence rather than letting the evidence dictate to you the events that occurred”.
After this, the CSI was excluded from the investigation and the Will County State’s Attorney wrote a letter to his supervisor asking that the CSI no longer be assigned to Will County cases.
During a case review with investigators and the crime lab, the State’s Attorney stated that a woman’s hand would be unable to squeeze the trigger of the 9mm Taurus. However, a state police ballistic expert from ISP crime lab who was present when he made this remark disputed this chauvinistic assumption saying that her own hand was able to test fire the weapon with no difficulty.
The State’s Attorney was also convinced that the barrel of the gun had been forcefully jammed underneath Kimberly Vaughn’s chin, based on his interpretation of what they called a “snowman” like soot impression on the bottom of Kimberly’s chin. The State’s forensic pathologist later disagreed with this conclusion and testified in deposition that the soot pattern fanning away from the entrance wound meant that this was loose contact with no force. There was no bruising around the margins of the skin. The gun bad not been jammed under her chin, as investigators initially suspected.
THE END Of THE DEATH PENALTY
I was appointed as the fact investigator in 2007 after prosecutors declared their intent to seek the death penalty. I was brought on to the case by a St. Louis criminal defense attorney with whom I had worked before.
Gov. Patrick Quinn signed the bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois on March 9, 2011. That stripped away resources to defend Vaughn. Funding his defense reverted back to Will County. Gone was the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, a $20 million statewide fund created as one of the reforms to “level the playing field” by providing funding for defense experts, investigators, and experienced criminal defense attorneys. Created after PI Paul Ciolino obtained a confession that freed Anthony Porter from death row in 1999, the fund was intended to provide resources for proving innocence before trial rather than after conviction.
On the case for four years, Chris’s defense team, now preparing for trial, was yanked from the game. The Will County board denied a completion budget and appointed a local attorney.
At the National Innocence Conference in Cincinnati in April 2011, I ran into an old friend—Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School. After hearing the evidence that supported our defense theory, he recruited a defense attorney to assist pro bono. Without a good explanation, the appointed local attorney left a voice message to cancel the meeting and declined the assistance of the Center.
It was a sickening feeling, as the architect of our defense experts and strategy, watching the case swirling around the toilet bowl. The defense experts we recruited for trial were flushed down the drain. Key experts were never called to testify.
Eight months later, a jury deliberated 30 minutes before finding Chris guilty.
THE STATE’S CASE
For the first few months, I had assumed this would be a sentencing case. At first blush, it looked like Chris was guilty. There were chat messages recovered from his computer to a guy in Canada revealing he was contemplating strapping on a backpack and leaving civilization and his family to disappear into Alaska’s Yukon. That spring he went on a vacation alone to explore the Yukon. He chatted that he was resting out the fantasy of going off the grid for good.
It didn’t make sense that a guy, like Chris, an expert computer forensic investigator, would leave damaging evidence on his computer if he were contemplating killing his family. In discussing his fantasy to trek into the wilderness, he suggested he could fake his own death so his stay-at-home wife could collect on his three and a half million dollar life insurance policy. He said he wanted the family to be taken care of financially.
There was a life insurance policy on his wife worth a million dollars, but if Chris was motivated by money, why would he leave a job that paid him $200,000 a year to hike into the wilderness to live off nature? His insurance agent told me she had suggested they take out a life insurance policy as part of sound financial planning. She set up a total financial package, but when she suggested insuring the lives of his children, Chris declined.
Another incriminating fact was Chris’ visit to a strip club near O’Hare Airport two nights before his family was killed. He spent over $4,000 on one stripper during two visits a week apart. She told police he only wanted to talk. There was no sexual contact, not even a lap dance.
The blood evidence on the back of his jacket suggested he was seated in the driver’s seat at the time his wife suffered the fatal contact wound under her chin. She slumped toward the driver’s seat and a river of blood flowed onto the center console, causing secondary spatter stains on the side of the driver’s seat adjacent to the center console. The back side of Chris’s jacket had a transfer stain in a straight line just under the right shoulder blade extending down to the waist of the jacket. This evidence suggested he was seated as his wife was bleeding and he leaned back, pressing the jacket against the leather seat, making contact with the secondary spatter stains.
Police investigators used this in their affidavit for probable cause, concluding that his statement of having looked down at his leg and then exiting the vehicle to summon help was inconsistent with the evidence of his wife’s blood on the back of his jacket. They noted that he had to have been seated inside the vehicle when his wife was shot and killed, yet he failed to remember his wife and kids being killed. He was arrested as he was about to attend their funerals.
ANALYZING THE DEFENSE
It was only after I read the transcripts and watched the 20 hours of video interrogation by police that I realized Chris might be innocent. Reviewing his statements, it was apparent that he had no memory of what happened to his family.
It was clear that there were key events that he was unable to remember. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-IV), I found a condition known as Dissociative Amnesia, a form of memory loss caused when a person witnesses a traumatic event. The DSM-IV gave an example that a person may suffer this condition if they are the sole survivor and witness their entire family die in an automobile crash. The manual said a person would remember everything up until the trauma producing event, but would have no memory of the events that produced the trauma. In some cases the memory may be restored days later, or not at all, according to the DSM-IV I recommended that we appoint an expert in psychiatry to evaluate the statements Chris made to police. Our expert called me and said he was convinced by watching the 20 hours of video that Chris may be innocent.
Police had given him every opportunity to blame his wife, but he responded, “There was no way she could have hurt the kids “.
He genuinely appeared unaware that his family had been killed. The psychiatrist said he was using the present tense when he talked about
his wife and children. It was only after police showed him the photos of his dead family that he began to refer to them in the past tense. The psychiatrist said this nuance of detail would be difficult to fake.
Police then used trickery to illicit a confession. They told him that after 911 cell phone towers were equipped with security cameras. The mistake he made, they told him, was parking the vehicle under the cell phone tower. Chris pleaded with police to get the video so he would know what happened to his family.
On the second day, when police pressed him to try to remember what happened by telling him “do it for your children”, he had a fragmentary memory. After getting back inside the car, he said, “I looked over and thought I saw a gun, but I knew that was impossible — why does Kim have a gun? … It was like my mind shut off … I froze and I looked down and my leg was bleeding.” To have that memory in his mind of what happened next would be too painful to bear. So the mind blocks it out.
ln the video interview; he demonstrated raising his left arm between the gun and his head just as he noticed her pointing the gun at him. This would have been a fatal head shot, had he not worn his heavy, silver watch band imbedded with turquoise stones, that morning. The bullet deflected off the watch and went out the driver’s side window — evidence that was consistent with the CSI’s interpretation.
The gun was thrust into his jacket above the right pocket for the second shot. The bullet passed within a fraction of an inch over his penis and scrotum, entered the top of his left leg and exited through the side seam of his jeans. There were two holes in his jacket. The first entrance hole was the front right pocket; the second an exit hole near the back bottom left side of the jacket. A piece of his flesh was recovered around the margins of the exit hole of the back of the jacket. The bullet was recovered from the motor of the driver’s door window mechanism. Traces of his flesh and blood, and denim and polyester fibers consistent with the jacket and jeans were found on the bullet.
“If these were self-inflicted injuries, why shoot yourself twice?” the ISP CSI asked. This led him to question the state’s theory that Chris had killed his family.
Why would a father simply sit there after being shot and allow his wife to shoot and kill the kids and then herself without doing anything to prevent it? Before the death penalty went away, I was bringing in an expert to help explain this. One symptom of experiencing a traumatic event is the “freeze-response.” His statement to police ”I froze” is exactly what may have happened.
CRIME SCENE RECONSTRUCTION: BULLET TRAJECTORY
The best defense evidence was developed when we went to inspect the family vehicle stored in the old Joliet Penitentiary. The ISP crime scene investigator documented in his report that the bullet that struck Cassandra, seated in the middle between her two siblings, exited through the back of her seat and lodged in the rear cargo seat. Our crime scene expert Tom Bevel used a dowel rod to determine the bullet trajectory. The rod pointed in the direction of the passenger seat.
He recommended we retain ballistics expert Lucien Haag. During his second inspection of the vehicle, Haag attached a laser to the end of the dowel rod and was able, with the tip of his finger, to demonstrate that the shot that struck Cassandra had been fired from the passenger seat, Kimberly was seated.
BLOOD STAIN PATTERN ANALYSIS
DNA testing later invalidated a misinterpretation of blood stain evidence, which the State used to establish probable cause to arrest Chris. Initially, it was believed that he had unbuckled his wife’s seat belt after he shot her. When investigators arrived at the scene, they noticed blood stains on the strap of the seatbelt. When they extended the passenger seatbelt there was a heavy concentration of blood that had soaked through the fabric of the belt which had been concealed within the frame of the vehicle. When they latched the seat belt, the large bloodstain was located right at the point where the latch came together. Given the fact that the wife’s chin wound was directly above this, it was assumed that she had been the source of this blood.
However, a DNA report from the ISP crime lab contradicted this theory. This report was sent to the lead detective several days before he took the grand jury witness stand. He testified that it was the wife’s blood on the seat belt. However, the DNA report contradicted his testimony. All of the stains tested, including the latch, proved Chris was the source of the blood, meaning that his wife’s seatbelt had been latched at the time that her husband was shot. It was his blood that bled onto her buckled seat belt.
For some inexplicable reason, this report, received before the probable cause hearing, was marked “draft”. It was then re-dated to reflect that it was finalized a day after the lead detective gave his factually inaccurate grand jury testimony.
By analyzing the blood evidence on the wife’s right thumb, it all comes together to prove it was the wife who unbuckled her own seatbelt, after her husband had been shot. There is a transfer stain of blood on the inside of Kimberly’s right thumb.
Transfer stains occur when an object, like a thumb, comes imo contact with a bloody object. In this case, the seatbelt latch was soaked with Chris’s blood. There is a swipe mark on the latch, which corresponds with the transfer stain on his wife’s right thumb.
This analysis of the crime scene evidence not only disproves the initial police theory that it was Chris who unbuckled the seat belt, but it helps to establish evidence supporting a defense theory that this was a murder suicide committed by the wife. She had unbuckled her own seat belt co reach back to shoot her three children. Analysis of the bloodstain patterns on her left hand provides more compelling evidence that her death was indeed, a suicide.
At autopsy, the coroner was able to determine the orientation of the gun, based on the imprint of the gun’s site on Kimberly’s chin. During my investigation, I found a June 2003 American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology article entitled Back-Spatter Patterns: Hands Hold the Clues for the Forensic Reconstruction of the Sequence of Events that showed an illustration of the same orientation of a self-inflicted gunshot wound: “Blood spatter is mostly expected on the back of the thumb that is used for pulling the trigger … blood stains occur not only during the bullet impact or exit (back spatter or forward spatter) but also following blood seepage or dripping from the wounds.. “.
In some cases, the observation of back spatter on the hand that held the gun will provide unmistakable evidence of suicide. Back spatter is defined as a fine mist of blood that travels away from the entrance wound and creates a conical shaped pattern of blood stains usually measuring less than a millimeter in diameter. But not all entrance wounds produce back spatter. According to a study that used high speed photography to document veterinarians shooting cattle at close range, there were several occasions when no back spatter was observed.
Very little back spatter would occur with the bullet entering the soft underside of the chin. But what we see on the left thumb is seepage of blood from the wound, creating large patterns of passive blood drops. Autopsy photos of her left thumb show patterns of passive drops of blood in the location where it would be expected, if she had pulled the trigger.
The interpretation of blood stains on Kimberly’s lap and upper legs indicate she was leaning over the gun when it was fired, which further supports a suicide.
HOMICIDAL AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOR INDUCED BY
Even more compelling evidence supporting a murder-suicide came over a year after Chris was arrested when the Food and Drug Administration recommended a black box warning for a risk of suicidal behavior for the medicine Kimberly was taking to treat her stress-induced migraine headaches. After she enrolled in her online class, Kimberly began to experience migraine headaches that her doctor attributed to stress. It’s worth mentioning that when Christopher was interviewed by police they suggested that he had been “stressed out,” which caused him to shoot and kill his family.
But there is more than just stress involved here. Kimberly’s doctor began to prescribe a cocktail of medications to relieve her migraine headaches, including the prescription medications Nortriptyline and Topamax. Both medications were detected in the toxicology testing conducted at autopsy. The Illinois State Police followed up by issuing subpoenas to her physicians requesting her medical records “that may indicate suicidal or homicidal thoughts or impulses, or relating to Kimberly’s prescriptions for and utilization of the drugs referred to as Topamax, Avapro, and Nortriptyline.” She was taking Avapro for high blood pressure.
On December 16, 2008, the FDA released a report linking a statistically significant risk of suicide in patients taking the prescription medication Topamax. Approved by the FDA to treat epilepsy and seizures, Topamax has an off label use for the treatment of migraine headaches.
The prosecution won a motion to introduce all of Kim’s emails to show to the jury that she was a happy person who was planning for the future. The prosecution argued to the jury that nowhere in these emails was any hint of suicidal ideation.
Bue there was one email she wrote to her husband on May 24, 2007, three weeks before her death that provides the best supporting evidence that she was experiencing dangerous side effects of her medications. After visiting a new doctor who specialized in osteopathic medicine, Kim wrote that her new doctor told her, “stopping the migraine medication … will also help stop my anxiety … I told him that you had noticed and I had noticed a big personality change and anxiety change and that I was lethargic (tired all the time).”
According to the new medication guide published in May 2009, the FDA required the manufacturer to insert into the product labeling new warnings informing patients and physicians: “Effects on Thinking … TOPAMAX may cause depression or mood problems, tiredness, and sleepiness”. Other side effects: “acting aggressive, being angry or violent” and “acting on dangerous impulses.”
The new medication guide advised patients to inform their doctor right away if they experienced anxiety while taking the medication. Her chief complaint on the day she went to see the osteopath was for the onset of “high anxiety “.
We asked the doctor who prescribed the Topamax about his patient’s email to her husband. He said her big change in personality was of concern to him. Had he known this he would have taken her off the medication right away.
“Compared with what I knew about Kimberly, yes, that would be a big change… That would be significant”, he said.
Then the doctor was asked what the significance would be taking both medications Nortriptyline and Topamax together. He replied, ”Well, it would increase the risk of suicidal thoughts.”
Christopher Vaughn was sentenced on Nov. 26, 2012, to four consecutive life terms. He is at Menard Correctional Center, one of the most violent prisons in Illinois.
PI Bill Clutter is a board certified member of the Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council and received his training in bloodstain pattern analysis from Bevel, Gardner and Associates. He started the Illinois Innocence Project in 2001, and is the Director of Investigations for a new national innocence project called ”Investigating Innocence” that he created in January 2012.