CROWN POINT — Victims' family members watched quietly in the courtroom as serial killer Darren D. Vann uttered the word "guilty" seven times — for each murder count read aloud by Lake Superior Court Judge Samuel Cappas Friday morning.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter called Vann, 47, of Gary "one of the most prolific serial killers" his office has ever dealt with.
Vann's admission of guilt took fewer than 10 seconds, but it was four, long years of waiting for Marvin Clinton, longtime boyfriend and fiancé to Teaira Batey, 28, of Gary, one of seven women Vann is suspected of killing.
Clinton, 49, of Gary, wiped tears from his eyes outside the courtroom shortly after exiting the surprise court hearing where Vann dodged the possible death penalty in the 2014 case in exchange for life without parole upon sentencing.
“I prefer him to stay locked up, so when he goes to bed at night and closes his eyes, he sees these women," Clinton said.
Vann was scheduled for trial this fall, where his defense team planned to stave off allegations he strangled Afrikka Hardy, 19, of Hammond, and Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville.
His defense team requested a change-of-plea hearing late Thursday afternoon in the high-profile serial killings.
Wearing a gray-striped jail jumpsuit while handcuffed and shackled, Vann was largely expressionless and displayed no emotion as Cappas reviewed the terms of the plea deal with him.
In addition to Hardy and Jones, Vann pleaded guilty to killing Batey; Tracy Martin, 41, of Gary; Kristine Williams, 36, of Gary; Sonya Billingsley, 53, of Gary; and Tanya Gatlin, 27, of Gary. A separate trial for those murders had not yet been scheduled.
Vann's sentencing date is set for May 25.
'These women will haunt him'
Clinton said he felt a wave of relief as he watched Vann — known for delaying court dates with his outbursts and combativeness in court — finally admit guilt to the murders.
“Today was a guessing game because this guy is so unpredictable,” Clinton said. “We don’t need to go to trial, to relive what he did to all these women, to hear the details of what he did to these women.”
For months, Clinton wandered the city streets peeking into abandoned buildings in hope of finding Batey, who went missing in late January 2014.
“We had plans to get married, but that was all cut short by this character here,” Clinton said.
The son they share together turned six in January, he said. As he aged, their son began asking questions about how Batey died, he said, so Clinton started making a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs.
Outside the courtroom, Carter said he hopes Friday's plea deal brings closure to the families, bypassing a lengthy trial and the rehashing of details.
Life without possibility of parole
Police believe Vann may have preyed on victims for more than 20 years, and that there is likely more than seven victims. He targeted prostitutes and other such women unlikely to be reported missing immediately.
As part of the agreement, prosecutors agreed not to file other charges against Vann in Lake County unless related to a homicide. In the event other murder charges are brought against him in Lake County, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against Vann.
Carter said the plea agreement’s terms apply only to Lake County.
As part of the deal, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree not to release any additional information beyond what has been documented in public record, unless ordered by the court or subpoena.
Gary Police Lt. Dawn Westerfield commended the hard work of several law enforcement agencies that worked on the Vann case.
“We are pleased (with the plea) and hopefully, the families get some resolution,” she said.
Vann led police to other bodies
Details about the murders began unraveling in October 2014.
Hammond police were led to Vann on Oct. 18, 2014, when they were investigating Hardy's homicide. Her body was found in a bathtub inside a motel room in the 3800 block of 179th Street in Hammond.
Plea agreement documents state Vann and Hardy were having sex at a motel when Vann became rough with her, so she struck him. In retaliation, Vann choked Hardy with a brown extension cord he brought with him to the motel room, placed her in the shower and began cleaning the room, the plea states.
In an interview with detectives Oct. 18, Vann admitted strangling Hardy and murdering several other women.
During the next several days while in police custody, Vann led police to the bodies of the other women, which he had hidden inside abandoned buildings in Gary.
Vann led police to a home in the 1800 block of East 19th Avenue, explaining he lured Batey to the abandoned home with the promise of crack cocaine in exchange for sex, the plea states. Vann had sex with Batey, killed her and hid her under a wooden bench.
"All of these women, they all had problems, but none of them needed to be killed like that," Clinton said.
Vann led police to a home in the 2200 block of Massachusetts, where he battered, had sex with and killed another victim, Martin, before putting her body in a closet.
Vann also admitted to killing Williams in an abandoned home in Gary over a drug debt. He led police to her body, which he said would be found underneath some plastic in the basement.
The bodies of Billingsley and Gatlin were found strangled to death along a back wall of a home in the 400 block of East 43rd Street.
A button missing from Vann’s shirt when he was apprehended was found at the Motel 6 where Hardy was killed, the plea deal states.
During the two days Vann was in custody, he admitted to the killings of Batey, Martin, Williams, Billingsley and Gatlin between Aug. 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014. He killed Hardy and Jones between June 1, 2014 and Oct. 18, 2014.
Clinton said he is relieved knowing Vann will receive a life sentence over the death penalty.
"(The death penalty) would have been the easy way out. I want him to suffer. These women will haunt him for the rest of his life,” he said.
When Vann was first charged in 2014, police speculated at the time that the investigation could lead to more victims and that Vann may have been involved in other homicides dating as far back as the 1990s.
Shortly after his arrest, calls poured in to the Gary Police Department from relatives, most living out of state, who feared their loved ones had been a victim of Vann. But to this day, Vann has only been charged with the seven murders he pleaded guilty to Friday.
"He's certainly one of the most prolific (serial killers) in the entire state of Indiana," Carter said.