CROWN POINT — Darren D. Vann was sentenced Friday to life without parole for the murder of seven women, bringing to a close the four-year death penalty case against the Gary man, described by Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter as one of the most prolific serial killers in the state's history.
Vann, 47, chose not to face the family and friends of the seven women he murdered. He waived his right to appear at the sentencing hearing or provide a statement. He was instead represented by his defense attorneys — Matthew Fech, Gojko Kasich and Mark Bates.
In Vann's absence, Marvin Clinton, the fiance of murder victim Teaira Batey, was left with only Vann's defense attorneys to harangue. He described the impact losing his best friend and soul mate has had on him and their 6-year-old son.
“You had no right to leave her body in an abandoned home for eight months,” he said. “You have the heart and soul of a monster.”
Clinton said Vann destroyed seven families, but he also brought those families together, united in their unique loss. He said his “hatred” for Vann would disappear once he was notified of the defendant's death.
Why not the death penalty?
Carter said after the sentencing hearing the decision to offer the plea agreement was driven by two factors: the strength of the case and the opinion of the victims' families, but he understood his decision raised an important question about the death penalty.
“I have to ask myself as prosecutor: If we don't kill Darren Vann, then who do we kill?”
He said he still believed in the death penalty, but the defense attorneys, realizing they faced a tough battle at trial, approached the state and asked for a deal. He said he and Deputy Prosecutor Michelle Jatkiewicz spoke with victims' family members before agreeing to the deal.
Carter said Vann was an “evil, psychotic predator” who preyed on the community's residents. He said his office decided to offer the plea agreement after the victims' families expressed unanimous support for it.
They felt it was better for Vann to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Clinton did question why Vann was provided three defense attorneys, paid with public funds.
“Why we paying to defend a man who tore up seven families?” he asked.
Carter said in response defendants had a right under federal and state law to legal representation.
“Even Darren Vann has a right to counsel in the United States,” he said.
Carter said the families understood any conviction would be litigated for 20 years, with endless appeals and court hearings.
Clinton agreed justice was achieved through the plea agreement.
“It's been a long four years,” he said. “It takes the weight off our shoulders, to know it's over and done.”
Justice for the victims
Kasich apologized to the victims' families on behalf of the defense. He pointed out that if he and his colleagues did not do their best to defend Vann, it was possible his convictions would be reversed on appeal, resulting in even further legal proceedings.
Judge Samuel Cappas said the idea of a serial killer “struck fear in the heart of the community.” He thanked the prosecutors and police for their diligent efforts to capture Vann, who will now be “removed from the community forever.” He also thanked the defense attorneys.
Vann pleaded guilty to the murder of seven women in total, though police suspect there were more victims. He targeted prostitutes and other vulnerable women, hiding most of his victims' bodies in Gary's abandoned houses.
Vann came under police suspicion after Afrikka Hardy, 19, of Hammond, was found strangled Oct. 17, 2014, in a motel room in Hammond. Police learned Vann, using the pseudonym “Big Boy Appetite,” had contacted the woman on Backpage, a website often used to advertise prostitution, and arranged to meet her at the motel.
Vann was arrested the next day and admitted under questioning by Hammond police Detective Shawn Ford that he killed Hardy, first strangling her with his hands before resorting to a cord. Stunningly, he then led detectives to the body of another woman — Anith Jones, a 35-year-old prostitute from Hammond Vann said he strangled on behalf of another person for $300 and cocaine.
Jones was found dead in an abandoned home in the 400 block of East 43rd Avenue in Gary. Vann then directed detectives on a gruesome tour of abandoned homes, where police discovered the bodies of five more women.
Those women were Tracy Martin, 41, of Gary; Kristine Williams, 36, of Gary; Sonya Billingsley, 53, of Gary; Tanya Gatlin, 27, of Gary; and Batey, 28, of Gary.
Vann told detectives he killed the women in anger. He said he was convicted in 2009 for assaulting a prostitute in Texas, which he felt was unfair.
Vann was scheduled to appear at trial in October for Hardy's and Jones' murders before his sudden change-of-plea hearing May 4. He pleaded guilty to murder for all seven women in exchange for a life sentence without parole. The state had sought the death penalty against him.
Prosecutors also 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.
“Death is too good for him,” Carter said.