GARY | Marvin Clinton was shopping at Wal-Mart recently when he spotted a woman down the aisle from him who looked just like Teaira Batey.
The woman had the same build and height, and walked like his late girlfriend. Clinton followed her into the frozen food section before he was able to look at her face.
It wasn't the first time he encountered someone who sounded like Batey or resembled her.
Standing outside the vacant home where her body was found, Clinton said during each encounter, he has to come to terms with the fact that it can’t be Batey.
She was one of seven women who were found dead a year ago this weekend in Northwest Indiana. Six of the women were left dead in abandoned homes and structures in Gary.
Family members for two of the women say a year later, they are still reeling from the homicides.
"People always tell you that healing takes time and things get better," Clinton said. "But for me, I done had over a year and the pain is still there. It's there like it just happened yesterday."
CAPITAL CASE PENDING
The details the homicides began unraveling Oct. 17, 2014.
Hammond police responded to a motel room in the 3800 block of 179th Street after two people found their friend, Afrikka Hardy, 19, dead in a bathtub.
Her friends told detectives they had formed an escort service by advertising themselves on Backpage.com, according to court records. They grew worried after she stopped answering calls well past the time she usually spent with clients.
Prosecutors state the last client Hardy met with was Darren D. Vann. Interviews with Vann, 44, of Gary, led detectives over the next two days to the bodies of six other women he confessed to killing, police said.
The women were Gary residents Batey, 28, Kristine Williams, 36, Tracy L. Martin, 41, Sonya Billingsley, 53, Tanya Gatlin, 27, and, from Merrillville, Anith Jones, 35.
Vann has pleaded not guilty to murder charges he faces in the strangling deaths of Jones and Hardy. Vann is scheduled to stand trial on both cases Jan. 25, 2016, after the cases were joined together in April.
The state is seeking the death penalty.
He has not been charged in the homicides of five of the women.
Last month, Vann’s defense attorneys filed a motion asking for the criminal counts to be prosecuted separately, according to court records. The court file for the case was not available this past week in the Lake County clerk’s office. A ruling had not been made on the motion as of Friday.
HOLDING ON TO A MEMORY
Hardy’s mother, Lori Townsend, spent the past year returning to one text message her daughter sent her telling her to have a good day.
"It's still very surreal for me," she said. "I have a hard time grasping the fact that my daughter is not around. I get up every day and routinely live my life, and I wait for a text from her."
She’s saved all the text messages and voicemails from her daughter. At her home in Denver, Townsend has surrounded her daughter’s ashes with flowers and teddy bears.
“To me, she’s still here with me,” Townsend said. “She’s not so much physically with me, you know, and I miss that aspect. It’s something you never get over.”
She’s also kept her daughter’s Facebook page as a memorial. Townsend’s aunt, Mary Miller, recently posted photos of a young Hardy.
Her favorite photo features Hardy when she was about 4 years old wearing a birthday hat.
"She was as cute as a button," she said.
The women said they don’t want Hardy to be forgotten or diminished because of how she died. Townsend wants to create a nonprofit organization to help women who get swept into prostitution.
“I don’t like when people look down on people who turned to escorting,” Townsend said. “There’s a reason behind it. I will never know why.”
Miller echoed her niece’s sentiments, saying the seven women deserve justice no matter how they lived their lives at the end.
“Her mom didn’t send her out to do that and become a murder victim,” Miller said. “It’s just very hurtful to me. She used to make me laugh. I miss her so much. She could’ve been anything.”
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
Weeks after Batey’s body was found in the 1800 block of E. 19th Avenue, Clinton anchored two crosses in cement in front of the house to memorialize the mother of his son.
He’s spent the past year maintaining the landscape around the memorial, replacing teddy bears when they were stolen and stopping by with his 3-year-old son, Trevon.
Clinton has befriended Martin’s aunt who regularly attends Vann’s court hearings. She reminds him of upcoming court dates and offers him a ride to court. She, along with workers from Manuel Memorial Funeral Home, have become his support system.
“It’s a good feeling, because we look at it like we are not alone,” he said.
Clinton said prosecutors helped him maneuver the bureaucratic process of getting money from the state's violent crime victim compensation fund. He's used the money to buy a headstone to mark where Batey's ashes were buried. He also purchased an egg-shaped clear urn containing some of Batey's crystallized ashes.
"We can sit there at night in the dark, flip the switch up and it lights up," he said. "It's like she is really actually a part of us. Even though it's the ashes, it's like she's completely right there with us."
He’s created a scrapbook and maintains her Facebook page hoping it could one day help his son make sense of what happened.
This past January was tough because it marked a year since Batey had disappeared. The more he thinks about how she spent her last hours, the more questions he's left with.
He doesn't want Batey to be forgotten.
"If you stop talking about it, then people forget about it," he said.
"It's like it just goes away. If it goes away, it makes me feel like all these seven women went through this and it was for nothing, because no one is remembering them, thinking about them."