EAST CHICAGO | Dozens of mourners laid to rest a teenager who grew up singing "Veggie Tales" songs and dreamed of recording her own music but was found strangled to death in a bathtub at a Hammond Motel 6, precipitating an investigation that led to the discovery of other slain women in abandoned homes.
Family and community members gathered at Zion Missionary Baptist Church in East Chicago Saturday for the funeral of 19-year-old Afrika Hardy, a victim of suspected serial killer Darren Vann, who reportedly led police to the bodies of six other women left in vacant homes in Gary. They remembered Hardy as warm and quick to smile, as a creative type who wrote poetry and sung R&B and gospel, and as a compassionate soul with a contagious laugh.
"She would just want to be remembered as Afrika," said her mother, Lori Townsend, who always called Hardy her princess. "She didn't think of herself as anything spectacular. She was kind, considerate, compassionate. She was loving. She was a friend."
Hardy, who grew up in Elgin, Ill. and moved to Colorado in 2008 before moving back to the Chicago area this summer, loved reading, writing and singing. A precocious child, she started using five- or six-word sentences at the age of one, and picked up reading by the time she was three. She found her singing voice when she was six, singing along with Disney movies and her favorite characters from "Veggie Tales," telling her mom more than once she was going to be famous one day.
The avid reader could finish a book in matter of days and especially enjoyed "The Chronicles of Narnia," "The Hunger Games" and the works of Sister Souljah. Her love of books inspired her to write short stories and poetry.
"I don't want her voice to be silenced," Townsend said. "It's not just her, it's these other women she helped."
Townsend copes with her loss and her grief knowing her daughter's death helped stop a killing spree that Vann reportedly told police stretched back 20 years.
"In her death, she ended up helping people," she said.
Hardy graduated from a Denver charter school in Dec. 2013 and moved back to Chicago in June to stay with extended family to be more independent and spread her wings. She had been thinking about enrolling in college to study nursing or musical engineering. Hardy was a creative person with unlimited potential, said Townsend's fiance, Romel Vaughn.
"She wrote, she sung, she drew," he said. "She was a passionate person. She was passionate about everything she did. She lived music. She lived and slept music. We were supposed to make albums. ... She had a great singing voice. We still have recordings."
The family is holding up, but has its moments when the grief is overwhelming.
"You just got to keep on, keep on going with your head up," cousin Toya Teague said. "I'm horrified at all the losses of all the women they found. Whoever this person is, I don't know why he would do something like this. He don't have no heart."
Death is always difficult, but especially when it's someone so young with so much promise, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland wrote in a resolution that was read at the funeral and that he sent to the family, who took Hardy's remains back to Colorado. Sam Smith of Divinity Funeral Home in East Chicago handled all the arrangements.
Chicago community activist Andrew Holmes spoke at the service, telling the family that no one could take away their memories.
"If it were within my power, I wish I could change so many lives in these United States and give you life so you can have your daughter again," he said. "If I had the power, I wish I could just give you all your children back so you could enjoy the rest of your life."
Rev. Charles Thompson Jr. delivered a eulogy on how to find encouragement in a discouraging situation that one has no control over. He urged mourners not to leave as if there was no hope.
"God shall wipe away all the tears from our eyes," Thompson said. "No more crying, no more dying, no more sorrow... When you cry, cry because God will wipe all tears from your eyes. Tears will not bring Afrika back, but it will bring your heart back."