Police investigating the slayings of seven northwestern Indiana women whose bodies were found over the weekend said Monday it could be the work of a serial killer, and that the suspect has indicated there could be more victims going back 20 years.
Hammond Police Chief John Doughty said at a news conference that the suspect is 43-year-old Darren Vann of nearby Gary, Indiana, who pleaded guilty to a Texas sexual assault in 2009 and was released from prison in July, 2013. His confession to the slaying of a woman in Hammond led police to the grisly discovery of six other bodies in Gary, including three on the same block, authorities said.
Doughty said the Gary slayings appeared to have happened recently, though Vann indicated there could be earlier victims. He said police are not actively looking for more bodies and have no indication that any slayings have occurred in another state. He said Vann is cooperating with investigators in the hope of making a deal with prosecutors.
“It could go back as far as 20 years based on some statements we have, but that has yet to be corroborated,” Doughty said.
Vann is registered as a sex offender in Texas, where the Department of Public Safety listed his risk level as “low.” He did not register in Illinois.
Court records in Travis County, Texas, show that Vann served a five-year prison sentence, with credit for the 15 months he was in jail awaiting trial, after pleading guilty in 2009 to sexually assaulting a woman at an Austin apartment two years earlier.
The woman told police that she went to Vann's apartment, where he asked if she was a police officer. After she told him no, he knocked her down and began to strangle and beat her, hitting her several times in the face and telling the woman he could kill her. He then raped her.
Vann allowed the woman to leave and she called police the next day.
Charges were expected to be filed in Indiana later Monday in the death of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy, whose body was found about late Friday at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Doughty said. The Lake County coroner's office said she was strangled.
Doughty said she was involved in prostitution and had arranged to meet Vann at the motel through a Chicago-area website. Police were called by someone who attempted to reach Hardy and “was provided suspicious text responses that she believed to be from the suspect while he was still inside the motel room.”
Police said they took Vann into custody Saturday afternoon after obtaining a search warrant for a home and vehicle in Gary.
Vann allegedly confessed to killing Hardy, then told investigators where more bodies could be found in abandoned homes in Gary, a deteriorating former steel town about 30 miles southeast of Chicago, police said.
Police found the body of 35-year-old Anith Jones of Merrillville, Indiana, on Saturday night in an abandoned home. She had been missing since Oct. 8.
Five more bodies were found on Sunday in other homes, said Doughty, who identified two of the women as Gary residents Teaira Batey, 28, and Christine Williams, 36. Police have not determined the identities of the other three women, including two whose bodies were found on the same block where Jones' body was found on Saturday.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said only Jones was reported missing, perhaps indicating that Vann “preyed on individuals that might be less likely to be reported missing.”
Hardy's mother, Lori Townsend, said police told her that Vann asked that she perform a certain sex act, and “when she said 'no' and put up a fight, he snapped and strangled her.”
“This man is sick,” Townsend said from her home in Colorado.
Hardy graduated from high school in late 2013 and planned to go on to college to study music, Townsend said.
“She was full of life. She lit up a room with her smile and her beauty,” she said. “And she had a voice like a songbird.”
Gary, once a thriving steel town of 178,000 where thousands worked in the mills, has been struggling for decades. Its population has shrunk to just over 78,000 and its poverty rate hovers around 40 percent. Thousands of homes are abandoned, many with weeds choking broken sidewalks — often on the same streets where other homes are tidy and well-kept.
On Monday, people in Gary tried to make sense of the tragedy.
“That's devastating,” said Jay Jackson, 25, a health care worker visiting a woman a few houses from where one of the bodies was found. “All we can do is pray for the city and hope for recovery.”