US strangler hints at 20-year killing spree

Police acting on Darren Vann's directions found six bodies in abandoned houses in Gary, Indiana, including this one above. Picture: AP
Police acting on Darren Vann's directions found six bodies in abandoned houses in Gary, Indiana, including this one above. Picture: AP
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POLICE in two American states are reviewing unsolved murders and missing person reports after the arrest of an Indiana man who confessed to killing seven women and hinted at more ­victims over a 20-year period.

But determining whether others have fallen prey to Darren Vann, 43, a former US marine convicted of sexual assault in 2009, could take years, according to former FBI agent Joseph Ways.

Mr Ways – now executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission, a watchdog group – said the probe could also be complicated because some of Vann’s alleged victims may have been sex workers.

Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana, agreed. “It does make it difficult. It indicates he preyed on individuals less likely to be reported missing,” she said.

Vann was charged on Monday with strangling 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy, whose body was found on Friday in a bathtub at a motel in Hammond, 20 miles south-east of Chicago.

He was also charged with murder in commission of a robbery and robbery causing great bodily injury.

Police identified Vann from surveillance video outside the motel. Hammond police chief John Doughty said Vann confessed to killing Ms Hardy and directed officers to six bodies in abandoned homes in nearby Gary. Charges in those cases are expected later this week.

Police in Gary and Austin, Texas, said they were reviewing missing person reports and unsolved cases to determine whether any might be connected to Vann after he indicated he had killed before.

Mr Ways said teenagers or adults who maintain close contact with their families were typically reported missing quickly, but that’s not always the case for prostitutes. “If one of them goes missing for days or weeks, it might be that nobody notices,” he said.

Mr Doughty said Ms Hardy, who was involved in prostitution, had arranged to meet Vann at the motel through a website.

Police were called by someone who attempted to reach her but received texts that made no sense and that she believed came from the suspect. The backgrounds of the other victims are yet to be revealed.

Police took Vann into custody on Saturday, and during interviews he confessed to Ms Hardy’s killing, told investigators where the Gary bodies could be found, and hinted at other victims since the 1990s.

Mr Doughty said: “It could go back as far as 20 years based on some statements we have, but that has yet to be corroborated.”

The Gary killings appeared to have happened recently, Mr Doughty added.

The body of one victim, Anith Jones, 35, from Merrillville, Indiana, was found on Saturday night in an abandoned house. She had been missing since 8 October. Five more bodies were found on Sunday in other homes. Mr Doughty 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 Ms Jones’s body was found.

Austin police said they would review potential related cases based on information from Indiana police. Vann is registered as a sex offender in Texas, where the risk of him attacking someone again was considered “low”.

Court records in Travis County, Texas, show Vann served a five-year jail sentence, less 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 said she went to Vann’s flat, where he asked if she was a police officer. After she told him no, he knocked her down, choked her, hit her in the face and told her he could kill her. Vann then raped her. He allowed her to leave and she called police the next day.

The circumstances had similarities to Ms Hardy’s death, according to her mother. Lori Townsend said police told her that Vann asked her daughter to perform a sex act, and “when she said no and put up a fight, he snapped and strangled her”.

Vann told police Ms Hardy began to fight during sex and he strangled her with his hands and an extension cord. “This man is sick,” Ms Townsend said from her home in Colorado.