A suburban Chicago computer specialist killed his wife and three school-age kids because he saw them as inconvenient obstacles to his dream of a new life subsisting in the Canadian wilderness, prosecutors told jurors Thursday before they withdrew to deliberate.
Christopher Vaughn, 37, traveled to northwestern Canada a month before the slayings, and had compiled survival guides and posted wistful Internet messages about constructing a cabin and settling for good in the Yukon cut off from the world, state attorneys said.
"He was held back by four major obstacles," prosecutor Chris Regis said. "Those four obstacles were eliminated on June 14, 2007."
Just after 5 a.m. on that day, as they headed to a Springfield waterpark from their Oswego home, Vaughn pulled the family SUV off the highway, placed a 9-mm Taurus pistol under his 34-year-old wife Kimberly's chin and fired, prosecutors told jurors.
He then turned to Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8, buckled in back seats, shooting each once in the chest and once in the head, Fitzgerald said. Abigayle was found holding a stuffed animal, a paramedic testified during more than a month of testimony.
Regis read emails Christopher Vaughn wrote to a friend before the murders saying he longed for a life unencumbered by cellphones and other hallmarks of modernity. He cited poet Henry David Thoreau about the virtue of shrugging off obligations.
"I just want to live plain and simple," Vaughn wrote in one email. He had long since written off his wife and kids, Regis told jurors. "He's ready to drop off the face of the earth and disappear," he said. "This is all about him. ... Me, me, me, me. I, I,I."
Christopher Vaughn took notes during nearly six straight hours of closings but displayed little emotion as he sat at the defense table, even when prosecutors displayed crime-scene photos of his wife, her head hanging back and dried blood from her nose and mouth.
In his closing, defense attorney George Lenard repeated Vaughn's contention that his wife -- suicidal over marriage troubles and affected emotionally by antidepressant medication -- shot Vaughn in the wrist and leg, killed the children and then herself.
Lenard added later that Kimberly Vaughn may have seen the murder of her kids as a twisted act of mercy.
"(She) was of the mindset that they if she was gone, they were better off with her ... 'Come with me to heaven,'" Lenard said, depicting what the mother might have been thinking.
Prosecutors balked at that idea.
In his closing, Mike Fitzgerald cited witnesses who testified that Kimberly Vaughn was upbeat around the time and that, just the evening before, she had fussed cheerfully over a recipe for "cheesy potatoes."
Moreover, he asked how the wife could have just grazed her husband with two bullets as he sat right next to her — yet somehow managed to put a bullet into each of her kid's heads.
"No way, ladies and gentlemen," Fitzgerald said. "No way that's possible."
Regis, delivering the rebuttal for the state, told jurors that Kimberly Vaughn — far from displaying animosity towards her husband — expressed admiration for her him, saying in several emails that she loved him and saw him as her hero.
"She never threatened a soul," he said. "For anyone to come in here and say she killed her children — it is ludicrous and offensive."
Blood-splatter forensics, the angle of the shots and other evidence also proved Vaughn pulled the trigger, Fitzgerald told jurors.
Fitzgerald also described Vaughn as so callous that -- in the hours after his children were slain -- he didn't ask about them. But he did get agitated when he feared paramedics tending to a minor gun wound on his leg might damage his new cowboy boots.
"No mention of his children, but he sure was concerned about those boots!" Fitzgerald said.
Vaughn is charged with four counts of first-degree murder. The case started as a death-penalty case, but Illinois since abolished capital punishment, meaning he now faces a maximum life term.
In their more than three-week presentation during the trial, prosecutors called some 80 witnesses.
One was a stripper, Maja Drake, who Vaughn confided in.
Drake, who prosecutors said Vaughn had a crush on, said Vaughn never asked her to dance but that they discussed the outdoors and poetry. The manager of a suburban strip club, Scores Chicago, said that in the days leading up to the killing, Vaughn spent nearly $5,000 there.
Prosecutors had wanted to go into Vaughn's obsession with Druid beliefs, which typically involve worship of nature. But the judge barred them from a direct reference to any such beliefs, saying it could unfairly prejudice him in jurors' eyes.
Getting the final word to jurors before they withdrew, an increasingly emotional Regis said they could toss 90 percent of the evidence away -- and what remained would still illustrate the certainty of his guilt.
"Every piece of evidence points to one man -- Christopher Vaughn," the prosecutor said, nearly shouting. "He is sitting right there. ... There is no other person on the face of this Earth who wanted those people dead."