WASHINGTON, D.C. - A string of unsolved strangling cases from the early 1990s to 2007 sit in the files at the Gary, Indiana police department. Four years ago, when confronted with details suggesting this might be the work of a serial killer, police declined to respond.
Now, their investigation of Darren Deon Vann and his possible role in the murders of seven women are forcing them to consider cases that have been cold for two decades.
The earlier killings were detailed four years ago as part of a Scripps investigation into patterns of unsolved murders that suggested possible serial killings. Scripps provided the list to Gary police and the Lake County Coroner’s Office at the time. Afterward, Gary police declined interviews and refused to return phone calls.
Asked about those cases Tuesday, Gary police spokesperson Corporal Gabrielle King said she would have to check. “I don’t know that we have unsolved strangulations,” said King. Police Chief Larry McKinley did not immediately return phone calls.
Retired Lake County Assistant Coroner Jackie DeChantal said the 2010 report raised suspicions, but “we couldn’t get anyone else to say that they were connected.”
The department says it is now taking another look. “I might have been on the right road, but I just didn’t get far enough along it,” said DeChantal.
Chief Deputy Coroner George Deliopoulos said among the cases he’s working as part of the Vann investigation is the 2007 strangulation of an unidentified woman found in an abandoned garage that had been set on fire. That killing was part of the Scripps investigation.
Vann, 43, was arrested Friday after Afrikka Hardy, 19, was found strangled in a Hammond, Indiana, motel. After interviewing him, police found the remains of six more women over the weekend, including three from Gary – Anith Jones, Christina Williams and Teaira Batey.
This week’s cases and those from the past bear similarities.
Most of the recent killings that are part of the Vann investigation involved bodies found in abandoned properties. All the victims were women and all identified so far have been in their 30s or younger.
At least seven of the older, unsolved strangulations involved women who were found in abandoned properties, alleyways or empty lots, the same kind of areas police are searching this week. Most of the rest were found killed in or just outside of their own homes.
Of the group of 15 identified by Scripps four years ago, nine occurred between 1991 and 1998, and six others between 2005 and 2007. Vann was living in the nearby town of Hammond, just west of Gary, in the 1990s. He moved to Texas at some point and in 2009 was charged and convicted of sexual assault after raping a woman in Austin. He was released from prison in July 2013, and returned to Indiana.
The Scripps study was part of a multi-year investigation into America’s growing backlog of unsolved homicides. According to the latest FBI estimates, there are more than 200,000 unsolved homicides committed since 1980. The rate at which police solve murder has generally been declining in recent years, despite improvements in forensic science such as DNA tracing.
The Scripps study in 2010 identified an alarming number of unsolved killings of women in 161 clusters nationwide involving 1,247 deaths of women of similar age who were killed by similar means.