JOLIET, Ill. (AP) – Relatives of Kimberly Vaughn had no doubt that her husband would spend the rest of his life in prison for fatally shooting her and their three children along an Illinois roadway. So they didn’t go to his sentencing hearing Tuesday to listen.
For the first time since the 2007 murders, her family publicly confronted Christopher Vaughn _ sobbing as they told him what they’d lost. Her mother asked why he executed his family rather than simply leaving them so he could, as prosecutors allege, start over his life in the Canadian wilderness. Her father now struggles to play with his other grandchildren.
“Our hearts ache in the knowledge that they were priceless to everyone but the one man who should have loved them more than his own life,” her identical twin sister, Susan Ledbetter, told the packed courtroom in Joliet, outside Chicago.
“I silently wonder if my parents and older sister experience pain in my presence,” she added, struggling to hold back tears. “Because Kim and I share not only our looks, but also many of our personality traits.”
Never looking up as she read from a statement, her mother Susan Phillips added: “All the defendant had to do was walk away.”
When they were finished, the Will County judge sentenced Christopher Vaughn to four consecutive life prison sentences.
Through it all, the 38-year-old Vaughn sat quietly, displaying the same eerie lack of emotion that has marked his demeanor from the moment the crime was first discovered by police and throughout the 5 1/2 week trial.
Investigators say Vaughn woke up his family the morning of June 14, 2007, saying he was surprising them with a trip to a water park. They piled into the family’s SUV at their home in Joliet and left, though were on the road for only a short time before he pulled over.
He shot his wife, then twice shot each of his children _ 8-year-old Blake, 11-year-old Cassandra and 12-year-old Abigayle _ while they were buckled into the back seat. He then shot himself in the leg and wrist in an effort to blame his wife for the shootings, prosecutors said.
While addressing the court, Susan Phillips said she instantly knew her daughter and grandchildren were dead when she saw the SUV flash across the television news and saw a sticker from a Wisconsin state park.
Though she didn’t mention his alleged plans to move to Canada, she made clear that her daughter was strong and would have made a life for herself had he left his family.
She said that the murders _ the acts of a “coward” _ denied her family moments, big and small. She spoke of sewing with her granddaughters and the emails she exchanged with her grandson that contained big words they liked to throw at each other.
Kimberly Vaughn’s father said the images of “four hearses and four caskets” would never leave his head. Like his wife, Del Phillips never mentioned Christopher Vaughn by name, but said he had taken from him the hugs of his grandchildren, the future dog walks and bike rides, the graduations, the weddings.
“I miss the little touches between our lives,” he wrote in a statement that was read by a prosecutor. “Emotionally as a result of these executions I have unwittingly withdrawn from playing with my surviving grandchildren.”
And he echoed his other daughter’s fears about reminding her family so much of her dead sister, saying: “Once a blessing to have two beautiful young daughters is now a gruesome reminder that one is gone.”
Kimberly Vaughn’s other sister, Nikki Isemann, said in a statement read by a prosecutor that the slayings have turned her into a different person who sees “the evil and hateful part of people” before she sees anything else.
While some people have been understanding, “other friends have decided they can no longer be around someone so pessimistic,” she wrote.
After the hearing, Del Phillips said sentencing will give them some sense of closure _ though they’d hoped for something from Christopher Vaughn.
“`I’m sorry’ would have been a good one,” Phillips said.
The family wouldn’t say whether they were disappointed that the death penalty was abolished in Illinois after Vaughn’s arrest.
But Kimberly Vaughn’s father said maybe her husband’s confinement to a prison cell for the rest of his life is the worst punishment.
“He is, in effect, in a death penalty right now,” he said. “It’s just a question of degree.”
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