COURTROOM DRAMA

09.05.12

The Murder Trial Next Door: Drew Peterson vs. Christopher Vaughn

For two weeks, the courthouse in Joliet, Ill., has hosted an eerie spectacle—in adjoining courtrooms, Drew Peterson is on trial for allegedly murdering his third wife, and Christopher Vaughn for allegedly killing his family. Michael Daly reports.

This month’s annual NASCAR parade and Fan Rally comes just in time for Joliet, Ill.

After this week, there will likely be just one sensational murder trial at the local courthouse.

For a fortnight, the spectators who lined up at the courthouse each morning have had a choice of two courtroom dramas conducted just steps from each other.

In Courtroom 407, ex-cop Drew Peterson is now nearing a verdict on charges that he allegedly murdered his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio, by drowning her in a bathtub and staging it to look like an accident. Savio remains one of the most damaging witnesses against the 58-year-old defendant through a chilling letter she wrote to prosecutors before her death in March 2004. His fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, is also a witness in absentia through statements she made to her pastor and to her attorney before she vanished on Oct. 28, 2007. Drew Peterson is a prime suspect in her disappearance.

One door down, in Courtroom 406, former private investigator and wannabe wilderness survivalist Christopher Vaughn is on trial for allegedly shooting his wife, 34-year-old Kimberly, and three young children to death as they sat in the family’s red Ford Expedition in June 2007. Vaughn, 37, himself suffered two minor bullet wounds to his wrist and leg that police say were self-inflicted in an attempt to make it appear as if his wife shot him and the kids before turning the gun on herself.

The proximity of the two trials has been intensified by the smallness of the courtrooms, which are saved from feeling claustrophobic only by their plate-glass portals. These see-through doors also have the effect of allowing those out in the fourth-floor hallway to glimpse one accused monster and then the other in the space of a few strides.

The spokesman on hand in the hallway for Will County Sheriff Paul Kaupas is his chief investigator, as well as his cousin. Chief Ken Kaupas was previously a captain with the Illinois State Police and set in motion the investigation that led to Peterson’s arrest. Kaupas also oversaw the Vaughn investigation.

In another small-town twist, Sgt. Robert Deel of the Illinois State police was the primary crime scene investigator in both cases, though there is nothing clubby about this relationship with the prosecution. He is viewed as a hindrance, having expressed the view that the death of Peterson’s third wife was an accident and that Vaughn’s wife died by her own hand after she killed her children.

At moments, the prosecution in the Peterson case seems to have been further hampered by tensions between the judge and Will County state’s attorney James Glasgow. Observers note that Judge Edward Burmilla was himself the state’s attorney until Glasgow defeated him in an election two decades ago.

The intertwining of the participants in these courtrooms has lent an eerie intimacy to the harrowing crime scene photos and chilling testimony. The result is a sense of peering into the heart of a troubled heartland, of seeing another side of the true America constantly invoked by both presidential candidates.

But that feeling is dispelled by the manifest decency and good cheer of the deputies and clerks and almost everybody else you encounter in the courthouse. The jurors in the Peterson trial have sought to brighten up even a murder case by theme dressing, on one day all wearing sports jerseys, on another all dressing in red, white, and blue.

Nobody seems to have more buoyant spirits than Chief Kaupas, who takes a break from his other duties to oversee the limited seating for spectators and the media.

“We do have two trials on,” he said one recent morning. “If you can’t go to [the Peterson] trial, maybe you can go to [the Vaughn] trial.”

Privately, Kaupas has said that the scene of the Vaughn killings was the worst he has seen in nearly three decades of law enforcement. The wife was slumped in the front passenger seat, a single bullet wound under her chin. The three kids were strapped in the back. The two girls, 12-year-old Abigayle and 11-year-old Cassandra, may have been asleep when they were each shot once in the chest and once in the head. The boy, 8-year-old Blake, must have awakened, for he had raised a hand in a vain attempt to ward off the bullet that struck him under his left arm. He then also was shot in the head.

That was on June 14, 2007. Kaupas became involved with the other case the following October, when he was notified that the estranged fourth wife of former Bolingbrook, Ill., police sergeant Drew Peterson had vanished. Kaupas called somebody he knew at that department who mentioned that Peterson’s previous wife had been found drowned in a bathtub.

Kaupas had somebody pull the case file. The death had been classified as an accident, but Kaupas took one look at the photo of Kathleen Savio lying dead in the bathtub and decided her death had been staged.  Her body was exhumed and a second autopsy ruled it a homicide.

Smith said that during a phone call Stacy Peterson had asked him, “Could we get more money out of Drew if we threatened to tell how he killed Kathleen?”

Dozens of investigators were assigned to the case. They discovered that Savio had written a letter to the state’s attorney’s office in 2002, after her divorce from Peterson. She reported that he had slipped into her house wearing a black SWAT uniform and surprised her as she came down the stairs with a basket of laundry. She said he ordered her to sit and “not to move or speak.”

“He kept me in position for a very long time, while trying to convince me how horrible I am and I just needed to die,” she wrote.

Peterson was furious that the judge in the divorce case had ordered him to pay child support for their two sons, then aged 8 and 9, she wrote.

“He pulled out his knife that he kept around his leg and brought it to my neck,” she wrote. “I thought I’d never see my boys again.”

By then, Peterson had begun dating a teenager three decades his junior who would become his fourth wife. Investigators learned that shortly before the fourth wife disappeared, she confided to her pastor that she had awoken on the night of the third wife’s death to find her husband gone from the bed. She had risen to discover him standing by the washing machine clad in black with a bag containing another woman’s clothes.  She also told her pastor that her husband had coached her for hours to lie to the police and insist he had been with her the whole time.

After 18 months, the grand jury was nearing the end of its term and the investigators still had no physical evidence linking Peterson to the scene, much less proving their theory that he had rendered Savio unconscious with a chokehold, drowned her, then struck her head to make it look like she had knocked herself out in a fall.

Peterson had raised the stakes for the state’s attorney, Glasgow, by appearing on twice on the Today show, as well as on Larry King Live, the CBS Early Show, Dr. Phil, and a radio show that ran a “Win a Date with Drew Peterson” contest. Lifetime began work on a TV movie, casting Rob Lowe as Peterson.

After Glasgow went ahead and charged him with Savio’s murder, Peterson had another interview with Matt Lauer, over the phone from the jail where he was held in lieu of $20 million bail. Lauer inquired if it was appropriate for Peterson to describe his prisoner’s uniform as “spiffy” and his manacles as “bling.”

“I deal with stressful situations through humor,” Peterson replied.

At the trial, it became clear that one possible reason there was so little physical evidence was that the crime scene investigator, Robert Deel, had seen little reason to collect any.

“There really wasn’t anything to look for,” he testified.

Deel was asked if he was still believed that Savio’s death was accidental.

“Yes,” he said.

The primary overall investigator had been State Police Sgt. Patrick Collins. He had never before investigated a violent death.

“That was my first homicide,” Collins testified. “So it was a learning experience for me.”

Collins acknowledged that he had allowed Peterson to be present when he interviewed the now vanished fourth wife. Stacy Peterson had sat with one of her husband’s hands on her shoulder and the other on her thigh.

“There was one particular question where he did have to refresh her memory,” Collins recalled. “He leaned over to Stacy and said, ‘You remember what you cooked for breakfast.’ He said ‘bacon’ or ‘sausage’ and that was it.”

The coroner who had conducted the initial autopsy had since died. The prosecution called to the stand two pathologists who deemed the death a homicide, saying the wound to Savio’s head was both inconsistent with a fall and too minor to have rendered her unconscious.

The defense lost a fight to keep the pastor, Neil Schori, off the stand, and he recounted what Stacy Peterson had told him about seeing her husband standing by the washing machine with the other woman’s clothes.

“She said that he removed his clothing and took the contents of the bag and put all of that into the washing machine,” Schori said.

At the close of the prosecution’s case, a portion of Savio’s letter to the state’s attorney’s office a decade before was admitted into evidence. Peterson sat impassively as the judge read to the jury the dead woman’s description of how terrified she had been of him.

The defense put a prominent pathologist of its own on the stand to say with equal conviction that Savio’s death had been accidental. A serious misstep came when the defense called up divorce lawyer Harry Smith, whom Stacy Peterson contacted about divorcing her husband, four days before she disappeared. The idea was to suggest a reason for her to have lied. The testimony began well enough, with Smith saying that during a phone call she had asked him, “Could we get more money out of Drew if we threatened to tell how he killed Kathleen?”

Smith said that he had warned Stacy Peterson that she could be arrested if she sought to secure a more favorable settlement by threatening to tell what she knew. Defense attorney Joel Brodsky then asked one question to many.

“What could she be arrested for?” Brodsky inquired.

Brodsky clearly expected the answer to be “extortion.”

“Concealing a homicide,” Smith instead replied.

The most damning statement to the defense had just been made by the second to the last witness of its own case.

“I will say that I think it’s unusual,” the judge said.

The last defense witness was Savio’s older son, Thomas Peterson, now 19. He had been valedictorian at his high school and was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He was asked, “Have you ever suspected at any time that your dad killed your mom?”

“No, I haven’t,” the son said.

The son went on to testify that his father had seemed distraught as he informed him and his brother that their mother was dead.

“I’d never seen anyone so sad,” the son said.

In the meantime, crime scene investigator Deel also had testified in the Vaughn case in the adjoining courtroom, but only after a lengthy hearing about what he could and could not say. The prosecution was of the belief that Deel had reached a hasty and erroneous conclusion in this case, just as he had in the drowning of Savio.

Outside the courtroom, a senior police official recalled that Deel had still been processing the death car when he decided that Kimberly Vaughn had indeed done the unthinkable.

“She’s good for it,” the official remembers Deel saying.

For his part, Deel had accused the prosecution of making a snap judgment that Vaughn was guilty. Deel now said in a hearing that the state’s attorney, Glasgow, had been adamant about Christopher Vaughn’s guilt.

“When I explained that there was a possibility that this could have been a murder/suicide, his response to me was that Kimberly Vaughn was an angel and that there was no way she would ever have a gun in her hands,” Deel said in response to questioning by the defense.

The prosecution asked Deel to read aloud an inter-agency email from the Illinois State Police.

“Currently ISP is considering this either as a domestic homicide or a domestic homicide/suicide,” the email said.

The judge accepted the email as indication that the State Police had kept an adequately open mind. He barred the attorneys from eliciting Deel’s views on Vaughn’s guilt or innocence.

The jury was brought back in and Deel’s testimony proceeded within the prescribed parameters. He said the victims’ clothing had been deposited in separate paper bags, as was standard procedure.

“Like a gift bag, if you will, with like the little cards that you get when you go shopping,” he testified.

The defendant had seemed unaffected by photos of his murdered family, showing no reaction even at close-ups of his wife’s bullet wound and of her left hand, blood visible on the wedding ring. But observers felt he was close to showing emotion when Deel held up first her bloodied sleeveless shirt, then her shorts.

He was back to being blank as the prosecution played videotape of his long hours of questioning following the shooting. He watching himself on the screen telling his interrogators in a monotone that he and his wife had been married a “lucky 13” years and that she had just graduated college and was “a good role model for the kids.”

“We just went yesterday to get the kids signed up to get braces,” he noted on the tape.

He told his questioners that the family had started out early that morning for a water park and he had pulled over when his wife said she felt ill from some migraine medication she had begun taking. He said he had pulled onto a frontage road rather than just the highway shoulder because “she’s a little shy.”

“The kids were asleep,” he said on the tape. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to check on the top.’”

He recalled getting out of the car to check the luggage rack, which had a tendency “to rattle itself loose.” He said the next thing he remembered was that he was out of the car bleeding and puzzled by his two bullet wounds. He told his questioners that he still did not believe his wife shot him.

“She’s not that type of person,” he said on the tape.

“I have news for you, Chris,” an investigator finally said. “Your wife and your kids are all dead…they’re all shot.”

“That’s not possible,” Vaughn said.

The questioning continued and Vaughn allowed, “I’ve gone over and over it and the only thing I can think of is Kim somehow got a hold of the gun.”

One of investigators arrayed photos of his three kids before him, challenging him, “Say their names, Chris.”

The video shows Vaughn scrunching a photo of Blake in his hand and throwing it.

The Vaughn who now sat in the defendant’s chair in Courtroom 406 ended the day by neatening the papers before him.

The defense is expected to argue that he suffered traumatic amnesia after his wife turned suddenly murderous as a result of marital troubles and the side effects of her migraine medication.

In the meantime, the prosecution is pressing ahead with its case, on Tuesday morning calling to the stand an exotic dancer who worked at a “gentleman’s club” in Chicago. She testified that Vaughn had come there five times there in 2007, paying for a private room, but only to talk. She added that they had shared an interest in camping.

“I was a Girl Scout for six years,” she explained.

Next door, in Courtroom 407, the closing augments in the Peterson case were under way. The prosecution told the jury that it needed only common sense to be certain Peterson is guilty. Defense lawyer Joe Lopez insisted that the state had failed to present any real evidence. He reminded the jurors that Peterson was presumed innocent until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.

“You don’t have to like Sgt. Peterson at all,” Lopez said. “You know what you have to like?”

Lopez drew their attention not to the defendant but to the American flag standing at the front of the courtroom.

“That flag,” he said. “You have to like America. You have to like the Constitution...You have to like the principles that we live by in this country.”

He was invoking what is truly at the heart of the heartland, though the jurors likely needed no reminding. They have seemed sure to do their duty from the start, as if they wore red, white, and blue every day.

The jurors in the Peterson case are expected to begin deliberations on Wednesday, and whatever their verdict, it almost certainly will be based on what they believe the law dictates. The same is no doubt also true of the Vaughn jurors, and in that double exercise of solemn obligation they will be setting things right, or at least righter in the heartland.

And there will still be NASCAR.