The Gary Strangler Led a Detective on a Tour of His Victims—but Did He Show Them All?
HAMMOND, Indiana — When Lori Townsend is missing her daughter particularly badly, sometimes she texts her old phone number, “Hey!”
When the inevitable “Who’s this?” comes back, Townsend explains that the person’s number used to be her daughter’s and that she was murdered by a serial killer. The person on the other end will say some variation of, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
But two years ago her daughter Afrikka Hardy would respond. There were hopeful exchanges about applying for jobs or enrolling in school. There were more than a few deeply private conversations that made the pair seem more like old friends than mother and daughter. There were plans to come home for the holidays.
All of that communication stopped at 5:13 p.m. on Oct. 17, 2014.
That’s when Afrikka let Darren Deon Vann through the door.
Afrikka texted a friend at that exact moment that her client had just entered Room 158 of the Motel 6 in Hammond, Indiana, about a 15-minute drive from nearby Gary. Afrikka and Vann proceeded to have sex, which turned rough, he later told police. At first Vann strangled Afrikka with his hands, then with a brown extension cord he had brought with him. After choking the life out of her, Vann placed Afrikka in a bathtub, threw used condoms on her body, and left.
Within hours police traced Vann’s SUV, seen on motel security footage, to his home in Gary and arrested him. Immediately, Vann began telling a detective about his other victims. Vann then led the cop on a grisly tour of some of the 10,000 abandoned homes in Gary where the the killer had stashed the bodies of six other women he had strangled to death.
But authorities in Gary had been warned there was almost certainly a serial killer on the loose four years before.
In 2010 a journalist wrote a letter to police with the names of 15 women found strangled to death whose murders were unsolved. (Strangulation is an incredibly personal way to kill someone that often results in a quick arrest because the killer is a spouse or relative.) The Lake County Coroner’s Office contacted the reporter and told him they were looking into the killings, but the police did not.
The killings had suddenly stopped in 2007—the same year Vann was imprisoned for raping a prostitute in Texas.
The killings began again in 2014—months after Vann was released from prison. Unlike the murders police were told about, no one but the killer knew these women were dead.
Vann immediately confessed to murdering Afrikka, according to an affidavit prepared for prosecutors by Hammond Police Detective Shawn Ford. The affidavit’s contents have never been reported until now, and what follows comes from the nothing-but-the-facts-ma’am Joe Friday language of Ford’s five pages.
After confessing, Vann waived his rights and led Ford on a grim scavenger hunt for almost a week. Together they would enter abandoned homes and drug houses across Gary to look for the six other women Vann had killed.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, and I don’t even look at this guy as human,” Townsend remembers Ford telling her at her daughter’s memorial.
“He’s evil. He’s pure evil. He has no remorse. He has no soul.”
Ford’s tour began the day Afrikka was killed when Vann began talking about Anith “Deja” Jones, who was reported missing in early October. Vann recalled that he used the same brown extension cord to kill Jones, 35, that he used to kill Afrikka.
With Vann in a squad car, Ford drove to 421 E. 43rd Ave. where Vann told the detective he would find Jones under a pile of tires and stuffed animals in the basement. She was there, Ford saw, and not as badly decomposed as the other bodies he would soon find.
Next, Vann took Ford to 1800 E. 19th St. and told the detective to force open a door inside the home that had been propped shut with a dresser. Vann said there would be a body under a wooden bench in the room. There, Ford found what was left of Teira Batey, a 28-year-old woman reported missing in January 2014. Batey was so badly decomposed that insects had chewed the cartilage and tendons holding her head onto her neck, resulting in separation. The coroner estimated Batey had been killed just a few days before Aug. 25, 2014.
Perhaps fearing that the killer would clam up, Ford walked out to the car and played good cop with Vann.
“I asked him if he could lead us to one more body since my partner had just arrived and was very interested in this type of homicide investigation,” Ford wrote.
It worked and Vann told Ford the next body would be a gift.
“[Vann] then advised me this one was for my partner,” Ford wrote, and the trio were off to the next murder scene.
The living room of the home in the 2200 block of Massachusetts Street was littered with pillows, blankets, and sleeping bags when I visited there three days after Vann’s arrest in October 2014.
The paint from the ceiling was peeling. A check written out to J.C. Penney for $21.95 lay on a counter.
Forty-eight hours earlier, Ford was above the living room looking for Tracy Martin, 41, last seen alive in June but never reported missing. By the time Ford opened the closet door that day, she was mummified, her pants pulled down to her knees and her bra pushed up. When Ford walked outside to tell Vann he’d found Martin, the killer was “very relieved.”
An autopsy later found Vann killed Martin by choking her with a necklace she was wearing.
Back at the police station, Vann initially insisted that he had killed Martin because she was a drug informant, then quickly changed his story.
“Really, I just killed her, I’m gonna be honest,” Vann told Ford. “I killed her because I was mad and she was the first person I ran into.”
But Vann took his time killing Martin.
He “toyed with her and made her suffer,” Ford wrote, punching, kicking, and choking Martin before finally putting her out of her misery.
After Martin there were three more bodies for Ford to find.
The first was Kristine “Casper” Williams, who Vann said he beat and strangled to death over $40 worth of crack. Vann thought Williams, who was never reported missing, had been avoiding him so she wouldn’t have to pay the debt.
Actually, she was in jail.
Vann choked her to death then hid her body under a plastic painter’s drop cloth in the basement of a home near 43rd Street and Broadway Avenue. By the time Ford found Williams she was so badly decomposed she had to be identified through dental records.
The final two bodies Vann took Ford to were those of Tanya Gatlin and Sonya Billingsley, both found in a flophouse at 413 E. 43rd St. Gatlin wasn’t reported missing until after Vann’s arrest; Billingsley was reported missing in February 2014. The basement of the home still stank of death when I visited there following Vann’s arrest.
Vann’s cold heart was on full display when, during an Oct. 21, 2014 interview with Ford, he told the detective that Billingsley’s daughter had shown him a flier of her mother following her disappearance, asking if he had seen her.
Perhaps Vann recognized her face, but he surely didn’t know her name, he told Ford. Vann couldn’t even remember if he’d had sex with Billingsley, nor whether he used a rope or a clothesline to strangle the life out of her.
Billingsley, Gatlin, and all of the others were victims of Vann’s blinding rage. He “just wanted to hurt somebody,” when he killed Gatlin and Billingsley, Ford wrote.
“Just, I guess, anger,” Vann said. “’Cause I feel I shouldn’t have went to prison the first time, you see what I’m saying?”
In Vann’s twisted mind, he had paid the prostitute in Texas that he had raped, and therefore shouldn’t have been sent to prison. He didn’t kill her, after all, Vann explained to Ford.
After leading Ford to seven bodies in less than a week, Vann stopped talking. And with a multi-count death penalty murder case on their hands, authorities were bound by law to stop talking as well. As such, Hammond police, including Detective Ford, and Gary police, said they could not answer questions about the case.
But what about the other women who were already found strangled to death in areas where Vann lived? To try answer that, you have to go back to the beginning.
Vann was born on March 25, 1971 in Gary, and by the time he was in his twenties had married a woman 30 years his senior in Texas. Vann and his wife eventually moved to Gary, according to the woman’s son, who later found them “living in poverty” there, according to an interview he gave with CNN in 2014.
Public records show that Vann was stationed at a military base in Cherry Point, North Carolina, from 1991-1993. But with listed addresses in the Gary area, Ohio, and North Carolina, it is difficult to pinpoint Vann’s exact whereabouts throughout the 1990s and 2000s. An estimated timeline of Vann’s whereabouts—based on mailing addresses and voter registration records compiled by The Daily Beast—shows Vann could have been in the Austin, Texas, area at the time of the murders of four women strangled there from 1996 to 2006.
Police in Texas would not discuss whether they were looking into the strangulation murders as possibly being connected to Vann.
By 2004, Vann was arrested in Gary for roughing up his girlfriend and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. In December 2007, Vann was convicted of raping a prostitute in Austin where he was living at the time, and sentenced to six years in prison. During those six years, no women were murdered by strangulation in Austin or Gary.
That’s about the time that Thomas Hargrove, the journalist who wrote to authorities in Gary in 2010 to warn them of a possible serial killer, began collecting FBI homicide data as part of a project for Scripps News Service.
With rectangular glasses, balding gray hair, and a deliberate way of talking, Hargrove seems more like a scientist than a recently retired reporter. It’s only fitting then that he’s created a database of nearly 200,000 unsolved homicides across the United States over the past three decades. Using this data, he discovered a pattern in Gary: women strangled to death by an unknown killer or killers beginning in the mid-1990s until 2007.
Most of the 15 victims found by Hargrove fit Vann’s profile: women of sex worker age—from 19 to 53—whose bodies were found in wooded areas or abandoned homes in Gary, Hammond, Crown Point, or East Chicago.
All of them had been strangled to death. None of their murders have been solved.
Susanne Rohweder, 31, was found stuffed in a garbage bag in 1991 in Gary. An unidentified 36-year-old black woman was found in an abandoned home the following year in nearby East Chicago. Also in 1992, Anne Marie Russo, 24, was found in a Gary home. Then two more still-unidentified females were found in Gary in 1993 and 1994, respectively.
From 1996 to 2007 the Gary area saw the strangulation killings of 10 other women. Yvonne Wallace, 32, was found near a set of train tracks in 1996. The body of Sherry Robinson, 35, was found nearly nude in an alley in 1997. That same year Candee J. Brady was found strangled in her home. (Brady’s husband, a former police officer, was found not guilty.) Jacqueline Soto, 33, was found strangled to death somewhere in Gary in 1998.
Then the killer or killers took a break, resuming in the mid 2000s.
Abbie Vitoux, 52, was found strangled in her home in 2005. (Her son was acquitted of the crime.) Kim Sam, 42, was found strangled in her Gary home in 2006. Maria Mora, 36, was strangled to death that same year in nearby Crown Point. Essie Mitchell, 84, was found in her Gary home in 2006 as well. In 2007 it was Erika Hill, 15, and Theresa Barnes, 50, that fell victims to the strangler or stranglers of Gary.
Hill was found in February 2007 and Barnes in March. Vann was jailed in Texas in July.
“We’ve determined that Gary, Indiana has an elevated number of unsolved murders of women who were strangled in recent years,” Hargrove wrote in his 2010 letter to Gary police.
With Vann still in a Texas prison, no other women in Gary were strangled to death until 2014 after he returned.
The Daily Beast found four more potential victims of Vann’s by culling media reports, all of them women killed by strangulation in 1995 when Vann had listed addresses in the Gary area. It was also the same year that serial killer Eugene V. Britt strangled five women to death in Gary. Britt did not confess to the murders of the four additional women found by The Daily Beast, and his attorneys did not respond to requests for comment when reached recently.
Whether the women—Arlinda Smith, 46, Debra J. Brzinski, 36, Johnice “China” White, 15, Cleaster “Precious McNeil, 29—were killed by Vann, Britt, or someone else is now up to police to determine.
This means there could be as many as 26 women killed by Vann.
Hargrove doesn’t know what, if anything, came of the coroner’s investigation into the killings, and the gag order prevents anyone in Gary from discussing Vann’s case or anything even remotely related to it.
But a homicide detective did offer a warning during my June visit to the city.
“I would just be wary about discussing all of these other cases in the same breath as Vann,” she said. “I just don’t want the families of his victims becoming upset thinking that he might have had something to do with these other killings.”
Monday was the two-year anniversary of Afrikka’s death and her mother said all she wants is closure that only a trial and a conviction can bring.
“People always talk about God’s purpose for you in life,” she said. “I have a hard time thinking that God’s purpose for Afrikka was for her to be murdered by a possible serial killer and that he be brought to justice. But when I think about that, it kind of keeps me in focus that her murder helped to get a monster off the streets.”
Townsend said prosecutors told her Vann’s trial isn’t expected to begin for another two years.
She cried as we spoke on the phone, saying a “bond was broken that can never be replaced.” It is difficult to listen to music at times—Afrikka was a music lover and sang often. Townsend prefers to be alone, but the solitude can make coping with her daughter’s death more difficult. Each year, as the seasons change and holidays approach, Townsend knows her daughter won’t be coming home.
“She was supposed to come home for Thanksgiving,” Townsend said. “But obviously that plan fell through.”