GARY, Indiana—Over a din of smart-ass comments and after-work banter, Peg at Bugsy’s Tavern asks the obvious question: “You guys wanna watch the news?” The answer is yes, of course, and the crowd at the tiny bar off the main drag in this busted town of 80,000 settles in to hear the score of their newly famous resident.
There’s a Jane Doe or two among the seven women allegedly killed by Darren Deon Vann who need to be identified; more charges are forthcoming for Vann, who is already pinned for the murder of Afrika Hardy, strangled and left in the bathtub of a Motel 6. Six bodies have been discovered thanks to his confession.
“Supposedly there’s 14,” a concrete worker named Josh said Monday night.
“There’s gotta be more,” a beer-sipper agrees.
What there isn’t, the patrons at Bugsy’s are told as they gaze into TV screens glowing in the approaching dusk, is a motive. The whole episode is shocking, confusing, newsy and depressing—a black eye for a town already sporting a fat lip and a broken nose.
There are 10,000 abandoned houses in Gary, the mayor said earlier in the day as details emerged about the crime that brought police to Vann’s doorstep. The homes sit in various stages of decay—some are torched to the point that blackened studs are the only thing left of a family’s long-gone home. Others are fixer-uppers, if you happen to be a construction expert and financial idiot. But most of the abandoned houses, with sagging roofs and drafty walls, are just there.
“It makes me uncomfortable,” a woman says, standing in front of 413 E. 43rd Ave., where the body of Anith Jones was found. “My kids walk by here every day.”
They’re far from alone. Children hopping off school buses roamed the streets Monday afternoon as news crews gathered at the house, slightly obscured from the street by a yard of unkempt grass littered with fallen tree branches. Inside were all the signs of a flophouse. Empty cigarette packs, liquor bottles, containers sticky with food residue covered the floor. In a bedroom at the top of crumbling stairs, a bed was made up with a comforter. A baby carriage and a car seat sat nearby.
“They should just give ‘em away for free,” Josh at the bar says of the houses as the mayor recounts for reporters the difficulties of dealing with Gary’s blight.
Apparently “they” don’t have to, because whoever was living in the upstairs bedroom at 413 E. 43rd isn’t paying rent. Vann likely wasn’t either, if the looks of his home in the 1400 block of East 50th Court are any indication. That abode wasn’t as accessible to vagrants and the wind as 413 E. 43rd, but it is definitely on the wrong side of the fixer-upper scale.
After the news, Bugsy’s empties a bit. Political ads demonizing some politicians and praising others play on as an older man sips his Colt 45. Smiling politicians seem a long way from here. Gary has been broken for a while, and it looks like much of it has been left to rot. What can a politician do for a town that’s so fucked up that 10,000 abandoned houses are simply part of the scenery, where a killer can dump bodies seemingly at random without much fear of being caught, where only one of the three women so far identified as Vann’s victims had a missing-persons report out on her?
At 7 o’clock, the bartender at Bugsy’s clocks out and gives a bit of direction to her second-shift replacement. The news is over, but I start to notice other stories on the walls of the bar. Newspaper clippings, many of them with pictures of the owner, a former Gary firefighter, are everywhere. Often, the newsprint reads, the fires were battled at abandoned houses.
The bartender switches the channel and the lone patron doesn’t bat an eye. He just keeps sipping his Colt 45 and staring at the TV, where hockey-masked Jason is roaming the woods and two teenagers are running in fear. There are plenty of wooded areas like the one being taken in by the stone-faced drinker sitting next to me, and two of Vann’s victims were found among the trees. But this killer didn’t have to do much hiking. Instead he took advantage of what, for him, is Gary’s greatest asset: abandoned houses left behind when people fled for greener pastures.