The seven women found murdered in Indiana over the weekend will obviously never be able to recount their final moments.
Their families can only wonder in helpless horror.
“The images I seen when I had to identify my sister’s body, the last words we had together, the many pictures I see with her smiling, and imagine what she went through during last moments, the thoughts of whether she called me for help during her final moments, and WHY this way!!??” the brother of victim Anith Jones posted on Facebook. “Help me Lord!!! Help!!!”
But there is an account by a Texas woman who had a nearly fatal encounter in 2007 with Darren Deon Vann, the same man who now faces charges of murdering Jones and at least six others.
This earlier victim came so close to dying that she was left with broken blood vessels in her left eye and pinpoint hemorrhages behind her ears, the very things a coroner looks for in determining strangulation as a cause of death.
As detailed in an arrest warrant for aggravated sexual assault filed six years ago, the Texas woman was working as an escort on Dec. 15, 2007, when she was dispatched to meet a man who called himself “Dean” in a parking lot in Austin. She went with him to his residence.
“Vann opened the door to the apartment and she walked in,” the warrant reports. “They walked toward the back bedroom and she asked if they could turn on some light. Vann turned on a hand crank light. Vann asked her if she was a police officer and she told him that she was not. Vann then attacked her.”
The document continues: “During the attack, Vann tripped her and she fell to the ground. Vann began to strangle her. She stated that she felt that she was going to die and urinated on herself. She felt her body go limp and Vann yelled at her that he could kill her.”
He released his grip on her throat.
“Vann then told her to perform oral sex on him. She told him no. Vann hit her several times about the face. After the physical assault and being strangled the victim feared for her safety and did not resist.”
When he was done doing as he pleased, Vann allowed the woman to leave. She called the police and underwent a medical exam in which a nurse noted the telltale signs “consistent with strangulation,” indicating the case had been moments away from becoming a murder.
An Austin detective determined that the apartment in question was leased by Vann. The detective interviewed him, and he insisted that he had not been there since the previous month.
“He stated that he had not met the victim at his apartment on that day since he wasn’t there,” the warrant notes.
The warrant also notes that DNA from the victim’s clothing matched Vann’s DNA with only a 1 in 2 quintillion possibility of error. Vann was indicted and he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to five years.
Vann had come to Austin after serving in the Marine Corps and living much of his life in Indiana. He had been arrested and briefly jailed in Gary in 2004, after an incident triggered by a breakup with a live-in girlfriend. He doused himself and her new residence with gasoline, then placed her in a headlock while holding a gas can and a cigarette lighter in the other hand. He was threatening to immolate both of them when police ended a standoff by grabbing him.
“Bitch, are you crazy?” he had shouted at the girlfriend, according to court papers, as if she were the nuts one.
He had subsequently married a Gary woman who was considerably older than himself. She last spoke to him shortly before he began his prison term in Texas. She filed for divorce in August 2009 because of an “irrevocable breakdown.”
Vann was freed in July of last year, having served his entire term. He returned to Gary, a once-booming steel town that’s lost more than half its population and is crumbling toward ruin. He duly registered as a sex offender and rented a room but often stayed with his sister and drove her car as he worked various maintenance and security jobs.
At 5:17 p.m. on Friday, court papers say, 19-year-old Afrika Hardy texted her partner in the “Big Boy Appetite” escort service, Shameeka Cunningham, to say she was in room at a Motel 6 in Hammond with a man who had answered their ad on Chicagobackpage.com.
But when there was no further word from Hardy after what she termed “the normal time” for such an “appointment,” Cunningham became worried and tried to contact Hardy as many as eight times but got no response. Cunningham finally received a text from Hardy’s phone, but it struck her as out of character.
Cunningham and a male friend went to the motel and entered the room. The two beds were pulled from the headboards as if there had been a struggle. The shower was running, and they gazed into the bathroom.
Hardy had started life in Illinois and then had moved to Colorado with her family. She was a talented singer, and after graduating high school in Aurora she enrolled at Denver Community College to study music. The family then fell on hard times, and Hardy moved to live with relatives in the Chicago area. She had sent her mother back in Colorado a last message that included a selfie.
“Fat face. I’m so chubby,” she wrote.
Now, just a day later, Hardy lay dead in a motel bathtub. The red mark around her throat suggested she had been strangled with “something thin.” The coroner would also note the tiny hemorrhages that accompany strangulation.
After Cunningham and her friend dialed 911, police noted that Hardy’s cellphone was missing. They found a shirt button on the floor and a broken fingernail on the floor.
“She left this world fighting,” Hardy’s mother, Lori Townsend, later said.
A check of the motel’s surveillance camera showed a man in a gray jacket and dark hoodie running from the room to a blue Jeep. A license plate check led to the home of Vann’s sister in Gary. Detectives there found Vann’s sex-offender registration paper as well as Hardy’s cellphone, still in its pink case.
Not long afterward, 43-year-old Vann found himself under arrest. Police report that he was so startled by being tracked down so quickly that he immediately confessed.
“I messed up,” he supposedly said.
Vann is said to have told cops that he had begun to fight with Hardy in the course of sex. But everything else that is known about him suggests that his real kicks began when he allegedly strangled her with his hands, as he had with that other escort in Texas seven years before. He had finished the job this time with an extension cord.
And that confession is said by police to have been just the start. Cops say he ended up directing them to abandoned houses where they discovered the bodies of six other women in various states of decomposition.
They included 35-year-old Anith Jones, who ran a stand at a local flea market and had last been seen leaving the Gary courthouse, where she had amicably settled a dispute with someone other than Vann that was so minor police discounted it as a factor in her disappearance. Her silver 2001 Chevrolet Prizm was later found in a driveway outside an abandoned house in Gary. Cops who inspected the car’s interior observed what they termed “signs of foul play.”
Three dozen officers mounted an unsuccessful search, checking vacant lots and abandoned houses whose yards had turned to jungles with the aid of a cadaver dog. Jones’ sister, Yolanda Nowell, who happens to be a Chicago police officer, voiced one certainty.
“I know she wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Nowell told a reporter, adding, “She is very street savvy, more so than I am. She has a lot of common sense, very wise.”
Such a woman would be much more difficult to catch unawares than a teenage escort trapped in a motel room. But somehow Jones had ended up among the seven murdered women at the Lake County coroner’s office. Her heartbroken and horrified brother, Sam Jones, made the identification.
Vann’s own brother, 30-year-old Reginald Beard, seemed to be in shock and deepest distress when he told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune:
“To the victims, I’m sorry for their loss.”
He added, “I’m a father of two daughters myself.”
Two other victims besides Jones and Hardy have been identified. They are 36-year-old Christine Williams and 28-year-old Teaira Batey.
In the meantime, police are saying Vann intimated that there were other murders, perhaps stretching back 20 years or more.
However many women he may have killed, police say they cannot explain what prompted him.
“I don’t have a specific reason,” said Hammond Police Chief John Doughty.
Maybe the motive is savagely simple. Perhaps it is contained in what he yelled in 2007 when he closed his hands around that Texas woman’s throat and felt her go limp:
“I can kill you!”