If you’re a musical comedy fan, you probably remember the charming song “Gary, Indiana” from The Music Man, a smash hit back in the 1950s. The lyrics celebrate a little boy’s love for his hometown: “There is just one place/ That can light my face—Gary, Indiana.”
But shortly after The Music Man opened on Broadway, the city’s fortunes began to change. Gary’s steel mills could not compete with lower prices from overseas companies. Gary lost 55% of its population, and the quality of life declined in many parts of the once-prosperous city—for example, experts estimate that there are 10,000 abandoned and decaying homes in Gary.
And now the city has suffered another blow: Convicted sex offender Darren Vann, 43, has confessed to the murders of six women whose bodies were found in those abandoned houses. Vann, apparently hoping for leniency, led police to the bodies after he was charged with strangling Afrikka Hardy, a 19-year-old woman whose body was found in a bathtub in a Hammond motel.
Shock and dismay soon led to questions about criminal justice practices and procedures in Gary. How did Vann—a registered sex offender—manage to commit six murders without being caught? Why did officials consider him a low risk for violence? Why did no one notice the decaying bodies of the six women? Most alarmingly, why did no one report that three of the victims were missing?
It’s too soon to come up with definitive answers to the questions—but some facts have been uncovered that can help shed a light on what happened to those women in Gary.
Journalists quickly uncovered numerous facts about Vann’s past that pointed to potential danger. In 2004 he served a year in prison for choking a woman, dousing her with gasoline, and threatening to set her on fire. In 2009 he raped a woman in his Texas apartment. Also troubling is his less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps after less than two years of military service. (The Marines are not releasing any details about the problems that led to his discharge.)
But other details suggest there was little reason to worry about Vann. A year ago, when he was released from prison in Texas after the rape conviction, experts did an evaluation and notified Indiana officials that he was not considered dangerous. That assessment was clearly a mistake, but it is consistent with criminal justice data, which shows that sexual offenders have a remarkably low recidivism rate—less than 9%, according to a massive Department of Justice survey of official studies completed between 1983–2010. And Vann seemed to have rehabilitated himself: He registered as a sex offender after moving to Indiana in July 2013, and a supervisory check in September 2014 showed that he was complying with requirements.
Friends and family have said that Vann showed symptoms of mental disturbance, but none of those behaviors pointed to possible violence. For example, Matlock, Vann’s former stepson, said Vann would talk to himself while staring into the distance. Vann lived in an area of Austin known for prostitution and drugs, where he went for walks late at night. Troubling as those behaviors might be, they do not predict violence.
Emerging information about Vann’s victims might help explain the absence of missing persons reports about Vann’s victims: He sought out women involved in prostitution whose disappearance might go unnoticed in the shadowy world they inhabited.
Vann apparently met several of his victims, including Afrikka Hardy, through prostitution listings on Backpage.com. It’s true that one of his victims—Teaira Batey—had been leading a stable life and was the subject of a missing person’s report. But she also suffered from schizophrenia, had been diagnosed HIV positive, was a former prostitute, and had a cocaine habit. Is it possible that her problematic history caused police to conduct a less-than-thorough search for her?
The shocking discovery of six decaying bodies carelessly hidden in abandoned buildings is probably the most gruesome feature in the horrible story of what happened in Gary. But it’s hardly surprising in light of the 55 years of decline and budget deficits that Gary has endured. Condemning and rehabilitating ten thousand abandoned buildings would require an immense outlay of money—impossible in a city struggling to provide basic services to its citizens.
It’s true that many Americans believe the government should take steps to rebuild a struggling city like Gary—but many other Americans believe that government should play as small a role as possible, with minimum expenditures, in the everyday lives of its citizens. As the debate about the proper role of government rages on, criminal justice professionals in cities like Gary continue to do what they can to preserve law and order. Lake County Sheriff John Buncich says he wishes registered sex offenders, like Vann, could be monitored more closely—but budgetary and legal constraints make that difficult.
Meanwhile police are considering the grim possibility that they may be finding more women who were murdered by Darren Vann in his killing spree.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of ten books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes a Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book Criminal Justice Report Writing. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.