Right before a Will County judge dropped four life sentences on Christopher Vaughn, his grief-stricken mother-in-law wondered aloud why he couldn't have abandoned his wife and three children instead of killing them all.
"What a coward," said Susan Phillips, the mother of Vaughn's slain wife, Kimberly Vaughn.
"If you do not want your family, divorce is always the first option, or even just walking away," Phillips said from the witness stand during Christopher Vaughn's sentencing hearing Tuesday morning.
Christopher Vaughn, 38, wanted to shed his family so he could start a new life in the Yukon wilderness with an unwitting stripper. In June 2007, Vaughn, a former St. Peters resident and graduate of Francis Howell High School, packed his 34-year-old wife and their three children—Blake, 8, Cassandra, 11, and Abigayle, 12—into the family sport utility vehicle and set off from their Oswego home to a Springfield waterpark.
When they got to Channahon, Christopher Vaughn pulled off Interstate 55, drove down the frontage road and pulled over, ostensibly to check luggage stowed on the the roof of the SUV.
He circled the vehicle, then reached through the passenger-side window, stuck a pistol under his wife's head and put a bullet in her brain. After killing Kimberly Vaughn, Christopher's wife and a St. Charles West High School graduate, Christopher turned the gun on his children and shot each in the head and the torso.
He later told detectives it was actually Kimberly Vaughn who killed the children and tried to kill him too, but only managed to wound him in the leg and wrist. Kimberly Vaughn then committed suicide, according to Christopher Vaughn's version of the slaughter in the SUV.
Christopher Vaughn shot his own thigh and wrist to bolster his cover story, police and prosecutors said.
Christopher Vaughn's trial lasted more than five weeks, but at its conclusion the jury returned a guilty verdict after only 50 minutes of deliberation.
Christopher Vaughn's attorney, George Lenard, said the quick conviction was cause for his client to get a new trial. Lenard also claimed the Drew Peterson murder trial, which was held at the same time as Vaughn's in an adjacent courtroom, turned jurors against Vaughn and prevented him from getting a fair shake.
Judge Daniel Rozak rejected Lenard's attempt to get the case tried again.
In addition to her mother, Kimberly Vaughn's identical twin sister, Susan Jennifer Ledbetter, gave a statement before Christopher Vaughn's sentencing.
"We planned to celebrate our twin connection by attending the National Twin convention someday, but that day will never come," Ledbetter said. "Knowing I can no longer share this attachment with her crushes my heart."
Statements from Kimberly Vaughn's father, Del Phillips, and another sister, Nikki Isemann, were read by prosecutors.
Christopher Vaughn, who has grown back his goatee since he was found guilty of executing his entire family, declined to speak before Rozak passed his sentence. Del Phillips, said he hoped Christopher Vaughn "would open up and say why" he killed Kimberly Vaughn and the children.
"It's been a long haul," said Del Phillips, who suffered a heart attack in December 2011.
Besides the four life sentences, Rozak ordered Vaughn to pay $878 in court costs. Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow called the costs "kind of a joke" and said as much as $1 million may have been spent defending Vaughn since he was arrested more than five years ago.
Vaughn had faced the death penalty and his original attorneys, John Rogers of St. Louis and Gerald Kielian of Joliet, were paid through the Illinois Capital Litigation Fund. Both lawyers dumped the case when Gov. Pat Quinn pulled the plug on the death penalty and the money well ran dry.
Deprived of a chance to put Vaughn on death row, Glasgow said, "There isn't a punishment that fits this crime."
"He's a heartless, soulless psychopath," Glasgow said. "We've never had a case like this in Will County where somebody killed his entire family. I pray to God we never have it again."