GARY, Ind. — Police investigating the slayings of seven northwestern Indiana women whose bodies were found over the weekend said Monday it could be the work of a serial killer, and that the suspect has told them his victims might go back 20 years.
Hammond Police Chief John Doughty said at a news conference that the suspect is 43-year-old Darren Vann of nearby Gary, Indiana, who was convicted of a sex offense in Texas in 2009. His confession to the slaying of a woman in Hammond led police to the grisly discovery of six other bodies in Gary, including three in on the same block, authorities said.
He said the Gary slayings appear to have happened recently, though Vann indicated there could be earlier victims. He said police are not actively looking for more bodies and have no indication that any murders have occurred in another state. He said Vann is cooperating with investigators in the hope of making a deal with prosecutors.
“It could go back as far as 20 years, based on some statements we have, but that has yet to be corroborated,” Doughty said.
Charges were expected to be filed later Monday in the death of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy, whose body was found about 9:30 p.m. Friday at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Doughty said. The Lake County coroner’s office said she was strangled.
Doughty said she was involved in prostitution and had arranged to meet Vann at the motel through a Chicago-area website. Police were called by someone who attempted to reach Hardy and “was provided suspicious text responses that she believed to be from the suspect while he was still inside the motel room.”
Police said they took Vann into custody Saturday afternoon after obtaining a search warrant for a home and vehicle in Gary.
Vann allegedly confessed to killing Hardy, then told investigators where more bodies could be found in abandoned homes in Gary, a deteriorating former steel town about 30 miles southeast of Chicago, police said.
Police found the body of 35-year-old Anith Jones of Merrillville, Indiana, on Saturday night in an abandoned home. She had been missing since Oct. 8.
Five more bodies were found on Sunday in other homes, said Doughty, who identified two of the women as Gary residents Teairra Batey, 28, and Christine Williams, 36. Police have not determined the identities of the other three women, including two whose bodies were found on the same block where Jones’ body was found on Saturday.
Hardy’s mother, Lori Townsend, said police told her that Vann asked that she perform a certain sex act, and “when she said ‘no’ and put up a fight, he snapped and strangled her,” she said, speaking from her home in Colorado. “This man is sick.”
Hardy graduated from high school in late 2013 and planned to go on to college to study music, Townsend said.
“She was full of life. She lit up a room with her smile and her beauty,” she said. “And she had a voice like a songbird.”
Gary, once a thriving steel town of 178,000 where thousands worked in the mills, has been struggling for decades. Its population has shrunk to just over 78,000 and its poverty rate hovers around 40 percent. Thousands of homes are abandoned, many with weeds choking broken sidewalks — often on the same streets where other homes are tidy and well-kept.
One of the houses where police found a body was overgrown with trees in the front and there was trash strewn in the back of what looked like a falling down garage or shed.
On Monday, people in Gary tried to make sense of the tragedy.
“That’s devastating. That’s sick,” said Jay Jackson, 25, a health care worker visiting a woman a few houses from where one of the bodies was found. “All we can do is pray for the city and hope for recovery.”
Tarm reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Tom Davies in Indianapolis and Tammy Webber in Chicago contributed to this report.