Man suspected of killing 7 refuses to answer judge

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A man who allegedly confessed to killing seven women in Indiana refused to speak or even acknowledge his name to a judge Wednesday, and a sheriff explained later that the suspect was upset his hearing was in open court before dozens of journalists.

The judge asked Darren Vann, 43, of Gary, Indiana, at his initial court appearance if he understood the reason for the hearing in the strangulation death of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy. But Vann stood unmoving and stone-faced, staring back silently at the judge.

"Mr. Vann, are you choosing not to take part in this hearing?" Magistrate Judge Kathleen Sullivan asked Vann sternly.

When Vann — wearing striped jail garb, with his wrists and legs shackled and flanked by two guards at the lockup — still offered no response, Sullivan told his public defender to "tell your client that he stays in jail the rest of his life until this hearing takes place."

Putting his hand on Vann's shoulder, public defender Matthew Fech, encouraged him to speak — but he again stood silently. The judge then found him in contempt and said she would schedule another hearing for next week.

Before entering the room, Vann had peered through a window at spectator benches, asking why so many journalists were there and refusing to even enter, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said later. Fech finally convinced Vann to at least enter.

Until Wednesday's hearing in Crown Point, the sheriff said Vann's demeanor had been "quiet, calm and collected," which included confessing to investigators and leading police to abandoned homes where several bodies were hidden.

Vann is held in isolation on 24-hour-a-day watch in jail, Bunich said, so it's unclear how the contempt charge will alter his status. His silence, if it persists, could raise complicated legal questions that might severely slow the prosecution process.

At the 10-minute hearing, the judge also issued a gag order, meaning investigators can no longer interview Vann unless they first get his permission through his attorney. Authorities, who had provided details of the case, can also no longer discuss it publicly.

Vann, a convicted sex offender, was arrested Saturday and charged with the strangulation death of Hardy, whose body was found Friday in a bathtub at a Motel 6 in Hammond, 20 miles southeast of Chicago.

On Wednesday, he also was charged in the death of 35-year-old Anith Jones of, Merrillville, Indiana, whose body was found in an abandoned house Saturday night in Gary.

Five more bodies were found Sunday in other homes, said Hammond Police Chief John Doughty, who identified two of the women as Gary residents Teaira Batey, 28, and Kristine Williams, 36.

Lake County Coroner Merilee Frey said three bodies remain unidentified, one was found with a silver-colored bracelet with the words "Best Aunt." But bodies were largely skeletonized so other markings, like identifying scars or birthmarks, weren't present.

Members of 17 different families have called the coroner's office inquiring about the bodies, and one call led to DNA tests on the third unidentified victim, Frey said.

Investigators in Indiana and Texas, where Vann also lived, have been poring over cold case files and missing person reports to determine if there are more victims.

Inquiries were also being made in Illinois. Hammond Police discovered information indicating Vann may have been in various communities just across the state line in Illinois in Cook County between the day Hardy's body was found and when Vann was arrested. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart confirmed that "through technology" investigators believe that Vann was in the area of Hazelcrest, Markham and Harvey then, but he wouldn't elaborate.

But a law enforcement official close to the investigation said what Hammond investigators gave to the sheriff's department were cellphone records tracking Vann's phone through the region. The official, who was not authorized to speak about the investigation and would only discuss it anonymously, said investigators were also informed Vann told detectives that after a killing he would visit abandoned buildings where he'd stashed previous victims to ensure bodies had not been discovered.

Vann was convicted in 2009 of raping a woman in his Austin, Texas, apartment. He was released from prison last year and moved back to Indiana. Before that conviction, he served a year in prison in Indiana after he grabbed a Gary woman in a chokehold in 2004, doused her with gasoline and threatened to set her on fire.

In both cases, the charges against Vann were reduced in plea bargains, and Texas officials deemed him a low risk for violence. Vann registered as a sex offender in Indiana and police made a routine check in September that he lived at the address he provided.

Sherriff Buncich said he wished registered sex offenders, like Vann, could be monitored more closely than they are but that budgetary and legal constraints make that difficult.

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