Not guilty pleas for suspect in 7 Indiana deaths

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A judge recorded not guilty pleas Wednesday for a former Marine who is charged with murder in the strangulation deaths of two women found in northwestern Indiana and is suspected of killing five others.

During an initial hearing that lasted eight minutes, Lake County Magistrate Kathleen Sullivan explained to Darren Vann that the informal pleas in the strangulation deaths of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy and 35-year-old Anith Jones would become formal in 20 days unless he or his attorney takes action.

Vann, 43, had refused to speak during an initial hearing in the Hardy case a week earlier and was cited for contempt. On Wednesday, the convicted sex offender from Gary responded to Sullivan's questions, giving his address and birth date and repeatedly uttering "yes, ma'am" and "no ma'am."

He also acknowledged that he understood the reason for the hearing. A week earlier, Vann had just stared back silently at Sullivan when she asked him the same question.

Vann is charged with murder in the deaths of Hardy and Jones as well as two counts of murder in the perpetration of a robbery and two counts of robbery resulting in serious bodily injury. Sullivan told Vann he faced sentences of 45 years to 65 years in prison and possibly the death penalty in each death.

Vann's next hearing in both cases is set for Jan. 9.

Sullivan granted public defender Matthew Fech's request that she issue a gag order barring investigators from interviewing Vann in the Jones case without Fech being present, just as she had in the Hardy case a week earlier.

Prosecutor Bernard Carter said he couldn't comment because of a gag order issued by Sullivan.

Hardy's body was found Oct. 17 in a bathtub at a Motel 6 in Hammond, 20 miles southeast of Chicago. The investigation led police to Vann, who police say confessed to killing Hardy. A probable cause affidavit states Hardy was a prostitute and Vann told police he strangled her with his hands and an extension cord when she fought him.

Hammond Police Chief John Doughty has said Vann was arrested the next day and began to tell police where they could find the bodies of more women in abandoned homes in hopes of reaching a deal with prosecutors. Police found Jones' body later that night beneath a pile of tires and teddy bears in an abandoned house in Gary. The bodies of two other women, including Teaira Batey, 28, were found hours later. The bodies of three more women, including 36-year-old Kristine Williams of Gary, were found later that day.

Authorities are still trying to identify three of the women found in abandoned homes in Gary. They also were investigating whether Vann might have been involved in other deaths, saying he has hinted his crimes stretch back 20 years.

Vann was convicted in 2009 of raping a woman in Austin, Texas. 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 woman in a chokehold in 2004, doused her with gasoline and threatened to set her on fire. The woman told police she had lived with Vann for nine months.

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