A late-night meal, mayhem and mourning
|A note about attribution
Editor's note: The accounts in this series implicating Jim Degorski and Juan Luna in the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murders have been provided by Palatine police and by Cook County prosecutors. It is based, they say, on statements by the accused killers and by two of their friends who say they were told about the crimes, as well as on other evidence. Degorski and Luna have not yet had their days in court. Defense attorneys say they are innocent and the evidence against them will be discredited.
It's just after 9 p.m. at Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine when a Ford Tempo pulls up nearby.
Two men climb out of the car into the 20-degree January cold. They cross packed snow banks as they head toward the restaurant.
Closing time was a few minutes ago. Inside, fryers have been shut off, the brown tile floor mopped, the countertops and tables left sparkling. It's Jan. 8, 1993, and the employees are about to head for home or their Friday night plans. Putting the food away is one of the few remaining tasks.
The men approach the restaurant from the back, where there are no windows to reveal them to those inside. They wedge a piece of wood under a green-painted door used by employees. It will serve as insurance against anyone escaping.
Brown's owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt spent their life savings to buy this franchise. Every dollar counts, and every last-minute food order is filled. When the two men walk in the front door, they're greeted as customers.
Those steps through the door begin 44 minutes of horror that make headlines across the country. Years later, Palatine police and Cook County prosecutors identify the men as Jim Degorski and Juan Luna. The authorities build an account of the slayings they say is based on statements by the suspects and two of their friends. Lawyers for Degorski and Luna say the men are not the killers and that the evidence against them will be discredited.
On this Friday night, Luna, 18, isn't exactly a stranger at Brown's. The former Fremd High School student worked for the Ehlenfeldts but left amicably a week after they took over in May 1992, Ann Ehlenfeldt, Richard's sister, said. Luna also worked with Michael Castro, 16, one of the Friday night cashiers. But it is Luna's knowledge of the building and the workers' daily routine that brings him back tonight, authorities said.
Police and prosecutors have reconstructed the crime and now give this chilling account:
It begins with Luna ordering a four-piece chicken meal. It's the day's final sale, rung up at 9:08 p.m. He and Degorski grab a booth near the front, where artificial Christmas garland loops above the windows.
In the back, Richard Ehlenfeldt pulls on a warm shirt and joins one of his workers, Thomas Mennes, to take inventory in the walk-in cooler. Manager trainee Marcus Nellsen and cook Guadalupe Maldonado are nearly finished cleaning the food preparation area.
Michael and his Palatine High School buddy, Rico Solis, 17, are finished with the dining room and are helping with other closing chores. Lynn Ehlenfeldt has counted the evening's receipts and put the money in the safe, using the key she normally keeps on a loop of coiled plastic on her wrist.
Luna and Degorski, the lone customers, are arguing, the prosecution account continues. Degorski, 20, fumes over his friend's decision to order dinner. The grease, he complains, will leave fingerprints. Fingerprints could ruin everything.
Their pockets are packed with .38-caliber bullets. The two men stand and walk toward the counter.
They haven't come here for a late-night meal. They're here, Degorski is quoted later as telling a friend, to "do something big."
When it's all over, the bullets spent, the men cut most of the power at a switch box by the back door and leave. Behind them, in the darkened restaurant, seven bodies lie slumped on the floor.
A wall clock in the corner marks the moment: 9:52 p.m.
The building is silent when Manny Castro pulls into the parking lot about 11 p.m.
Brown's is dark, except for a nightlight burning in back. Its glow provides no answer to the mystery that has Castro worried and restless.
Michael isn't home.
It's out of character for him to stay out this late. It's out of line for him not to call to let his father and mother, Epifania, know if he's going out after work.
Michael's white Nissan pickup with the U.S. Marines stickers on the back window and bumper sits empty outside the restaurant.
Maybe Michael went out to eat after work, Castro hopes. He turns his car around and drives the five blocks home.
Minutes tick by. Still no Michael.
Castro goes back out, driving by other fast-food places looking for his son.
Back at home, Castro gets a call from Rico Solis' mother, Evelyn Urgena. Rico is wholly reliable. In the United States for eight months after growing up in the Philippines, he's never done anything to cause his mother needless worry.
Castro calls police. It's about 11:45 p.m., Castro says. Police say they log the call at 1:02 a.m., a discrepancy that still stands 10 years later.
Just after their call to police, Castro and his wife drive back to Brown's at Northwest Highway and Smith Street. Palatine police officer Dan Bonneville waits for them in his squad car in the parking lot. Michael's probably out being a typical teenager, the Castros say he tells them. Bonneville downplays a mother's and father's fears and leaves, Castro says.
Bonneville is the second police officer to stop by. The first, officer Ron Conley, drove into the parking lot at 12:21 a.m. to check out a man he saw near the building, police said.
The man is Pedro Maldonado, out looking for his brother, newly hired Brown's cook Guadalupe Maldonado.
Guadalupe usually comes home from work by 9:30 p.m. But Pedro arrived home late from his own job at Jake's Pizza in Palatine to find Guadalupe's wife, Beatriz, awake and frightened.
During Pedro's mile-long trip to Brown's, a terrible thought occurred to him: Maybe authorities learned that Guadalupe, who recently returned from Mexico, doesn't have proper work papers. They could deport him.
Maldonado pulls into the parking lot and confronts the same puzzle that greets the Castros: The building is virtually dark, yet five cars are parked outside. The old Cutlass Ciera that Guadalupe drove to work is one of them.
Maldonado gets out of his car and peers through the restaurant's front picture windows at the barely discernable brown vinyl padded booths inside.
The weak nightlight reveals nothing else.
Turning to leave, he comes upon the police cruiser with Conley sitting inside. Maldonado explains himself to Conley. Guadalupe likes to be home in time to say good night to his three boys, he says. That bedtime was hours ago.
Don't worry, the officer tells him; maybe the employees went out for sandwiches or drinks.
But Guadalupe doesn't drink. Besides, Maldonado replies, his car is still here.
Go back home, Conley tells him; Guadalupe surely will be there shortly.
As worried relatives and Palatine police officers pass in and out of the parking lot, the phone inside the store rings again and again.
It's Pedro's daughter, Maria, hoping someone will pick up and tell her how to find her uncle.
No one answers.
|DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTOS
Police initially focus on recently fired Brown's employee Martin E. Blake. After his arrest, they search his Elgin home. The hood of his Ford Bronco remains open in his driveway, the way he left it when detectives surrounded him. Police release Blake two days later after determining he's not the killer. Cook County State's Attorney Jack O'Malley, right, talks to the media about the case soon after Blake's release.
Palatine police have had a busy night. A drunken driver ran into a squad car. The end of the Palatine High School vs. Fremd cross-town basketball game released carloads of teenagers onto the streets.
Even though three Brown's co-workers aren't where they're supposed to be, there's no indication anything is amiss.
Officer Bonneville told his supervisors later that he arrived at the restaurant before the Castros, rattled the doors and found no sign of trouble, former Deputy Chief Jack McGregor said.
But Bonneville either missed a door - the green back door on the east side - or he never checked any of them, McGregor said.
Castro heads to the police station to file a missing person report after he and Bonneville part ways.
Then he returns to Brown's a third time. It's just after 3 a.m. Conley meets him there.
Methodically, the two men work together, pulling on doors and peering in windows. Conley comes to the green employee entrance.
He grips the handle and yanks. The door unexpectedly opens.
Castro steps up behind Conley and spots his son's jacket hanging just inside.
"That's Michael's jacket," he says.
But Conley's already focusing on something far more ominous a few feet away.
Just inside the entrance is a freezer. An arm pokes out of the door, propping it open. Blood pools on the brown tile floor in front of it.
Castro doesn't see it. He tries to push past Conley, but the officer blocks him with his body and his words.
"This is a crime scene."
The ringing phone jolts Deputy Chief McGregor out of a sound sleep - the type of sleep he won't know again for months. It's nearly 3:30 a.m. Phone calls at this hour always mean trouble.
Palatine is far from being plagued by crime, but it's no Mayberry, either.
In 1990, a woman was accused of murdering her newborn daughter and putting the body in a creek. Two years before that, Dr. Lee Robin axed his wife to death and drowned their infant.
Still, McGregor's never had a call like this.
Sgt. Bob Haas, the overnight watch commander, blurts out the news over his cell phone. "I'm at the Brown's Chicken, boss, and we've got a bunch of dead people in the cooler."
McGregor is groggy from the sudden awakening, but Haas' shaking voice seizes his attention.
"Bob, calm down," McGregor says.
Haas comes across more bodies.
"I'm wrong," he says. "There are more dead people in the (other) cooler."
Haas counts. Seven bodies. Five in the freezer, two in the cooler. Later, police will come to know the victims: Three fathers. A middle-aged mother of three girls. A twin brother. A high school senior who just moved from the Philippines to escape violence. And his Filipino-American friend, a high school junior who wanted to be a Marine.
"Do you have any people alive?" McGregor asks. "Do you need medical services?"
One answer echoes back for both questions:
Firefighters and paramedics at Palatine's Colfax Street station haven't slept much tonight. A burning house sent them rushing out of the station and into the cold. Earlier in the evening, some of the men learned a co-worker had been fired.
All that fades when they get the call about victims in coolers at Brown's Chicken & Pasta.
Probably a robbery, figures fire Capt. Norm Malcolm, the current chief. Shivering workers trapped in a freezer, maybe even suffering from hypothermia.
But the call is so odd, they send out the cavalry - two fire engines, an ambulance, a squad crew, two paramedics and a shift commander. Eight men in all head out.
None of them will be needed.
Before the crew reaches the restaurant, a dispatcher warns them to expect fatalities. Still, nothing prepares the men for what they find.
"We walked in," Malcolm recalled a year later, "and the freezer was right there, and everybody was just - their jaws hit the floor."
The senselessness of it overwhelms them. Some saw the devastation when American Airlines Flight 191 crashed near O'Hare International Airport in 1979. But that was an accident.
Paramedics Scott Pelletreau and Jim Foraker lean over the bodies one by one, reaching for the carotid arteries in the neck, hoping for the feel of a faint pulse against their fingers.
In his apartment, McGregor gathers his thoughts.
He told Haas to seal off the crime scene and start calling in every detective who's in town. Now, it's time to wake the chief.
Chief Jerry Bratcher, stunned and incredulous, listens to McGregor's report. They hang up, and within minutes Bratcher calls the Northern Illinois Police Crime Laboratory in Highland Park. They'll need to send forensics experts to handle the crime scene.
McGregor showers, dresses and races his village-owned Chevy to Brown's. It's not yet 4 a.m.
He parks and approaches the open green door. As his eyes focus in the thin light, his first view of the crime is seared into his brain: The puddle of blood. The walk-in freezer door propped open by an arm. The five bullet-riddled bodies inside, some with knife wounds. The victims, some sitting slouched where they were shot, are huddled together in the tiny space as if in some futile attempt to protect themselves.
Long hours later, police confirm the names. The tangle of bodies in the freezer is owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49, of Arlington Heights; fry cook Guadalupe Maldonado, 47, of Palatine, cashiers Rico Solis, 17, of Arlington Heights and Michael Castro, 16, of Palatine and manager-in-training Marcus Nellsen, 31, of Palatine.
Nearby in a walk-in cooler, behind hanging thick plastic strips that keep the cold from leaking out, lie owner Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, of Arlington Heights and chicken breader Tom Mennes, 32, of Palatine.
"That picture is there, in living color, of what I saw," McGregor said a decade later. "Always will be."
At some point in those early hours, the phone on the restaurant wall rings again. Haas answers. It's a WBBM-AM radio reporter, asking about what he hears on the police scanner. Haas hangs up without saying another word.
Like a magnet, Brown's draws Pedro Maldonado back again at 5:30 a.m. He and his family have passed a sleepless night, praying, lighting candles and jumping at the slightest noise that could be Guadalupe returning home.
Maldonado sees a crowd of onlookers outside Brown's.
"In my heart, I knew then," he remembered. "Something is bad here."
Reporters, photographers and TV camera crews already crowd the parking lot. They mingle with relatives of the workers, who still look for answers and hope for miracles.
There is a man inside, dead, a reporter tells him. Maldonado figures it must be Guadalupe. Someone else tells him another man in the crowd fears the victim is his 16-year-old son. Like Maldonado, Manny Castro has been up all night, they tell him. The boy, Michael, went to work last night and never came home.
Eventually, a priest approaches Pedro and asks to take him to the Palatine police station. There, in a small private room, the priest tells Pedro there has been a murder. Guadalupe is among the victims. There is nothing else to say.
"I kept asking 'why?' but they didn't know," Pedro recalled.
The look on Maldonado's face as he walks into their apartment tells Beatriz that Guadalupe is dead. For 20 minutes or more, the adults sob. They cannot find words. Finally, Pedro tells Beatriz and his own wife, Juana, what he knows, and Beatriz goes to tell her sons, Juan Pablo, 13, Javier, 10, and Salvador, 5, that their father is dead.
Just before sunrise, police officers arrive at the Solis apartment on the top floor of a squat tan building at the northern edge of Arlington Heights.
Rico is dead, they say, murdered. They begin to ask questions. Television and radio stations continue to spread word of slayings unlike any seen in the suburbs. Within hours, long before Rico's body is removed from the floor of the Brown's freezer, delivery drivers begin to bring flowers to his family. One bouquet after another arrives. The cloying scent brings back other memories, of Rico's father, Ramon, stabbed to death in the Philippines five years earlier when Rico was 12.
It is all too much for Rico's remarried mother, Evelyn Urgena, and Rico's sisters Jade and Jizelle. They need to flee the questions from reporters. The family packs a few things, moves out of the apartment and into a hotel and never really returns.
Late in the morning, Beatriz Maldonado goes with her niece, Maria Maldonado, to Brown's. It is cold, 28 degrees, windy and snowing, but the women stand outside all day, hoping to learn more or to see Guadalupe's body.
Day turns to night before authorities finish their initial examination of the building and allow the seven bodies to be moved. They take them out one by one, each zipped in a body bag, carried on a stretcher and placed into an ambulance.
Beatriz and Maria watch. They don't know which bag holds Guadalupe. They stand together in the twilight, whispering prayers for each one.
McGregor stays less than an hour at Brown's, then drives to the station. Dispatchers' first round of calls brought in eight Palatine detectives. Now it's time to get more help. He calls the Cook County sheriff's department. Some investigators arrive before daybreak. Bratcher phones the FBI. Agents come immediately. Grief counselors come from Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights to meet families at the police station.
A conference room with a blackboard becomes temporary headquarters. Names of officers, detectives, investigators from other agencies and other workers are scrawled in chalk across the board. Next to the names go the assignments: Victims. Media. Crime scene. Yellow legal pads are set out. A laptop is plugged in.
Crews add more phones. They ring and ring. The tips and leads and theories pour in.
At the restaurant, police find only a small sum of money nearly hidden in the back of the safe. The safe key with the loop of coiled plastic Lynn wore around her wrist dangles from the lock. Detectives decipher register tapes and find more than $1,800 is missing. A botched robbery is a distinct possibility. Robbers recently hit nearby fast-food restaurants, so detectives begin checking those out.
Psychics call. People with visions call. At 11:38 a.m. Saturday, a woman calls with her sister at her side. What she and her sister say makes investigators wonder.
They have a friend, she tells police, named Martin E. Blake. He's 23, lives in Elgin and the Ehlenfeldts just fired him. He's threatened revenge. He owns a .22-caliber gun, they tell police, and he's been firing it down the hallway of his Elgin house and into some phone books.
When police ask, Blake's other acquaintances talk. Blake's talking cocky, like he knows something about the murders, they claim. He watched the story on the news and smiled, someone tells police.
He sounds like a good suspect.
He's even dated Michael Castro's sister, Mary Jane, who worked at Brown's for a few years before the Ehlenfeldts took over. And Michael, investigators know, suffered a vicious stab wound along with the gunshots that killed him.
Handling a crime scene like the mass murder at Brown's, in theory, is no different than any other. You secure it from outsiders. You restrict entry to the investigators and technicians who must be there, and you take note of everything you see.
Patrol officers pull out rolls of yellow crime tape and cordon off the scene, following the perimeter of snow banks around the parking lot.
Technicians photograph and videotape every inch of the place. Over the next two months, they will dust tables and counters, sinks and walls, hoping to find usable fingerprints.
They will collect enough material from Brown's to fill a former classroom at the police station, protected by lock, key and alarm. Inside are Formica countertops, wood-grain tabletops, the green-painted steel door. Even a partially eaten chicken dinner, discovered in an otherwise clean garbage bag at the front of the dining area, is packed up and frozen. Maybe it someday will tell a story, give a clue.
Police, paramedics and all who entered the restaurant will have to be fingerprinted to exclude their prints from the scores collected from the scene. The victims, too, will be fingerprinted to remove their prints from the pool.
But for this long Saturday, as snow begins to fall outside, the seven victims stay in their frigid resting places. It will be almost 7 p.m. before the last of the seven bodies is carried from the restaurant for the journey to the Cook County medical examiner's office on Chicago's Near West Side.
On this first day, victims' relatives are taken into one room at the police station while investigators work in the room next door. The separating wall can't contain the cries of a grieving mother, just told her son is believed to be among the victims, recalled Walt Gasior, the former civilian deputy police chief.
"In her anguish, for a moment the conversation just stopped, and the emotion swept over the people in the room," Gasior recalled. "Everyone in the room understood that peoples' lives had dramatically changed. And we were responsible for solving that crime."
Chances are good that somewhere inside the small restaurant, there's a clue, if only it can be found and its meaning deciphered.
In the back, blood streaks the floor, as if someone had tried to clean up. A mop stands against a counter with blood on the stringy mop head and on the handle.
Except for that, the restaurant is clean, the closing procedures nearly completed. Cash register drawers have been cleaned out and sit atop an ice machine, but a register tape reveals the last meal of the night, a $5 chicken dinner and drink sold at 9:08 p.m.
Crime scene experts find the faint imprint from a Nike shoe on the still-damp floor near the front register. Police think it might belong to one of the murderers. Eventually, Nike will report the shoe is a Nike Air Force, size 12_ to 14, manufactured between June 1990 and November 1992. It isn't heavily worn, or was worn mainly indoors. It says "FORCE" on the tongue.
The man who wore the shoe, based on its size, is between 6 feet and 6 feet 6 inches tall.
Authorities dig bullets from the walls and later, medical examiners will remove them from the victims' bodies. Just one bullet - found at eye level in a fryer hood - is outside of the cooler and freezer where the victims died. The slugs are from a .38- or .357-caliber gun.
Soon, people who were in the neighborhood that Friday night claim to have heard some of the shots. It's time for a test. McGregor hauls old bulletproof vests and a variety of handguns from the police station to Brown's. He places the vests in different parts of the restaurant, stations officers and sound meters outside and fires away.
He shoots a vest in the freezer. He closes the freezer door and fires again. He fires a round in the cooler. He closes the cooler door and shoots again.
He tries every possibility he can imagine. "We shot .38s, 9 millimeters, .357s," McGregor said. "And after all that, we determined you couldn't hear squat anywhere."
The switch box is a tantalizing clue. It's tucked behind a wall, out of plain view. Did the killer or killers know beforehand how to cut the power? Did they know the restaurant was left mostly dark after closing?
"It could have been sheer chance that the killers found the switch box," McGregor said. "It was either luck, or someone had knowledge that the switch box was there."
The picture painted by the evidence unfolds slowly, over days and weeks. On that first day, it looks as if the mystery might be solved soon.
Detectives prepare to move in on Blake, a former Fremd High School student who lives on the east side of Elgin. He bought the house with cash from a 1986 settlement he got after being hit by a car in Palatine.
Palatine and Elgin police disguise themselves as water department workers and station themselves near Blake's house.
Later, they watch from a neighbor's home.
Blake knows Palatine police want to talk to him. A female friend warned him that morning he is being painted as an angry ex-employee. But he doesn't know police will come looking for him. And he certainly doesn't know they are waiting for him as he walks out of his house at 2:56 p.m. Saturday.
Still hung over from partying Friday night, Blake walks out to his driveway and lifts the hood of a 1977 Ford Bronco that won't start.
More than a dozen Elgin and Palatine officers, guns drawn, swarm at him.
They handcuff him and whisk him away.
"Is this about last night?" police say he asks.
Blake tells investigators he didn't do it. He says he was drinking with friends. A friend backs him up - four or five people drank beer and got high at Blake's house that Friday night, the friend says in an interview just after the murders. From 7 to 9 p.m., they watched a 1992 movie, "Revolver," starring Robert Urich.
Blake tried to talk the group into going out to rent "Faces of Death," a video documentary that shows people being killed. The friends weren't interested, so he left his house by himself about 9:15 p.m. and returned about 11 p.m.
Police check the alibi. They scour his house. Much of what they find leads to more questions.
Blake, meanwhile, sits in a jail cell, a surveillance camera staring at him.
"Habeas corpus," he tells the camera, using the legal term for unlawful detention he learned in history class at Fremd. "Habeas corpus."
Hours roll past. Blake's bravado evaporates. He reaches out for help.
"God, if you get me out of here, I'm going to do something really good," he pleads.
Investigators spend most of the next days trying to prove Blake didn't do it, McGregor said in a recent interview.
Police face intense pressure to solve the case. But after they question Blake for 48 hours over three days, investigators conclude he is the wrong man.
"We let him go because he didn't do it," McGregor said. "There was nobody there that said: 'God, this is our killer. We can't let him go.'"
Police free Blake on Monday, Jan. 11, 1993. They usher him through the back door of the police station to avoid a media throng. Investigators drive him back to Elgin, where his green Ford Bronco still stands in the driveway, hood up, doors open, just as it was when they cornered him at gunpoint Saturday afternoon.
With Blake gone, McGregor and the other task force members need to dig deeper. They need to catch a break. They settle in for the long haul.
"My life came to a stop for those first four months," McGregor recalled. He barely saw his three children.
"I had a 55-gallon salt water reef that went to hell in my apartment," he said. "I probably had a couple of thousand bucks invested in that. My life stopped."
The lives of seven others quite literally did stop, and, in a sense, so did the lives of their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and other loved ones.
With Blake's release, the grieving relatives, police and residents face a grim truth.
Cook County State's Attorney Jack O'Malley puts it into words at a press conference late that Monday afternoon.
"We are not in a position to reassure this community," he says. "There is a murderer or murderers on the loose."
Next: How the victims ended up in the killers' path.