In the path of killers
Twists of fate put workers in Brown's that night
Two men step out of Brown's Chicken & Pasta into the cold night air.
|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.
They head for the shopping center behind the Palatine restaurant, carefully walking in the footprints they made earlier in snow banks that rim the parking lot.
They don't want to leave clear tracks. They skirt the shopping center and climb into a Ford Tempo parked on the other side.
Behind them, seven bodies lie huddled in a dark walk-in freezer and cooler inside Brown's. But the building looks peaceful, with no outward signs of the mayhem inside.
The men drive west. They peel off their soiled clothing and throw it into trash bins along their route.
They go to the Fox River dam near Carpentersville and pitch a .38-caliber revolver into the icy, dark flow.
|DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTO
A makeshift memorial withers outside the Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta in the days after seven people were murdered there.
It's Jan. 8, 1993. It will be hours before police discover two Brown's owners and five workers are dead.
It will be nearly a decade before authorities charge two men with the murders. They finally will hear accounts of what happened at Brown's between the last food sale at 9:08 p.m. and the killers' departure, presumed to be at 9:52 p.m., when someone switched off the power, leaving a telltale stopped clock.
The men accused of the crime are Jim Degorski and Juan Luna. Palatine police and Cook County prosecutors say descriptions of that 44 minutes inside Brown's come from both men and from two women who once were their friends.
"We did something big," police say Degorski told one of the women, Eileen Bakalla, in a phone call late that Friday night 10 years ago.
Attorneys for Degorski and Luna say the description offered up by police should not be believed. The men are innocent, they say.
Authorities say evidence will back up their account, which includes this portrait of the hours after the slayings:
Bakalla leaves work at Jake's Pizza in Hoffman Estates. She follows Degorski's instructions in the phone call, driving to Jewel/Osco in Carpentersville.
She meets Degorski and Luna in the parking lot. Bakalla notices latex gloves glowing in the darkness on the console of Luna's car, the prosecution account continues. Degorski and Luna climb into her car, bringing a canvas bag. She drives them to the Elgin townhouse where she lives.
Once there, the three smoke pot and count money from the canvas bag. Bakalla gets $50, money she eventually takes to Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee to buy new shoes. The men split the rest - more than $1,800.
A few hours before dawn on Saturday morning, Bakalla drops Luna off at his car, and Degorski asks her to drive past Brown's.
A blaze of ambulance and police lights illuminates the white brick restaurant on a dim stretch of Northwest Highway at Smith Street.
Degorski, according to the prosecution account, confides in Bakalla: More than a robbery went on here.
Degorski, 20, and his Fremd High School buddy Luna, 18, went to Brown's because they wanted to kill, authorities maintain.
They say the men didn't care that Luna knew some of the victims. He'd worked alongside three of them at Brown's until he quit about seven months earlier, leaving on good terms. The killers didn't care that several of the victims were substitutes that night; that they were doomed by their willingness to spend a Friday evening working in place of others. They didn't care that to some of the workers, the Brown's job was a leg up on life, providing hope for a way out of difficult pasts.
To Degorski and Luna, police contend, it simply didn't matter who they chanced to meet that night at Brown's.
In the days and weeks before Jan. 8, Rico Solis thought about quitting Brown's.
He hated the grease spattering up from the chicken fryer. It coated his skin and stuck to his hair. No matter how long he spent washing up, he never felt like he had fully scrubbed the sticky film from his skin.
He applied for a job at Menard's. But he needed money fast to pay his bills, to soup up the 1986 red Dodge Charger he bought from his stepdad and to save for a newer, sportier model.
Owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt knew Rico, 17, was unhappy. They promoted him to front-counter cashier and promised him more hours.
Rico's not on the schedule for this busy January Friday. He stops in after school for his paycheck anyway. Casey Sander, 17, the only girl working at Brown's besides the Ehlenfeldts' two youngest daughters, comes in about 4 p.m. She always works Fridays.
Michael Castro, 16, a Palatine High School classmate of Rico and Casey, also arrives to begin his shift. Martin Blake, 23, comes in and out - fast - to grab his last check. He doesn't loiter, having just been fired days earlier.
Lynn offers Casey her first Friday night off since the girl began working at Brown's. Rico can stay and work in her place. Both accept, and Casey and Lynn agree to talk on Saturday about the raise Casey is due after six months on the job.
Co-worker Celso Morales stops in for his paycheck. He, too, works most Fridays, but is off this evening with new employee Guadalupe Maldonado on duty in his place.
The Ehlenfeldts have been working grueling hours to build up the franchise they bought in May 1992, and Lynn had planned to take the evening off. Yet, she decides to let Dana, the middle of three daughters, leave in the afternoon instead. Lynn will work tonight - the third person to be substituting for someone else.
For this Friday night, the work crew is assembled.
Rico's happy to be working with his buddy Michael. Earlier, 22-year-old Mary Jane Castro had cajoled her younger brother to skip work and join her at a party. But Michael dreams of becoming a U.S. Marine and takes his job seriously. Despite Mary Jane's pleas, he wouldn't let his bosses down.
Rico and Michael chat and laugh together. A shy teen who came to the United States from the Philippines just the previous May, Rico is livelier when Michael is around. Michael taught him how to avoid trouble in school and how to speak better English. Rico learned quickly what's cool and what's not.
He passed his 14-year-old sister, Jade, in the hallway at the high school that afternoon, but looked the other way. Big brother and little sister never talked at school.
"I wish," Jade Solis said later, "I would have just said 'Hi.'"
Rico traveled from the Philippines to a new life in the Northwest suburbs, only to perish at Brown's. Maldonado's path to working as a fry cook at the small brick restaurant was just as arduous.
On Jan. 8, 1993, he's three weeks and 2,200 miles from his former life working his family's farm near Celaya, Mexico. The Mexican economy is sagging, and Maldonado has brought his wife, Beatriz, and three sons to live in Palatine so he can earn money.
They arrived at O'Hare International Airport on Dec. 23, using a loan from his brother Pedro to buy plane tickets and avoiding a days-long bus ride. They spent Christmas with Pedro and his wife, Juana, who is Beatriz's sister, and their five children.
Maldonado, 47, came here with a restaurant job in mind, but not at Brown's. During two previous stays in the United States, he worked at Ye Olde Town Inn restaurant in Mount Prospect, beginning as a dishwasher in 1975 and quickly progressing to cook.
The thing about cooks, Ye Olde Town Inn owner Tod Curtis said, is they're often sloppy. You show them how you want things done, and they do it that way while you're watching. Turn your back, and they'll take shortcuts.
Not Maldonado. Even on nights when Curtis wasn't checking up on him, Maldonado's kitchen was meticulously kept.
"He wanted to be perfect," Curtis recalled.
The restaurant became a Maldonado family affair. Guadalupe initially worked there with his brother-in-law, then brought his four brothers to work there and live together in a bachelor apartment in Mount Prospect.
By the late 1970s, they decided it was time, as brother Pedro put it, to go back home and "look for a wife." Guadalupe met Beatriz through Pedro and his wife. In less than a year, they courted, married and had a son, Juan Pablo. They had another son and traveled again to Mount Prospect, both working at the Olde Town for several years before returning to Mexico to have their third son in 1988.
Back after a four-year absence, Maldonado called Curtis at the Olde Town first thing Dec. 26, 1992. The news was good and bad: Curtis wanted Maldonado back, but wouldn't be able to hire him until April or May, when he would need plenty of cooks to work at summer festivals.
Meanwhile, Maldonado needed a paycheck. Borrowing one of Pedro's cars, he and Beatriz looked for jobs. They filled out applications at a half dozen fast-food restaurants before coming to Brown's. Lynn Ehlenfeldt liked that Guadalupe was older and spoke English. She hired him on the spot.
Guadalupe worked most days from 4 to 9 p.m., usually getting home to spend some time with his boys before their bedtime.
Today, Jan. 8, he'll receive his first paycheck - about $230.
Beatriz and Guadalupe horse around with the boys that morning. About 2 p.m., Beatriz and Juana serve pork ribs for Guadalupe and Pedro. The two men say little as they eat. Shortly before 4 p.m., Pedro and Guadalupe leave for work. Pedro takes one car to Jake's Pizza in Palatine; Guadalupe drives to Brown's in Pedro's old Cutlass Ciera.
See you later tonight, Guadalupe tells Beatriz. He kisses her goodbye.
Brown's is a new beginning for the Ehlenfeldts.
The couple gambled on this second career after Richard lost his job at Group W Cable in Chicago and spent two years without work at a time when two daughters were in college and a third was finishing high school. It took $300,000 - nearly all of their retirement money - to buy the Brown's franchise.
They worked nonstop, but their lives were looking up after the struggle of the last few years. Richard, a Type A personality, thrived on the challenge. A fast-food franchise didn't exactly fit his long-held dream of running a restaurant, but he made the best of it and worked to build up the catering business. Most weeks, he happily reported to family members in Wisconsin that receipts were up.
The 16-hour days were harder for Lynn. A former social worker who'd stayed at home with her children for nearly two decades, she missed her time with her daughters, Jennifer, Dana and Joy. She feared the restaurant was devouring their lives.
And in many ways, it was. A month after they bought the franchise, their youngest daughter, Joy, graduated from high school. Richard and Lynn missed the ceremony because they were swamped by catering orders for other graduation parties. Relatives videotaped the event and organized a party at the Ehlenfeldts' Arlington Heights home. Richard never got there. Lynn - the dedicated mother who spent hours at her daughters' Girl Scout meetings and soccer games - made just a brief appearance.
"You know why she came?" Joy asked her aunt, Ann Ehlenfeldt, years later. "Because she had to bring the chicken. Otherwise, we wouldn't have seen her."
The extended clan did more than offer encouragement. Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents drove down from Wisconsin on weekends to chip in at the restaurant. The northern relatives spent so much time there that Michael Castro jokingly referred to Richard's sister, Ann, as "Mom" and to Lynn's mother as "Grandma."
On Friday, Jan. 8, Dana Ehlenfeldt works all afternoon alongside Lynn's mother, Joyce Wiese. The family is worried about Richard's mother, who is hospitalized in Wisconsin.
Dana plans to return to college in three days for her final senior semester, and she wants to have dinner that night with her boyfriend, Mike Sampson, and his parents. In fact, Mike - whom Dana later will marry - stops in at Brown's for lunch and ends up staying the afternoon, chatting with Dana and her grandmother while they work.
When Dana clocks out at 4:20 p.m., her parents and the evening's employees are busy with the early dinner rush.
"There was nothing unusual about the day," she said a decade later. "Everything seemed fine."
Like the Ehlenfeldts, employees Tom Mennes and Marcus Nellsen were starting fresh at Brown's.
Mennes, 32, a Fremd High School dropout, had worked a series of low-paying jobs before being hired at Brown's around Halloween.
One day years earlier, Mennes left for his job as a dishwasher at Perkins, a restaurant in Palatine, but returned home almost immediately.
"I was coming home from work and he was sitting there on the steps," recalled his friend, Jody Miller. "I asked what was wrong, and he said, 'I went to work and it was gone.' Turns out, Perkins had gone out of business and no one had told him."
He bagged groceries at Dominick's Finer Foods and put in time with a roofing company. He worked at Popeye's chicken, but quit when a friend told him his pay was too low.
Now, Mennes is a breader at Brown's, working mostly in the back. Although it's the coldest part of winter, he rides an old black bike to work. He never drives, ever since he crashed his brother Larry's car into a house on a teenage joyride.
Casey Sander bikes it, too, even in snow or rain. Mennes walks her safely to her bike at night or wipes her seat dry and rolls her bike up to the green-painted employee entrance. When her tire was flat one night after work, he offered to walk her home.
"He was one of the sweetest guys," Sander said a decade later. "He seemed almost like a big brother to me."
Nellsen, unlike the Ehlenfeldts' other employees, saw Brown's as more than a temporary stopping place.
He struggled through a divorce and sent his ex-wife, Beverly, and daughter, Jessica, most of his pay. He turned to alcohol during several years in the U.S. Navy and went through rehab at Forest Hospital in Des Plaines. There, he met Joy McClain and later moved into her townhouse just north of Brown's.
A cook in the Navy, Nellsen is management material at Brown's. He is the Ehlenfeldts' assistant and soon will head off to classes offered by the corporation.
"We used to tease him all the time about going to Brown's Chicken University," Sander recalled. "I could tell he'd been through some rough times, but he was really getting his act together. You could tell he was excited that he was finally getting his life in order."
It is a chance no different than a flip of a coin that puts the seven victims at Brown's that night.
|DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTOS
Investigators rummage through trash behind Brown's the day after the murders. It is in an inside garbage can, however, where a key clue is found. Outside, a throng of reporters interviews the victims' relatives and friends. Casey Sander, below, was scheduled to work the night of the murders, but was given a rare Friday night off so cashier Rico Solis could log more hours.
On that first Friday night off from work, Casey Sander and her boyfriend watch part of the basketball game between cross-town rivals Palatine High School and Fremd. They're driving around about 9 p.m. when Casey suggests stopping in at work so she can talk over her hours with Lynn.
"Then I'm like, 'Oh, forget it. I'll ask her tomorrow - it's not that important.' If I had walked in, I would have walked in on it."
For years since that night, she has endured nightmares that ended just as the killer came for her. Police and prosecutors questioned her regularly, trying, she thought, to build a case against a former boyfriend. She never knew Luna.
"I felt guilty for a long time," she said: "Why somebody else and not me?"
Brown's employee Mike John wasn't scheduled to work that night.
He'd known Luna since both went to Plum Grove Junior High School in Rolling Meadows. The pair used to play together at Luna's family's former apartment on Palatine Road. They were friends until high school, when Luna went to Fremd and John went to Palatine. Then they lost touch, John recalled.
Would it have made a difference if he'd been at Brown's that night? He couldn't say.
On Friday nights, high school kids and young families flock to Brown's for quick dinners. By the 9 p.m. closing, employees are eager to go home.
It is about that time on this Friday night when, according to police, Degorski and Luna push open the front door.
Degorski is trouble. In 1990, he broke into a Hoffman Estates construction trailer with a group of friends. His buddies torched the trailer after Degorski left, police records show. He pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to a year's supervision, according to court records.
A year after that, he failed to show up for court-ordered counseling that the staff at Fremd had suggested. And later, cops nabbed him and another friend in a stolen vehicle, the records show.
About eight months before Brown's, he was convicted and given probation for beating up, restraining with duct tape and kidnapping a girlfriend, Kristin Lennstrom, now Kristin Smith, who tried to break up with him.
Despite Degorski's background, it was Luna who led the pair to Brown's, Degorski's former girlfriend, Anne Lockett, later told police. Before they graduated, both Degorski and Luna were in Fremd High School's vocational training program but burned through several jobs arranged for them by school employees.
Degorski and Luna hung out together, smoking pot and drinking, friends said. Somehow, they headed down a path that went well beyond that, Lockett told police. The pair tortured and killed cats and other small animals in Degorski's garage on Dover Court in Hoffman Estates, she said.
Luna wanted to do more, police said Lockett told them: He wanted to kill someone, and Degorski offered to help.
The men focused on the Brown's Chicken & Pasta on Northwest Highway in Palatine, authorities said, because Luna knew it from his brief time working there. He knew there was no alarm system to alert Palatine police.
Degorski and Luna planned the murders carefully, Palatine Police Chief John Koziol said.
On this cold Friday in January, they dress in old clothes and shoes, Lockett told police.
Prosecutors say the night unfolded this way: The men wedge a piece of wood under the green-painted employees' door to prevent escape. They pose as last-minute customers, with Luna ordering and eating part of a four-piece chicken dinner.
Degorski and Luna look like customers, but their pockets are full of .38-caliber bullets, authorities said.
Police said it's unclear how the shooting started. Degorski said a scuffle started with an employee, Lockett told police. Something happened at the counter, Bakalla told police.
"People started running. One man ran for the back door and couldn't get out because the door jam was there," Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Linas J. Kelecius said later.
"Put the gun down," Dana Sampson imagined her parents saying. "Take whatever you want, but there's no need for violence."
Police said Degorski and Luna told them after their arrests that robbery was their motive. But Koziol and Lockett believe the pair came to Brown's planning to kill.
"You don't walk into a fast-food restaurant with a gun and a pocketful of ammo just for a robbery," Koziol said. There's no sign either Degorski or Luna was on drugs or alcohol that night, authorities said.
One of the killers fires a shot, authorities continue in their account.
The gunmen order five employees into the walk-in freezer at gun- and knifepoint. Perhaps Maldonado resists. A Cook County medical examiner later will find a cut on his arm.
Luna grabs Lynn Ehlenfeldt. "Bitch," he calls her. Luna then slashes Lynn's throat, police said he admitted in a confession his lawyers are sure to contest. Perhaps she had been slow or evasive at the safe, authorities theorized.
Luna begins shooting into the small freezer, filling the cold air with bullets and gun smoke. In his confession 10 years later, he claimed he didn't know whether he hit any of the five people inside.
But the wounds are terrible. Shots strike all of the victims in the head: Rico three times; Maldonado, Nellsen and Michael twice; and Lynn once. All but Lynn and Nellsen are shot in the hands or arms, suggesting they futilely tried to protect themselves.
As they lie dying, one of the victims vomits onto the tile floor. Police said the detail, never released to the public, was described to them by Lockett and authenticates her account.
The gunmen shoot Michael twice through his right shoulder and once in the chest. After his suffering ends, one of the killers stabs him in the stomach, perhaps to ensure he is dead after some small involuntary movement of his body.
Richard Ehlenfeldt and Tom Mennes, working in a separate walk-in cooler, initially think they're being robbed. Mennes stuffs $90 in cash inside his sock. Ehlenfeldt hides a credit card inside a box.
The killers come for them. Degorski later told police he shot both men, according to court documents.
Bullets strike Ehlenfeldt five times in the shoulder, back and head. Three shots strike Mennes. The two die side by side, feet toward the door.
The killers shoot 21 bullets from one .38-caliber handgun. The murderers must load and reload the six-chamber weapon at least three times.
The sound of gunfire ricochets off the walls and fades with the breath of the seven fast-food workers.
One of the killers uses a mop to wipe away the small amount of blood that's outside of the cooler and freezer. He leaves blood - but no fingerprints - on the handle as well as the stringy mop head.
In the hours and days that follow, Degorski and Luna will tell both Bakalla and Lockett what they have done here, authorities said. But the scene itself, the killers believe, will not betray them.
They leave no bullet shells behind. The clock on the back wall ticks to 9:52 p.m. before the murderers kill the power.
They turn off every light but one. In the near-darkness, the restaurant looks ready for the next day's business. Tables are clean; garbage cans have fresh bags. One of them holds the partially eaten remains of a four-piece chicken dinner.
Next: The long wait for one call.