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Suspect freed, probe continues
By John Carpenter | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:12 PM

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Originally published Jan. 12, 1993

Authorities Monday released the only suspect they were holding in connection with last weekend's shocking murders of seven employees of a fast-food restaurant in Palatine.

After more than two days of questioning and threats of legal action from his attorney, 23-year-old Martin E. Blake of Elgin walked out of Palatine police headquarters a free man Monday afternoon.

And Cook County State's Attorney Jack O'Malley, while repeatedly saying police had "no reason to charge" Blake, also stressed that "no one has been cleared in the case."

O'Malley said he is "extremely frustrated, as are the police officers and the investigators who have worked around the clock.

"They would love nothing better than to be able to stand up here and reassure the community and tell people things that would give them a sense of security. But we can't do that."

In assessing the progress of the case, O'Malley also uttered nine words no one in Palatine wanted to hear.

"Yes, there is a killer still on the loose," he said.

Community residents, meanwhile, reacted with understandable concern about the lack of progress. The phone at the police department reportedly was busy handling calls just after O'Malley's news conference. While most in the village appeared to understand the need to step carefully in public statements, many wanted more information.

"We want to know what happened," said Kristin Moore, 17, president of the student council at Palatine High School. "Police are not telling us a lot, and we understand that. But we're curious about what happened."

"Students who worked around there don't want to work at night and really are afraid to go on with their normal life right now," added Matt Petricca, the school's senior class president.

Two of the victims - Michael Castro, 16, of Palatine and Rico Solis, 17, of Arlington Heights - were students at Palatine High School. Also killed were restaurant owners Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, and his wife Lynn, 49, both of Palatine, and employees Marcus Nellsen, 31, Thomas Mennes, 32, and Guadalupe Maldonado, 48, all of Palatine.

Police have offered few details about the killings, except to say the victims were shot and the bodies were discovered in the rear refrigerators of the Brown's Chicken & Pasta, some of them face down and piled on top of each other.

On Monday, however, an official with the Cook County Coroner's office said one of the victims, Lynn Ehlenfeldt, was stabbed in the neck as well as shot once in the head. Five others - Richard Ehlenfeldt, Castro, Solis, Mennes and Maldonado - died of multiple gunshot wounds. Nellsen was shot once in the head.

The bodies were discovered early Saturday morning, and Blake was taken into custody at gunpoint later that afternoon.

But it was not until Monday afternoon that police publicly acknowledged that the department considered Blake a suspect.

"We have interviewed dozens of individuals including the current and past employees of Brown's Chicken," Police Chief Jerry Bratcher said. "We began to focus the investigation on Martin Blake. There were a number of indicators pointing to him as a suspect."

Ironically, the chief made the comments as he was announcing Blake's release from custody. But Bratcher did not elaborate on what he meant by "indicators."

Blake's release was the culmination of several hours of activity for his attorney, Dennis Born of Northbrook, who was preparing to file a court petition demanding Blake's release when authorities pre-empted it by setting him free.

Born said Blake had asked Sunday night to see an attorney but that police had refused until Monday morning.

In doing so, Born said, they likely violated his rights. O'Malley, however, said Blake initially told authorities he did not want to speak to either Born or Born's partner.

Blake had worked the night shift at Brown's until about a week before the killings. He was fired after a confrontation with one of the owners and had vowed to get even with his former bosses, according to sources.

In announcing Blake's release, Born said the Fremd High School graduate answered all police questions and was able to account for his activities the night of the murder.

"His whereabouts were exceedingly checked and double-checked by all law enforcement officials," Born said. "Based on that, obviously they concluded he had no connections with these murders."

O'Malley confirmed that authorities had checked out Blake's alibi. "All I want to tell you is that the questions about Mr. Blake we did answer," he said. "And we have no basis to charge him. And that includes talking to people who said they were with him at the time we are convinced the murders happened."

Born said his client was happy his interrogation was over. "He is very relieved," Born said. "He is very relieved to be going home."

Blake returned to his father's home in Inverness and Born told reporters gathered there that Blake will speak to the news media today. Authorities placed no restrictions on his travel.

O'Malley, meanwhile, said area businesses should tighten security. "The businesses ought to take extra precautions,'' he said. "The police department is taking extra precautions."

Deputy Police Chief Walt Gasior said earlier that Palatine police have stepped up routine patrols as well as devoting many man-hours to the investigation.

And about 50 local restaurant managers met with village officials, police and chamber of commerce representatives to discuss security Monday.

"Yes," O'Malley said, underscoring his point, "there is no doubt about it. This crime has not been solved, and there is a murderer or murderers on the loose, and we can't deny that."

Lt. Michael Ossler of the neighboring Arlington Heights Police Department, called the slayings "a wake-up call" and said fast-food restaurants "should be more concerned about security."

Meanwhile, family members and friends are preparing for a series of memorial services that begin today. Services for the Ehlenfeldts will be held at 11 a.m. in Buffalo Grove, and later in the evening in Palatine for Guadalupe Maldonado. Services for other victims will be held throughout the week, while two daylong visitations will be held today for Castro and Solis, the two Palatine High School students.

A community memorial service will be held later this week, Village President Rita Mullins said. Speaking before a regularly scheduled meeting of the Palatine village board Monday night, Mullins said the tragedy has brought the community together.

"January 9, 1993, will live forever in the hearts and minds of each of us," she said. "We cannot undo what has been done, but we can draw together as a community and go forward, made stronger than ever by this terrible tragedy and our resolve to bring comfort and healing to the victim's families, our community and each other."

O'Malley said police still are collecting evidence and tracking down leads.

"Obviously there are leads and individuals that are being followed up on by the police department," he said. "But again, the details, I'm sorry but you're going to be frustrated and that's the way it's going to be."

Daily Herald staff writers Dan Curry, Madeleine Doubek, Cathi Edman, Laura Janota, Deedra Lawhead, Alex Rodriguez, Larry Smith and Dale Steinke contributed to this report.