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Bratcher: Victims died quickly
By John Carpenter | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:10 PM

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Originally published Jan. 17, 1993

The seven victims of the Palatine murders were executed quickly in what appears to have been a robbery, Police Chief Jerry Bratcher said Saturday, breaking a week of virtual silence regarding details in the case.

"There has been a good deal of media speculation about whether any of the victims were involved in torture or were tortured in this case,'' Bratcher said. "This has made the loss of the victim's family even more painful. So what I want to tell you this morning, unequivocally, this was not a torture murder. The killings were more of an execution."

While defending his decision to remain tight-lipped about details of the crime scene at Brown's Chicken & Pasta, Bratcher confirmed several key elements.

• The killings were carried out execution style "and were not torture- style murders."

• A "substantial amount" of money was taken from the restaurant.

• More than one weapon was involved. None of the murder weapons has been recovered.

• All of the victims died of gunshot wounds and "their deaths from the gunshot injuries followed relatively quickly."

• The bodies were discovered in the two coolers inside the restaurant.

• The mass murder and robbery began after the restaurant's 9 p.m. closing on Friday, Jan 8, and apparently concluded before 10:30 p.m.

Bratcher said it is "not likely" the killer or killers were in the restaurant for this full 1.5 hours. And he did not say how police isolated that time period.

In refusing to elaborate on any of the details, Bratcher reiterated the department's position that release of too much information could compromise the investigation.

"My decision to carefully control the release of information about this case is twofold," the police chief said. "First, any criminal investigator will tell you that it is vital that the details of the crime are protected so only the perpetrator and the police know the detail of the investigation when the investigation begins to focus on a suspect."

The second reason, Bratcher said, is that attorneys have advised that too much information released could hamper the prosecution of the case once someone is arrested.

The department had until Saturday withheld virtually all the details of the case, but the investigation increasingly has been the subject of news leaks that have included speculation that the victims may have been tortured by assailants motivated as much by "thrill killing" as by robbery.

Bratcher flatly repudiated that speculation Saturday. In doing so, he said he did so partially "for the sake of the family of the victims."

"There has been a massive amount of information brought out by the media during the past several days," he added, "and a lot of it has been misinformation."

Police also said Saturday that they believe some members of the public still have information that is relevant to the case and called on them to come forward.

"We have received a substantial amount of good information from citizens regarding this crime," Bratcher said. "However, we believe that there are additional persons in the community with important information. We urge those persons to call our hotline number: 708- 705-1600 "

Saturday's revelations about the crime scene came only a few hours after 17-year-old Palatine High School student Rico Solis became the last of the murder victims to be buried. Both events punctuated a week the suburb will never forget.

The crime

Palatine was a quiet suburb until the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 9, when a police officer and a worried parent opened the unlocked door of the fast-food restaurant, which had been closed for hours.

The carnage inside, where seven people lay dead in two walk-in coolers, has brought the village - both grief stricken at the loss of friends and neighbors and fearful that the killers are still at large - to its emotional knees.

One week after that morbid discovery, the public is still sifting through the torrent of information surrounding the state's worst mass murder in decades. And as police settle into their second week of detective work, the spotlight of public scrutiny has hardly dimmed.

Killed that night were Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt of Arlington Heights, who bought the restaurant last June; Solis, 17, of Arlington Heights; his friend, Michael Castro, 16, of Palatine, Guadalupe Maldonado, 48, who moved to Palatine from Mexico late last year; Thomas Mennes, 32, a lifelong Palatine resident; and Marcus Nellsen, 31, also of Palatine.

Sources say Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat was cut, and that all of the other victims besides Nellsen died of multiple gunshot wounds. Nellsen died of one shot to the head. Bratcher would not reveal how much money was taken in the crime other than to say it was "a substantial amount," clearly indicating robbery was a motive.

Sources also have said a bloodied broom was found in the restaurant, which was substantially cleaned of the mess from the violence, indicating the assailant or assailants took the time to cover up the act, including turning off the lights in the building. That cleanup is a crucial element in the investigation, experts say. It would have demanded time, and that in turn suggests more than one killing, likely someone acting as a lookout.

The investigation

The performance of the Palatine Police Department also has come under scrutiny as the investigation has progressed. Though most have high praise for the department's handling of the complex crime scene and the overwhelming media attention, critics have raised questions about whether valuable investigative time was lost when two officers visited the scene before the bodies were discovered - and after the 10:30 p.m. "window" now established by police - but failed to check to see if all the doors were locked.

Some also have suggested police failed to canvass the area around the restaurant quickly enough, waiting several days after the crime to interview people who live a few hundred yards from the eatery.

Police have now twice forcibly brought in suspects for questioning, only to release them.

With Palatine police remaining tight-lipped, most of the information that came out during the week originated from unnamed sources working on the case.

Even with Bratcher's revelations Saturday, a week of press briefings with Palatine Deputy Police Chief Walt Gasior deliberately left more questions than answers.

"The police won't tell us anything," complained Joy McLain, the former live-in girlfriend of victim Marcus Nellsen. "Were they shot right away? What happened? I'd like to know: Did it happen quickly or did they have to suffer?

"I think the response has been very poor. People don't want to hear, 'We can't answer that.' The police department's public relations definitely needs beefing up."

Palatine police, however, say such criticism is unwarranted. Gasior repeatedly said he understands the public's need to learn more about the case, but he has refused to answer questions remotely related to the investigation.

The release of sensitive information wouldn't "further the investigation" and could, he said, jeopardize it.

"As has been our position, we're not commenting on who we're questioning or why we're questioning," said Gasior, who has been the department's point man with the news media.

Ironically, the first questions to dog the investigation occurred soon after police put out their only account of how they discovered the murder scene. At least two families quickly disputed the police version of events, which was released on Jan. 9.

The families said they alerted police about their missing relatives as early as 11:45 p.m. the night of Jan. 8. Police, however, contend the first missing-person call came in at 1:02 a.m. Jan. 9. Police have yet to account for the time discrepancy.

Also, the conduct of an officer came under fire after he allegedly shooed away a victim's loved ones from Brown's late the night of Jan. 8, telling them to go home and not to worry, while failing to discover an open rear door that may have been used by the killers.

The bodies weren't discovered until 2:30 the next morning when the officer, with Castro's father, Emmanuel, nearby, entered the unlocked back door. Castro said he believes that if police had come upon the scene when contacted earlier, they might have turned up "some people still living or breathing."

Palatine Village President Rita Mullins met with police officials and Castro to try to iron out the discrepancies.

Although she said officials were unable to explain the differences in the accounts of what happened that night, she also said the two sides came closer to reaching "an understanding."

"It is not resolved to my satisfaction," she said, "but I feel confident we're closer to an understanding."

Nearby business owners and apartment dwellers also complained that it took police several days before they were interviewed by police.

In two cases, residents in an apartment complex 150 yards from Brown's reported hearing what sounded like gunshots shortly after 9:30 p.m. Jan. 8. Investigators, who said they had greater priorities in the days immediately after the murders, learned of the apartment dwellers' stories through the news media.

"I think Palatine has made mistakes. They've never dealt with this kind of crime before," said Steve Egger, chairman of the criminal justice program at Sangamon State University in Springfield. "But at the same time, when all the information finally comes out, some of the criticism toward them might be spurious."

Gasior, meanwhile, has countered that anyone with pertinent information about the highly publicized case has an obligation to come forward on their own.

Complex case

The public assessment of police performance may not have been helped by the fact that, since last weekend, the investigation has seemed to change focus on an almost daily basis.

The initial thrust clearly centered on a fired Brown's cook, Elgin resident Martin Blake, who was taken from his home at gunpoint on the afternoon of Jan. 9 and held by police for questioning.

He was released 48 hours later after his lawyer pressed police to release or charge him.

Sources close to the investigation said police considered revenge a possible motive because Blake had lost his job after a confrontation with one of the restaurant owners. He also, according to some friends, had said he had plans to somehow "get even" with the Ehlenfeldts.

In the end, however, Blake's attorney said the 23-year-old Fremd High School graduate had an "ironclad'' alibi. He spent the evening at a party at his house, leaving only for about 45 minutes to purchase liquor for a group of friends.

After Blake was released the investigation seemed to shift to a series of armed robberies in Addison.

Des Plaines and Mundelein and the three fugitives wanted in connection with those crimes. It appears, however, that those suspects have returned to Mexico and can prove they were out of the country at the time of the killings.

Finally, on Friday, attention moved again, this time to a Schaumburg teenager, Rashad Brooks, implicated by disgruntled friends. But almost immediately after he was taken in on unrelated charges and questioned about the Palatine case, several persons provided alibis that put him in his apartment the night of the murders.

Police publicly have not called anyone a suspect.

Village President Mullins, like other leaders in the village, are quick to jump to the police department's defense.

"We're all very confident our police department is doing the best job it can," she said.

Where from here?

Police, obviously, will not discuss possible leads they are tracking down. But they have received more than 1,300 phone calls from people with potentially helpful information.

They also have established a new command center for the task force of more than 60 detectives and other personnel working on the case It is at the former Palatine Township Elementary District 15 administrative headquarters.

Agents from the FBI also are on the job, providing resources to keep track of leads as well as helping detectives create a personality profile of the killers.

Detectives from the Cook County Sheriff's Police, the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police also are involved in the case Gasior also announced the new hotline number, which is (708) 705-1600.

He and Bratcher both said police "have reason to believe there are people still out there with additional information about the case." Neither would elaborate, though Gasior said these people would include potential witnesses as well as people who may have other information.

The families

No one struggled with the tragedy more than the families of the victims, who spent the week burying their dead amid the glare of television camera lights.

The wakes and funerals began Tuesday, with a memorial service for the Ehlenfeldts attended by more than 700 people. The couple was extremely active in the Kingswood Methodist Church in Buffalo Grove.

Daylong wakes were held Tuesday for Rico Solis and Michael Castro, the two Palatine High School students killed. Hundreds of mourners, many of them students, filed into the Ahlgrim & Sons Funeral Home in Palatine. Castro's funeral was Wednesday, as was Marcus Nellsen's at the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington.

At Santa Theresita Church in Palatine Tuesday, more than 150 friends and family members gathered for a special service for Guadalupe Maldonado, a native of Mexico whose body was returned there for burial.

People throughout Palatine and beyond offered financial help to the Maldonado family to defray the costs of bringing his body home.

Thursday brought the funeral of Thomas Mennes, where he was eulogized as a kind man quick to smile and help those in need.

The funerals ended Saturday with the mass for Rico Solis, attended by more than 150 people.

"And what can we say of his death? It was evil," said Rev. John Hurley of St Edna's Catholic Church in Arlington Heights. "The death of any 17-year-old is evil. The death of innocent people is evil. Violent death enters the world through the evil of people's hearts."

What is left, Hurley asked, but to remember Rico Solis and the other victims and to focus on the good that they did in their abbreviated lives - and to pray for the people who killed them.

Daily Herald staff writers Dave McKinney and Alex Rodriguez also contributed to this report.