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Owners, workers return to routine
By Dave McKinney | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:05 PM

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Originally published Jan. 11, 1994

A year ago, Palatine restaurateur Rudy Sadru emerged from a police security seminar after the murders at Brown's Chicken & Pasta and promised one small improvement for his store: installation of a security camera.

It was a good idea then and still is, Sadru said. But that camera has yet to find its way into his storefront along busy Northwest Highway, a mile or so from Brown's. Other things, more critical to the day-to-day running of his shop, have had to come first.

"Right now, the Coke machine is broken. The ice machine is broken. And it seems like there is always something," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to get it up before this summer."

At the McDonald's, about a block from the Brown's on Northwest Highway, a security guard no longer patrols the fast-food restaurant.

In the weeks following the murders, that guard escorted employees to and from their cars or to the garbage Dumpster, a practice that workers say ended last spring.

More than anything, time has eased the almost universal fear felt in workplaces throughout suburbia after the seven-member night shift crew at Brown's was shot to death.

Today, to drive along Northwest Highway and the strip of fast-food restaurants, 24-hour gas stations and grocery stores, life in Palatine's business community largely appears to have returned to the way it was before Jan. 8, 1993.

"The anxiety level has definitely dropped a lot," said Palatine police officer Brad Grossman, who has acted as a liaison with merchants in the community on security issues.

Despite the appearance of normalcy, however, merchants, parents and the teenagers who staff many of the businesses remain on edge by the thought that what happened at Brown's could happen anywhere.

"You used to think you would not get killed while working. But now, it crosses your mind," said Jacqueline Benjamin, the 18-year-old editor of Palatine High School's newspaper. The Cutlass. "You have to think that way because it's not safe anymore."

Security cameras have been installed in a number of businesses since the murders. Others have changed their closing policies and scheduling practices. And most have ingrained in their workers to call 911 at even the slightest hint of something wrong.

"We were pretty suspicious for quite a while after Brown's. We were jotting down license plates when we were uneasy about a customer who came in, and we still do that," said Liz Wiszus, manager of a 7-Eleven convenience store on West Palatine Road in Palatine.

"Being afraid in a kind of store like this is better than being nonchalant," she said. "You're always on edge."

Changes at Brown's

No business owner is "on edge" more than Frank Portillo, the president of Brown's who has made security a corporate and personal priority during the last year.

Since the murders, Brown's has put security cameras in almost every company-operated store and has recommended that franchise owners also install the cameras.

The company previously had cameras in some stores in Chicago, but not in restaurants like the one in Palatine, which had only two break-ins since 1974, Portillo said.

Portillo asked local police to "swing through" parking lots at closing time, and some stores had police talk to employees about security. He hasn't had any employee decline to work closing time, nor have parents refused to let teens work because of security concerns.

In the year since the murders, Portillo has joined forces with the Chicago Crime Commission, a crime-fighting organization made up of businesses, and is attempting to recruit small businesses to join and create a lobbying force on law-and-order issues.

He also is pushing for public awareness and has launched a program to install bulletin boards in his company-operated stores. The bulletin boards will include items about the crime commission and about crime-related issues in the legislature; photos, addresses and, eventually, voting records of local legislators; and informational items such as the amount of the state budget and how it's spent.

"I'm really angry," he said. "I want to change the system. If I don't do it, I'd have problems living with myself."

Disturbing crime trend

Since the Brown's murders have almost stopped being a part of the everyday vernacular, proprietors of convenience stores and fast-food restaurants in Palatine say they have not had problems hiring or retaining young workers.

"It's sad that it happened, but we can't let it destroy our business or our lives," said Tom Gusias, co-owner of a Dairy Queen restaurant on Northwest Highway.

Security experts warn that murder in the workplace can happen anywhere and particularly at fast food restaurants and food stores.

A recent study of 1992 crime data by the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the second highest cause of work related deaths was murder.

Accidents are first. Of those deaths attributed to shootings or stabbings, nearly half involved retail establishments.

The study, which was released in October and focused on Illinois and five other Great Lakes states, went on to show that in the retail sector, supermarkets and restaurants were the settings for the most work-related murders.

Of all age groups involved in on-the-job deaths, 17-year-olds had the highest percentage of homicides. Nearly one in three work-related deaths for 17-year-olds was attributed to homicide, the study showed.

And, the time frame when most of the murders occurred was between 9 and 10 p.m., the study showed.

Protecting teen workers

"We know the kinds of outrageous homicides like Brown's occur late in the evening. And why we are willing to continue exposing high-school-aged teens to this possibility is beyond my imagination," said Joseph Kinney, executive director for the National Safe Workplace Institute, a Chicago-based think tank.

"Places like fast-food restaurants are dearly dangerous," he continued, "and we need to be paying a lot more attention to what we can do to make them safer."

Kinney's group estimates that between 60 and 70 teens were murdered on the job last year.

The key to changing that, Kinney said, rests with workplace changes: increasing adult supervision, improving exterior lighting, adding security cameras and cutting late-night hours.

"Those are the kinds of things that would make a difference," he said, "but they all cost money."

Gary Rejebian, a spokesman for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the Palatine murders have not had any widespread effect on the way business is conducted in the Chicago area.

"Brown's was completely a flash-in-the-pan thing," he said. "It was really horrible and unfortunate, but it didn't create any mass revolution in security just because of this one incident"

Some parents still worry

Some Palatine parents say they have clamped down on the jobs and hours their children work.

"Am I less tense than I was a year ago? Just the opposite," said Diane Griffin, whose daughter Kristen, 17, is a student at Palatine High School.

"I wouldn't allow my child to work in a convenience store, where there are very few people, or at a gas station." Griffin said.

But teens seemed less worried then, and now.

Keith Bullion, a 17-year-old Palatine resident who has worked at the McDonald's on Northwest Highway for more than a year, said his parents initially had more qualms about where he worked than he did until they learned of the security at the restaurant.

"They were more concerned than me," he said. "We had a security man in our store, and I guess that helped some people. But it seemed like a nuisance to me."

Although some security changes in response to the Palatine murders may be subtle, there have been more profound changes, merchants say.

"One thing we have done is, if someone comes when we are closing and asks if he could get a couple of pints of ice cream, we say, 'sorry,'" said Kathy Klancnik, owner of the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and Frozen Yogurt on North Quentin Road in Palatine.

"Before, we'd never turn away business like that. But now. when our doors close, we locked them and say, 'No, that's it. It's a sad thing," she said, "that we never again can let our guard down."

Daily Herald Projects Editor Diane Dungey contributed to this report.