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'We'll never forget, but we'll go on'
By Dan Rozek | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 9:49 PM

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Originally published Feb. 7, 1993

Brown's Chicken & Pasta sits dark and empty a month after seven workers were slain there, but life in Palatine still revolves around the deserted building on Northwest Highway.

The killings that occurred at the restaurant on Jan. 8 are a wound that continues to sting many village residents, although the pain is beginning to fade for some as they struggle to come to terms with sudden, inexplicable violence. For others, the wounds are still fresh and have scarcely begun to heal - and may never heal completely.

Each resident is dealing with the slayings differently, but almost everyone has been affected in some way.

Those killed were Richard, 50, and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49, of Arlington Heights, the restaurant's owners; Guadalupe Maldonado, 47; two Palatine High School classmates, Michael Castro, 16, and Rico Solis, 17, Marcus Nellsen, 31, and Thomas Mennes, 32, both of Palatine.

This is an account of how Palatine, on a Friday night a month after the murders, is coping with tragedy.

5:42 p.m.: Henry Noegel can't look put the window without being reminded of the murders a month ago: His Edelweiss Delicatessen sits just behind the Brown's Chicken & Pasta where the killings occurred.

Still, Noegel says his life has returned to normal - almost - since the slayings.

"There's not that much difference, to tell you the truth," Noegel said as he hauled in groceries through the front door shortly before closing his business.

Although initially unnerved by the murders, he hasn't added any new security precautions and takes a fatalistic attitude about the chances he could be harmed while working.

"If somebody wants to get me, he'll find me," said Noegel, who doesn't dwell on the murders and doesn't talk about them unless somebody asks. Yet, he admits he can't put his uneasiness about the killings out of his mind.

"I'm not afraid now," he says simply, "but around here, it's in the pit of everyone's stomach." His last customer of the day, Jutta Zeeb of Inverness, feels the same way. On Friday, she returned to buy groceries at the deli for the first time since the killings.

"I'm not nervous, but I have a funny feeling about it," she said of coming back to the area near the restaurant. "It's not holy ground, but it's like it's been touched by something. It's unsettling."

6:40 p.m.: At a martial arts center in Palatine, Thor Fairow wonders aloud how much of a role the killings played in prompting him to recently enroll himself and his children in self-defense classes.

"I hadn't thought of the episode at Brown's as a catalyst for me signing up for these classes, but it may have been on some level," said Fairow, 32, during a break at John P. Wood's Tae Kwan Do Center. "As a parent, it made me a lot more aware of where my children are."

7:20 p.m.: Students, parents and alumni troop steadily into Palatine High School for a key conference basketball game between Palatine and Buffalo Grove. Banners exhorting the home team to win surround the arena and the mood is upbeat.

"Pretty much, things are back to normal," said Jenny Olsen, 17, a Palatine High senior. "It isn't like it was when it first happened. There's nothing around school now that reminds you of it. But if you drive by it (the restaurant), somebody will say something about it."

Few students talk about the killings any more. Memorials and mementos on the lockers of slain students Rico Solis and Michael Castro have come down. Most students are trying to look ahead, not at the past, some students and officials say.

"It's a tragic thing, it's an unfortunate thing, but life goes on," said Ronnie Kramper, director of student services. "They haven't forgotten. They've put it in the backs of their minds," teaching assistant Brian Pottinger said of his students.

Lou Maiorano, who has two daughters attending the high school, differed, saying he feared the deaths of classmates "hits kids harder than we as parents know."

The tragedy hit parents hard, too. Maiorano says he's more cautious about where he allows his children to go, and where the family goes together Before going into a restaurant last week, Maiorano scrutinized it for safety.

"We were looking at the building and we couldn't see in, and we didn't like that. We were the only ones there and we didn't like that," he said. "We're just more aware now."

7:45 p.m.: At Cutting Hall, the site of a village memorial for the murder victims in the days after the killings, spectators are filtering into theater for a production called "Music on Stage."

Mount Prospect resident Eloise Crosley, 82, is there, but she had second thoughts before agreeing to come with friends, even though the theater is less than 100 yards from the Palatine police station. Venturing out at night has been just one of her concerns since the Brown's killings.

"I now double-check my locks at home and I'm just a little leery about going to fast-food places and sitting inside," Crosley said. "I even thought twice about coming to a place like this."

8:24 p.m.: Janice Mix, a 30-year-old investment banker from Palatine, steps off the Metra train from Chicago and walks to her car parked at the commuter station. Since the killings, the walk through the parking lot is the worst part of her long, daily commute.

Mix doesn't have a rational explanation for the way she has felt since the murders, she just knows her life has been turned upside down, her sense of security stripped away.

She fears that feeling may haunt her for the rest of her life. "I've been triple-checking my locks and have been known to look in my closets and under the bed whenever I get home at night. I really don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable again," she said.

8:56 p.m.: Pam Sieben is sweeping up, preparing to close the Hair Express, a salon across the street from Brown's Chicken & Pasta. Although the restaurant is lost in the dark now, Sieben has trouble getting the murders out of her mind.

"It (the restaurant) is right in front of you - you can't help but think about it," she says.

Her memories translate into more caution at work, particularly at night, but she says she brushed aside suggestions from some friends after the killing that she change jobs to help clear the troubling image of the restaurant from her mind.

"I like it here," she says. "That can happen anywhere. It just happened to happen here," she said.

9 p.m.: A Palatine police car drives past the darkened Brown's restaurant. When the traffic light in front of the restaurant turns red, only a handful of cars stops in front of the building. Invariably, almost all the drivers turn briefly to glance at the building as they wait for the light to change.

A month ago, investigators believe those responsible for the killings entered the restaurant just after it closed at 9 p.m. But on this Friday, there is almost nothing to see.

The area around the restaurant is quiet, deserted. Nearly all the businesses in the small shopping centers around the building are closed, their interior lights dim.

Only a few cars remain in the parking lot of a nearby supermarket.

The restaurant is secured with a heavy padlock, and a yellow sticker warns away trespassers.

A light inside the kitchen area casts eerie shadows. Outside, an American flag flaps on cable supporting a utility pole, others fly under the eaves of the building.

A few bundles of weathered flowers and two battered teddy bears left by mourners rest at the edge of the parking lot.

9:21 p.m.: Just past the Brown's restaurant, Palatine Police Officer Herb Rodriguez rolls the squad into the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant.

After slowly cruising through the lot around the building, he spends the next several minutes checking other restaurant lots nearby.

"This is the kind of thing I always do this time of night,'' Rodriguez says. "Lately though, we've been doing more of it. People want to see that we're out there."

Patrol officers are especially watchful at closing time, when the last patrons and workers leave the establishments - and the time investigators believe the Brown's workers were killed.

"In the past few weeks, I've had people walking out of their cars to come up to me and tell me they're glad we're out here," Rodriguez said.

9:30 p.m.: A steady line of cars pulls into the parking lot of St. Theresa Catholic Church to pick up junior high school-age children from a dance with students from St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic Church.

The dance, the first held since the one that took place the night of the killings, is a benefit for the family of murder victim Michael Castro.

That coincidence of timing, Palatine resident Pam Coghill says, hasn't been lost on her son and some of his schoolmates who were at the dance on the night of the killings.

"It bothers them because that night they walked from here to the Baker's Square Restaurant on Northwest Highway, which isn't far from Brown's, when all of this was happening," Coghill said.

One month later, they're still scared of venturing out after dark.

9:35 p.m.: Palatine High School triumphs over Buffalo Grove in a come-from-behind 55-51 victory. Students, parents and fans slowly file out of the gym, many stopping in the lobby to chat, rehash the game or plan the rest of the evening.

Before heading out with his friends, 15-year-old Mike Gonzales has something he has to do first. He changes a dollar bill for a handful of coins and stops at a pay phone.

"I'm trying to call my mom now," the stocky freshman explains. "It's worse now - she worries more."

The same goes for Tiffany Pettaway, a 17-year-old senior.

"She wants to know where I'm going and when I'll be back," Pettaway said of her mother. "She did it before, but it's stressed more." Pettaway says she is more careful in the wake of the killings, particularly when she works at night, but she isn't afraid.

"I'll take precautions, but I'm going to live my life," she says.

Farther down the hallway, Lou Maiorano stops on his way out, and talks to his daughter, Katherine, a Palatine High junior, for a moment before turning to leave. He walks a few steps, then turns back and offers a final, fatherly reminder to his daughter.

"Katherine, come home on time," he tells her before disappearing in the crowd.

9:45 p.m.: Rodriguez, slowing his patrol car to take a close look into a darkened park, explains that since the killings Friday night, patrols have shifted back to more routine police tasks: traffic stops, tripped burglar alarms, domestic disputes.

Moving the investigators who are probing the murders to a temporary headquarters away from the police station has helped officers concentrate on their duties.

"That made it a lot easier to fall back to normal police work," he said. "It's kind of hard to do your job when you've got 32 TV trucks parked out in front of the station."

10:27 p.m.: Five Palatine High students are enjoying a late night snack at a common, high school hangout - Denny's Restaurant in unincorporated Palatine Township. Conversation focuses on the basketball game, school, and whatever else is on tap for the evening. The murders and the past month aren't topics of conversation.

"It's there, but people don't talk about it," Teri Chernesky, a 16-year-old sophomore, says. "I think we'll always remember it. After someone dies, though, you talk about it for a while, then you don't think about it as much." It doesn't take much to stir up memories of the restaurant murders however.

"Every time I drive past it, I get the willies," Sarah Lewis, 15, says. "We were going to walk from school to here, but we decided it wasn't a good idea," sophomore Jessica Hunter said.

11 p.m.: The murders at Brown's are a fast-fading memory to workers at Domino's Pizza, a Palatine restaurant that stays open until 2 a.m. on Fridays. Right after the slayings, store manager Eric Wurzer had to field several calls from nervous parents of his teenage employees about their late-night shifts.

"A lot of them were calling up and saying they didn't want to have their kids working past 7 p.m.," says Wurzer, a 21-year-old Palatine resident. "It got a little stressful for a while. But that level of concern, seems to me, anyway, has dropped off."

11:25 p.m.: At Perkins Family Restaurant in Palatine Township, a small group of students reacts angrily when asked about the murders and their aftermath.

Most don't want to talk about the killings. Several bitterly criticize the intensive, sometimes intrusive media coverage.

For them, the loss of classmates is still painful to discuss. "It will never, ever go back to normal," sophomore Jennifer Souter says, "We'll never forget, but we'll go on."

Daily Herald staff writers John Carpenter and Dave McKinney contributed to this report.