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Murders haunt quiet suburb
By Dave McKinney | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 9:46 PM

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Originally published Jan. 10, 1993

Throughout the day Saturday, the grief-stricken crowd outside Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine asked one central question about the bloodiest killing spree in suburban history: Why?

Saturday night, police tried to find an answer by questioning a former employee who had vowed to retaliate for being fired.

A seven-member night crew at Brown's Chicken & Pasta was herded into the fast-food restaurant's kitchen some time after Friday's 9 p m. closing, told to lie face down on a cold tile floor, and then shot one-by-one, some in the back of the head, execution style.

They were gunshots that transformed sedate Palatine into a national scene of horror.

"One murder is shock enough. The enormity of this turns it into something horrendous and heinous," said Palatine Village President Rita Mullins. "I think there is going to be fear. I feel it myself."

Former Brown's employee Martin Blake, of Elgin, was detained by police and considered a suspect in the killings because he openly expressed bitterness about being fired from his job at the Palatine restaurant recently, sources said.

However, no charges have been filed against Blake, a Fremd High School graduate in his early 20s who once lived in Inverness. Sources cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

Publicly, police did not characterize Blake as a suspect, and would not answer questions about him.

The death toll included a couple of Palatine High School teenagers, the kindly husband-and-wife team that owned the restaurant, a middle-aged father of three who had been on the night shift for only one week and two Palatine men in their early 30s.

"I can't see this making any sense," said teary-eyed Sam Vignola, a friend of slain restaurant owners Dick and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and owner of a Brown's restaurant in Rolling Meadows.

That sentiment echoed a familiar refrain of several hundred co-workers, relatives and acquaintances who braved below-zero wind chills to maintain an all-day vigil outside the murder scene Saturday, hoping for a nugget of information about the case or a glimpse through a side door at the grim sight inside.

The incredible irony of the multiple murders - acts that bring back haunting images of Richard Speck's 1966 slaughter of a houseful of student nurses in Chicago - is that they hit a close-knit place where workers and owners described one another as "family."

And the impact on a suburb that prides itself on its low crime rate and its young people was unmistakable.

"This touches every family that lives within the community," Mayor Mullins said.

Employees Jason Georgi and Celso Morales III, both 17, said they never worried about security at Brown's, which stands alone at an intersection about 100 yards from a strip of stores.

Workers usually closed the restaurant at 9 p.m. and left within an hour, after counting money from the cash registers and cleaning up, Georgi said. Front doors were locked at closing time, but a back door was left unlocked until the last employee left, he said.

Georgi estimated the store would accumulate up to $3,000 in cash between deposits to its safe.

Palatine police, however, refused to say whether the restaurant had been robbed.

"We will not speculate about suspects or the motive," said Deputy Police Chief Walt Gasior.

With police refusing to divulge a listing of the victims until late in the evening Saturday, the gathering outside the restaurant was left to its own methods to determine who had died by examining which employee cars remained in the parking lot and which workers were nowhere to be seen.

"The police do not tell us anything," sobbed Palatine resident Maria Maldonado, niece of slain cook Lupe Maldonado, after arriving at the cordoned-off restaurant Saturday morning. "We don't know if he is alive, dead or anything. We just want to know."

While investigators would say little about the crime scene or possible motives, Gasior said the bodies were found in two walk-in coolers at the rear of the restaurant.

Police waited until 8.45 p.m. to release victims' names because some of the slain workers were found face down. That slowed the release of identities because police needed to assess the crime scene in detail before moving the victims, Gasior said. The last bodies were not removed from the restaurant until after 6 p.m.

Throughout the day, Gasior stymied questions from a throng of reporters, refusing to disclose what kind of weapon was used and, for a time, even refusing to say whether the seven victims had been shot.

The case began to unfold shortly after police received a 2:30 a.m. phone call from parents concerned their son had not yet come home.

Palatine police arrived at the restaurant a half-hour later to find a rear door ajar - a door normally kept unlocked by the restaurant's owners for deliveries and for employee use.

Never was it seen as a security risk, employees said.

"I still can't picture why somebody would go in and shoot," said Casey Sander, a cashier who last saw her co-workers alive Friday afternoon after picking up her paycheck.

"Those people who died didn't do anything. Whoever did this should be put in jail for a long time so they suffer like all the people here who are suffering," the 17-year-old Palatine High School student said.

Among the victims were the Ehlenfeldts, of 807 E. Valley Lane, Arlington Heights.

Dick, 50, and Lynn, 49, had moved to Illinois in the mid-1980s after he served a stint as a top aide to Wisconsin Gov. Martin J. Shrieber in the late 1970s. He also helped to run Jimmy Carter's successful 1976 election campaign in Wisconsin.

After draining their savings account a year ago to buy the fast-food restaurant at the corner of Northwest Highway and Smith Road, the couple devoted 12-hour and 14-hour days to make their business a success.

"They were ecstatic about it," neighbor John Bruce said.

The couple is survived by three daughters, Joy, Dana and Jennifer, who range in age from 18 to 23.

Other victims included Palatine High School students Michael C. Castro, 16, of Palatine; and Rico L. Solis, 17, of Arlington Heights.

Solis, a student, at Palatine High School, wanted to be in the Army after he had moved to the U.S. from the Philippines eight months ago.

Solis got his job at Brown's through his close friend, Castro.

Castro loved to tinker with trucks and worked at Brown's as part of a cooperative work program at Palatine High School.

"If I could catch the guy who did this myself," said Andy Marciniak, whose son was a close friend of Castro, "I'd cut him up and put salt on him. How could anyone do this to a teenager?"

At Palatine High School, administrators opened a scheduled home basketball game Saturday night with a moment of silence and used the occasion to give students a place to congregate to vent their anger and grief. Counselors will be on hand at the high school at noon today to help students cope with the loss.

Also among the dead were Thomas Mennes, 32, of Palatine, and Marcus Nellsen, 31, also of Palatine.

Mennes, who breaded chicken at the restaurant, worked at Brown's for only a couple of months, his family said. He was single and lived with a twin brother. Nellsen had worked at the restaurant for about three weeks, co-workers said.

Maldonado, 46, is survived by three young sons and his wife, Beatriz. He had come back to the United States shortly after Christmas, after spending a few years in his native Mexico. The move came so his children could go to better schools, family members said.

"I can't believe that it happened," said Maldonado's brother, Pedro, of Palatine. "He was a good person, a good brother. The family is very sad."

While fate worked against Maldonado and the others, it seemed to be on the side of a number of employees who were asked to work Friday night but couldn't.

Georgi asked for the night off so he could attend the Palatine High School basketball game Friday.

"I'm glad I wasn't there, but I feel so badly for them. Somebody had to take my place in there," he said.

Frank Portillo, president of the 115-restaurant Brown's chain, came to Palatine to extend sympathy to the victims' families.

"We all feel this loss personally," Portillo told reporters, his voice choking.

Daily Herald staff writers Karen Binder, John Carpenter, Sandra Del Re, Keri Wyatt Kent, Deedra Lawhead, Michelle Martin, Dan Rozek, Anne Schmitt, Steve Warmbir and Dwayne Wong contributed to this report.