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Report: Was some key investigative time lost?
By John Carpenter | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 9:43 PM

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Originally published Jan. 13, 1993

Just after 1 a.m. Saturday, a Palatine police officer rattled one of the four doors of the Brown's Chicken & Pasta Restaurant on Northwest Highway in Palatine.

Finding it locked and hearing nothing inside - he had already flashed his light into the eating area and saw nothing out of the ordinary - he returned to his squad car and headed back on patrol.

This might seem like a trivial piece of information to be released by police four days after seven dead bodies were discovered somewhere behind the door that was rattled.

But the investigation into one of the worst mass murders in decades made a dramatic about-face Tuesday, as the media and public zeroed in on the possibility police may have lost valuable investigative time in the critical moments after the killings.

Also raised are questions about differing accounts offered by police and the father of one of the victims about when officers first arrived on the scene and how thoroughly they checked the building.

Palatine Deputy Police Chief Walt Gasior said Tuesday that patrol officers three times visited the restaurant after midnight Saturday, once on a chance meeting and a second time on a "check for well-being" call after the father of victim Michael Castro called to say his son was long overdue after work.

Although Gasior insisted proper procedures were followed in both instances, it wasn't until the third check of the building more than two hours after the first exchange - even longer than that, according to the account of one victim's father - that the infamous unlocked green door was opened and the murder scene revealed.

Emmanuel Castro, father of victim Michael Castro, first raised the question of whether the investigation got off on the wrong foot from the start.

At 11 p.m. Friday, Castro said he went to the restaurant to look for his son, who had not come home from work. Michael's car was in the parking lot, and Emmanuel Castro and his wife, Epifania, thought maybe their son went somewhere nearby to get something to eat. He returned home.

A short time later, when their son still hadn't called or arrived home, Michael's parents again got in their car, this time canvassing nearby fast-food restaurants looking for Michael. When that proved fruitless, Emmanuel Castro said he phoned police.

At 11:45 p.m. - police say the call was made at 1:02 a.m. - Emmanuel Castro said he met an officer in the restaurant's parking lot. After expressing his concerns, Emmanuel Castro said the officer downplayed the family's worries and didn't get out of the car to check the restaurant.

Gasior said he could not account for the discrepancy in times. He said authorities are eager to talk to Castro to clear up the situation, but were holding off until funeral services were complete.

"We are frustrated by the fact that they are confused by this, and we want to resolve that confusion," he said.

As for the officer not getting out of his car, Gasior noted that the patrolman encountered Castro after he had checked the building. Thus Castro may not have seen the officer walking around the perimeter of the building.

But the fact that the officer did not check all four doors of the small eatery, perhaps missing the unlocked back door that would have led to the discovery of the bodies more than an hour sooner - or perhaps even to the discovery of the killer or killers still inside - is what upset Castro the most.

"Had the policeman that came there with us checked around and checked the doors, we could have found out right there that something was going on, and maybe some lives, or maybe some people still living or breathing, we could do something and save them," Castro said.

Regardless of the condition of the victims, law enforcement experts say it's crucial that police get the quickest possible jump on the investigation.

"In general, anything that goes beyond an hour between the time a crime is committed and the time an investigation occurs reduces the probability of arrest considerably. The trail of the killer gets foggy," said Marvin Wolfgang, a nationally recognized crime researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But some local authorities said officers, especially in routine cases, cannot be expected to check every door.

"Most of what the officer is told to do is visual, to look for signs of anything unusual," said Schaumburg police Sgt. Ron Dutner. "With an industrial park in the village with hundreds of buildings, an officer couldn't check every single door."

However, state police officials say they respond to all missing person queries by entering the names on state and FBI computers to alert other departments to be on the lookout.

"It's better to err on the side of caution than to take a chance," he said.

Still another consideration is the age of the missing person.

"If you had a 4-year-old who was lost, I'd have a different response than if you're talking about a 17-year-old who is an hour or two late somewhere," said Sylvester Daughtry, incoming president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The first Palatine officer to visit the Brown's restaurant before the bodies were found visited the building about a half-hour before the building was checked as a result of the Castro call, Gasior said.

Another officer happened to be driving by on Northwest Highway when he saw a suspicious car in the parking lot. In the car, police later learned, was Pedro Maldonado, brother of murder victim Guadalupe Maldonado.

Pedro already had peered into the window of the eatery and knocked on one of its doors, he told the officer. The patrolman suggested Guadalupe might have "stopped for a few beers after work," Gasior said. Both the officer and Maldonado then drive away.

In a stormy press conference Tuesday afternoon, Gasior admonished reporters to remember that, at the time the calls were made, there was no strong suspicion of foul play, let alone that seven people had been killed. Although both officers had "less than five years experience" on the force, he said both acted properly.

"Hindsight is a very nice thing," he said. "At that time, based on the information both those officers had, they seemed to be routine types of incidents, and explainable."

Palatine Village President Rita Mullins, while careful not to criticize police work in the complex case, said she will sit down with Emmanuel Castro and Police Chief Jerry Bratcher sometime soon, perhaps as early as today, in an attempt to clear up the chronology of events.

"If there was anything that was not according to procedure, was not followed, then we will find that out," Mullins said. "That should not cast a shadow on the entire police investigation."

Castro, meanwhile, is left to bury his son and talk of the third time he went out to the restaurant looking for his son. This time he had filed a missing persons report and told the officer he would meet him at the scene. Together they checked all the windows and doors and discovered one unlocked.

"He opened the back door," said Emmanuel Castro, speaking to WBBM Radio in an interview at the Ahlgrim & Sons Funeral Home where his son was being waked. "Right inside, was my son's jacket.

The officer stepped inside, but whatever he saw, he didn't let me go inside."

Within five minutes, the restaurant was surrounded by police officers, Castro said.

"By that time, the family of other victims were there. I'm getting nervous. Something is wrong. I don't know what because my son's car is there," he said.

With some bodies lying face down and piled on top of each other, and with police not wanting to disturb them for fear of destroying crucial evidence, it would be 15 hours before a chaplain knocked on the Castros' door and told them their son, a 16-year-old Palatine High School student, had been murdered.

• Contributing to this report were staff writers Deedra Lawhead, Dave McKinney and Wilson Medina.