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Many co-workers feel spared by fate
By Anne Schmitt | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 9:39 PM

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Originally published Jan. 10, 1993

A basketball game may have saved Jason Georgi's life.

The 17-year-old arranged to take off work Friday so he could see a game between his Palatine High School Pirates and the rival Fremd Vikings.

After working every Friday for the last two months at Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant, Georgi took the night off.

"If this was any other Friday night, it could have been me," Georgi said Saturday morning outside the murder scene. "Somebody that took my place is dead. I can't help but wonder if what I did cost someone their life."

Inside the Palatine restaurant at 168 W. Northwest Hwy., police were investigating the murder of seven employees, including two fellow Palatine High School classmates.

Outside, dozens stood watch as the horror unfolded. Some came to hear about family or friends, while others stopped simply to gape at the media frenzy or witness the tragic scene.

After co-workers and their families shed tears for the victims, the fragility of life hit them hard. Their stories had a similar ring: "This could have happened to me."

Decisions to take the day off, to switch a work schedule or to decline a request to work kept some high school-age employees from working at Brown's Friday night.

That same Palatine basketball game also kept 17-year-old Casey Sander from her typical Friday night routine at Brown's. Several of the high school students were given the night off so they could attend the game, she said.

"I was happy I wasn't there," Sander said after hearing the news. "You get to know everybody. It seems like family. That's why its even more tragic. I was surprised.

"I'm still in shock. It's a small town - this sounds like something in Chicago."

Another employee, 17-year-old Bill Valente, was counting his blessings.

"Someone's watching out over me," said Valente. He went to the restaurant at about 4:30 p.m. Friday to pick up his paycheck when owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt asked if he could work that night. Valente declined, saying he had already promised to go sledding with friends at nearby Palatine Hills Golf Course.

"It's just really hard to believe," said Celso Morales, who worked Friday nights for a few weeks when he started two months ago at the Palatine restaurant. He changed his schedule a month ago so he could volunteer at Little City for four hours each Friday. Morales and one of the victims, Michael Castro, got their jobs through the high school's work programs.

Another employee, Mike John, 18, a spring 1992 graduate of Palatine High School, said he was on call Friday.

"I was on standby, where they could call me to come in to take someone else's place," John said.

Saturday, John said he probably won't return to the restaurant.

"I don't think I can handle that," he said.

Several employees who didn't work Friday night said their home phones rang constantly with calls from friends and family who heard the news and wanted to know if they were safe.

Many parents struggled to make sense of the inexplicable. Despite precautions and the appearance of safety, fate still has the last word.

"It closed at 9 o'clock," said Marianne Pittenger, whose son Ken works at the restaurant. "He (Ken) was never home later than 9:30, 10 o'clock. I was so thrilled he wasn't working at a late-night gas station."

The Eagle (Food Store) was there. It was open.

"I felt it was really quite safe," she said. "Apparently, I was wrong."

Daily Herald Staff Writers Todd Natenberg and Carolyn Arnold contributed to this report.