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Palatine residents eager for Brown's ordeal to end
By Kimberly Pohl | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/30/2009 12:00 AM

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Kevin Keehn walks the same five blocks from his Palatine home to Walter R. Sundling Junior High every school day.

The veteran eighth-grade science teacher never thought much about the Brown's Chicken & Pasta he'd passed thousands of times. That is, until seven people were murdered there on a cold January night in 1993.

"It was eerie to walk by for a long time after that," Keehn said. "I'd just stare at the empty restaurant and think of the heinous act that was committed there."

But those images faded over time, the building was torn down and, except when he sees occasional sidewalk memorials that mourners erect, his mind rarely turns to thoughts of the slayings.

He expects that will change Monday morning, as the trial for the second defendant, James E. Degorski, gets underway.

"I'm on the edge of my seat," Keehn said, hoping the resolution of the case will "help lift the stain of notoriety on Palatine, which really is a cool place to live and work."

Many residents aren't aware of the impending trial or the inevitability it will put Palatine back in the local - and perhaps national - spotlight once again.

Others eagerly await the day, such as Laurie Mitchell, whose family in 1976 opened Edelweiss Delicatessen in the shopping plaza behind the Brown's at Northwest Highway and Smith Street.

Gone are the feelings of anxiety and insecurity when locking up for the night.

"Time really does make people forget," said Mitchell, a Palatine resident. "But I'm still disgusted at how long this is taking. I can't imagine the suffering the victims' families have endured."

A couple months ago, Mitchell saw workers measuring the asphalt where the Brown's Chicken used to sit. They told her a bank might go up, which Mitchell believes is one of the only businesses that would survive the site.

Employee Hermine Guerentz of Long Grove, isn't so sure.

"I still get a creepy feeling whenever I walk over there," she said. "I can't imagine anyone going in."

Evelyn Raupp has called Palatine home her entire married life - more than 50 years. She worked at the same Brown's Chicken for five years in the late 1980s. Her daughter put in a short stint there, too.

She and her husband, Norm, live near the parents of Michael Castro, who was just 16 years old when he was among those killed in Brown's walk-in freezer. They sometimes walk home from Mass at St. Theresa Catholic Church with Castro's mother, Epifania.

"We've never spoken about the tragedy," Raupp said. "We'll be paying close attention to the trial."

Another interested party is Palatine Councilman Jack Wagner, who attended some of Juan Luna's trial and prays this jury will reach the same guilty verdict. For Wagner, who was first elected to the council in 1987, a second conviction would mean vindication for the much maligned Palatine Police Department.

"The department, and particularly (former Police Chief Jerry) Bratcher, took a beating," said Wagner, who served as a liaison between the council and the police. "It seemed the media and political organizations were on a witch hunt to undermine them. And their meticulous investigation paid off. Now it's up to the jury to decide."

The department took heat as claims of inexperienced and inept police circulated. In 1997, the Better Government Association released a scathing report criticizing the investigation. The Illinois State Crime Commission countered with its own glowing evaluation three years later.

Palatine Mayor Jim Schwantz anticipates the trial will mark the end of the 16-year ordeal. He remembers the shock he felt as news of the arrests broke in 2002, watching a TV reporter stand in front of his, Luna's and Degorski's alma mater, Fremd High School.

"There was a surreal factor to it knowing I probably passed (Degorski) in the hallway or even sat next to him in study hall," said Schwantz, who graduated in 1988.

Schwantz also believes the association between Palatine and the murders diminished over the years.

"There was a time when the two seemed to be synonymous but no more," Schwantz said. "We're certainly anticipating this being the end and looking forward to closure for not only the victims' families but the community as well."