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Star state witness tells of keeping Brown's secret
By Christy Gutowski and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Eileen Bakalla is questioned by prosecutor Tisa Morris with an old photograph of James Degorski at the trial on Wednesday at Cook County Criminal Courts Building in Chicago.


Artist Sketch by L. D. Chukman

James Eric Degorski


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Published: 9/2/2009 2:08 PM | Updated: 9/2/2009 10:58 PM

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Eileen Bakalla knew how to keep a secret.

For nine years, prosecutors say she kept one of the Northwest suburbs' grisliest: the identity of the men who killed seven people at a Palatine fast food restaurant.

Bakalla testified Wednesday that her friend James Degorski and his pal Juan Luna told her more than 16 years ago they killed the workers at Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine.

"He said they had done something big," said Bakalla, 36, one of the prosecution's star witnesses in Degorski's capital murder trial.

Bakalla said she kept the secret of the Jan. 8, 1993, mass murder until police confronted her in 2002. Prosecutors granted the Lake County woman immunity for her cooperation.

If convicted, Degorski could face the death penalty. But prosecutors lack physical evidence connecting him to the murders. Luna, linked to the crime through his DNA, a partial palm print and a videotaped confession, was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.

Bakalla is the first prosecution witness to directly link Degorski to the crime.

Bakalla testified she picked up Degorski and Luna at a Carpentersville grocery store the night of the murders after Degorski called her near the end of her shift at Jake's Pizza, a Hoffman Estates restaurant where they both worked.

Bakalla drove the men to her Elgin townhouse where the trio smoked marijuana. Degorski and Luna told her they had robbed the restaurant but did not reveal the bloodshed. Bakalla said the men split the proceeds and that Degorski gave her $50 he owed her.

A few hours later, Bakalla said, she dropped Luna back off at his car at the Carpentersville grocery store, then drove with Degorski past the Palatine Brown's restaurant at his urging. After seeing the police squad cars and ambulances, Degorski admitted to her that he and Luna did more than rob the place.

"He started telling me the story of what actually happened that night," Bakalla testified. "He told me Juan Luna had went ballistic and started killing people."

The bodies of the victims - restaurant owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and 17-year-old Rico Solis - were found in a walk-in freezer and cooler.

All were shot in the head; Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat also was slashed.

Bakalla testified Degorski admitted committing two of the murders but he painted Luna as the main shooter.

She spent the rest of that night in Hoffman Estates with Degorski, with whom she had occasional intimate relations. Bakalla said she also went with him to a Streamwood car wash and watched him meticulously clean Luna's car.

Degorski told her he had tossed the gun in the Fox River, she said. She testified that she thought she saw green rubber gloves in the back of Luna's car when she picked the men up. Prosecutors have stated they believe Degorski and Luna wore gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.

After the murders, Bakalla said she kept in touch with Degorski. But the affection she had for him didn't extend to Luna.

"He always just made me uneasy, like he was up to something," she said.

Attorneys never asked Bakalla why she stayed silent for so long. And the divorced mother of two offered no apologies during her one-hour testimony on the third day of the trial.

She did say Degorski had told her before the killings they were planning "something big."

"I just kind of brushed it off," Bakalla testified, "like it was a lot of talk - no show."

He repeated the same words the night of the murders, when he called for the ride, she said.

Upon cross examination, Bakalla said that in the days after the murders, Luna animatedly described how they unfolded. Degorski provided only crime scene details that night, Bakalla said.

She said neither man had visible blood or other evidence of violence on their clothing that night, She did not see the murder weapons.

Police interviewed Luna, a former Brown's worker, on Feb. 17, 1993, as a matter of routine while talking to all employees. As an alibi, he told police he was with a girl named "Eileen" from Elgin the night of the slayings.

The murders remained unsolved until 2002, when Degorski's former girlfriend, Anne Lockett, came forward and told police he also confessed to her back in 1993. Lockett is expected to testify she remained silent all that time out of fear. She also implicated Luna.

After police confronted him, he provided a DNA sample that linked him to the crime scene.

Wednesday's testimony began with a mother's tearful testimony.

Diane Clayton, mother of Marcus Nellsen, recalled viewing her son's body at the Cook County morgue shortly after the murders. Tears and muffled sobs from Nellsen's family accompanied Clayton's testimony, which seemed to visibly affect at least one juror.

Degorski's trial continues Thursday in Chicago.