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Innocent explanation for second chicken's DNA?
Day 4 of Degorski trial includes more science
By Barbara Vitello and Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

James Degorski


Juan Luna


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Published: 9/3/2009 2:17 PM | Updated: 9/3/2009 9:42 PM

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Deborah Medow pulled away from a Palatine fast-food restaurant 16 years ago not knowing the violence that was about to erupt there minutes later.

Medow testified Thursday that she ate at Brown's Chicken on Jan. 8, 1993, along with two men she cared for while working at Palatine's Little City, a residential home for people with disabilities. She said the trio left the restaurant around 9 p.m.

"They were winding down," she said. "They were cleaning the tables and floors. You could just tell it was closing time."

After helping the men into her company van, Medow said, she went back inside to buy a coffee. As she pulled away, Medow said, she didn't see any idling cars nearby or other patrons inside the restaurant.

Medow's testimony came on the fourth day of the capital murder trial of James Degorski, charged with the slayings of seven people at the restaurant.

Degorski, 37, and his former high school pal Juan Luna are accused of killing owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and their employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and Rico Solis, 17, in a quest to "do something big."

Luna, 35, was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.

Authorities linked Luna to the crime through his DNA found on the remains of a chicken dinner, which a cash register receipt indicates he purchased at 9:08 p.m., minutes after Medow left. Luna's partial left palm print was recovered from a napkin. He also confessed in a 45-minute videotaped police interview in which he implicates Degorski.

Prosecutors lack any physical evidence against Degorski, who lived in Hoffman Estates back in 1993, and his lawyers argue a second unidentified DNA source on the nibbled chicken belongs to Luna's real accomplice - not their client.

A coffee stirrer was found mixed in with Luna's discarded meal in the otherwise empty trash. Medow said she used cream and sugar in her coffee but, upon cross examination, she couldn't recall whether she discarded the stirrer. Her testimony may prove important to the prosecution as they try to debunk the defense's "real accomplice" theory. Testimony did not reveal whether Medow was ruled out as that second DNA contributor.

She did not testify in Luna's trial.

Scientific testimony dominated the trial's fourth day, which included what amounted to a seminar on the identification and analysis of fingerprints from print examiner John Onstwedder III of the Forensic Science Center in Chicago.

Onstwedder described comparing a photograph of a partial palm print taken from a napkin recovered at the crime scene to an inked palm print of Luna taken at the Palatine Police Department in his May 2002. The partial print from the napkin encompassed the area below the little finger on the subject's left hand. Although small, it contained sufficient detail for comparison and it matched the print from Luna taken by the police, Onstwedder said. He said analysis excluded two other suspects as well as Degorski as being the source of the print on the napkin.

The print on the napkin was one of 163 recovered from the crime scene and studied by Onstwedder and his team. Unlike observable patent prints, latent prints are invisible and require chemical or other enhancement to make them visible for purposes of identification. Of the 163 latent prints, 104 were identified, Onstwedder said.

Under cross-examination by Assistant Public Defender Brendan Max, Onstwedder testified that he compared fingerprints collected from the scene to about 80 people, including the victims, to exclude them as suspects. He also said that some prints, including those collected from the fuse box, a service door, a 30-day organizer and a serving tray, remained unmatched. However, none of those prints matched Degorski, he said.

Alan Stoeckel, a former Palatine police investigator now serving as deputy chief, took the witness stand to identify a bullet found in a tub of frozen gravy. Stoeckel also testified about a bullet indentation in a fryer hood, which prosecutors suggested came during the course of the crime.

Earlier Thursday, Jade Solis described the last time she saw her brother, Rico, alive was when they passed each other in the hallway of Palatine High School, where they both were students.

"We just looked at each other," said Jade Solis, 31.

The next time she saw Rico was at his wake.