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Degorski defense points to false confession
By Barbara Vitello and Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

James Degorski


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Published: 9/15/2009 6:08 PM | Updated: 9/15/2009 8:48 PM

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After James Degorski made a video statement confessing his involvement in the Brown's Chicken murders, he went to Cook County Jail.

After John Simonek made a video statement confessing his involvement in the Brown's Chicken murders, he went home.

Simonek has never been charged in the Jan. 8, 1993, slayings of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta. But for 21/2 years he remained the prime suspect of James Bell, who from 1995 to 2000 led the task force charged with solving one of the suburbs' most notorious crimes.

Both Simonek and Bell testified Tuesday as the defense began its first day of evidence in Degorski's trial.

Despite his initial confession, Simonek claims he had nothing to do with the killings.

"I recall saying stuff," he said under direct examination from defense counsel Preston Jones. "They were constantly hounding me. They wouldn't leave me alone."

Simonek, who spoke with authorities on several occasions, admitted he got some of his information about the crime from newspapers.

"Where did the rest come from?" asked Jones.

"I made it up," Simonek said.

Prosecutors attacked Simonek's confession, arguing that Degorski and high-school pal Juan Luna were the true murderers. The defense, though, is trying to show jurors that the task force was capable of getting an innocent man to confess. They hope that admission will cast doubts in jurors' minds of the veracity of Degorski's confession.

Degorski, 37, and Luna were charged with the murders in 2002 after Degorski's former girlfriend Anne England (formerly Anne Lockett) told police he and Luna confessed to her several weeks after the 1993 murders. England said she remained silent because Degorski threatened to kill her if she told. Physical evidence and a videotaped confession linked Luna to the murders. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2007.

If convicted, Degorski could face the death penalty. However, the prosecution's case against Degorski is largely circumstantial. No physical evidence connects him to the crime and the five-minute statement he made has not been shown to the jury.

Back in 1998, James Degorski wasn't even on Bell's radar. Simonek was.

He piqued Bell's interest in April, 1998, after he told Bell he had a "vision" of the murders, Bell said. Several more conversations followed in July of 1998, during which Simonek, then 22, changed his story about a half dozen times, Bell said. In one version, Simonek said he was not at the restaurant at the time of the murders. In another, he claimed he accompanied a friend to the restaurant and that man committed the murders while Simonek waited in the car. Another version had him entering the restaurant and purchasing food, while his friend went to the back, Bell said. In that version, Simonek said he killed two people in the cooler, according to Bell, who admitted devoting more resources to Simonek than any other lead. In yet another account, Simonek claimed his friend drugged his drink and forced him to go to Brown's that night, Bell said.

Under cross examination by lead prosecutor Linas Kelecius, Bell said Simonek was allowed to return home even after his 1998 statement implicating himself in one of the suburbs' most notorious murders.

Bell admitted he thought Simonek was "goofy" and that his "vision" statement raised a red flag. Yet he still considered Simonek a viable suspect and pursued him over the objections of Palatine investigators John Koziol, now chief of police, and William King, now a commander, both of whom were involved in the investigation almost from the beginning.

Bell said Simonek knew specifics about the crime scene, such as that 20 bullets were fired, the location of the victims' bodies and that someone cleaned up with a mop afterward. Bell denied anyone ever fed Simonek information. Additionally, a female Brown's employee also said she was present with Simonek's friend during the killings, Bell said. The statement began as the memory of a re-occurring nightmare and progressed into reality, Bell said. She denied Simonek was there that night.

Neither Simonek nor the others were charged with the killings. No physical evidence linked any of them to the crime scene.

Bell had Simonek arrested and brought to the Palatine police station about 9 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1999, while Koziol and King were on vacation.

"They wouldn't let me make a phone call or leave until I told them what they wanted to hear," Simonek said, explaining that by "they" he meant the police.

"When I said stuff that was wrong, they would correct me," he said. "When I said something wrong, the officers were 'that's not what happened.' So I kind of changed the story until they stopped saying 'that's not what happened.'"

Simonek's testimony seemed to bolster the defense's suggestion that authorities fed him information. At about midnight, Simonek said, he made a videotaped confession implicating himself and another man in the murders. Then he went home.

"You implicated yourself in a murder and you still went home?" asked prosecutor Tom Biesty.

"Yes," said Simonek.

"Each and every time?" asked Biesty.

"Yes," said Simonek.

"Did you have anything to do with this crime?" said Biesty.

"No I did not," said Simonek.

Jones latched on to Simonek's denial in his redirect, getting Simonek to admit that even though he was not involved, Palatine police still got him to confess.

Earlier, a former neighbor Jessica Mogilinski described Degorski as a peaceful, considerate and nonviolent man who never raised his voice.

"He was like an older brother to us," said Mogilinski, 25, who visited Degorski's home several times a week from 1992 to 1993. "We looked up to him."

Testimony continues Wednesday in Chicago.