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Columnist
Palatine mayors past and present express relief
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/29/2009 8:11 PM | Updated: 9/29/2009 8:29 PM

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Former Mayor Rita Mullins sums up the pent-up emotions of an entire community in a single word Tuesday: relief.

For more than 16 years, Palatine had been struggling to find some closure on a horrific crime that shocked the village. In less than two hours of deliberation Tuesday afternoon, a jury of 12 closed the book by delivering a guilty verdict against the second of two men charged with killing seven people in the infamous Brown's Chicken murders of 1993.

"Oh, what a relief," sighs Mullins after she learns of the guilty verdict while on her cell phone at O'Hare International Airport. "It's a relief to finally see a conclusion to a terrible ordeal that the entire community has been put through over all these many years. I'm much relieved."

Current Mayor Jim Schwantz had just finished his rookie year with the Chicago Bears and was living with his parents in Palatine, less than a mile from the Brown's Chicken restaurant, when the news broke that seven people had been slain in the suburb.

"It spread very, very quickly," Schwantz remembers. "It was certainly a shock. ... If you were in the village of Palatine, you remember exactly where you were when you heard the news."

Suddenly, people around the nation knew where Palatine was.

"As the years went on and people immediately drew the connection, 'Palatine, oh, that's where the Brown's Chicken murders happened,' that was upsetting to me, because I knew Palatine for so much more," says Schwantz, who grew up in the suburb before his life as a professional football player.

"As a village, we want to close the book. But for the families of the victims, they'll never have closure," Schwantz says. "This verdict won't bring back the victims. You just couldn't even imagine the pain they've gone through."

James Degorski, 37, was convicted Tuesday of murdering Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, owners of the Brown's eatery, and employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and Rico Solis, 17. Degorski's friend, Juan Luna, 35, was convicted in 2007 for his part in the killing and is serving a life sentence in prison.

The jurors who declared Degorski guilty now will decide if he is eligible for the death penalty and whether his crime merits a death sentence.

It is difficult to understand the depth of shock the heinous crime caused unless you lived in Palatine at the time.

"If it happened here, it could happen anywhere" was the title of an essay Mullins wrote in the wake of the crime.

Shortly after the murders, Mullins was at an event with actor James Earl Jones, and she introduced herself as the mayor of Palatine.

"His face and demeanor immediately changed, and he said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry,'" Mullins remembers. "It was a terrible stigma. Today, I don't think it's the same."

More deadly shootings and more heinous crimes have knocked the Palatine murders from some memories.

"After that initial shock, that's when we started having the school shootings," Mullins says. "I think there were many others of these shootings and such horrific things happening with the children all over the United States (and elsewhere), it made the incident pale in comparison. It was the first of many such incidents, including 9/11."

But Mullins, who attended the funerals of all the victims, knows the verdicts can't take away pain.

"There were two kids that were murdered," Mullins says. "It was something that touched me very deep in my soul, and I will never forget. I'm just relieved that it is over. It doesn't lessen it for those family members. But for the people of Palatine, I believe finding a guilty verdict and finding the perpetrators makes it easier to sleep at night. I just thank God and pray we have the right people. I believe in my heart of hearts that we do."

The quick verdict was proof the evidence was convincing, Schwantz said.

"The killers have now been brought to justice," Schwantz said, adding that he hopes the victims' families can take some comfort in the two guilty verdicts. "First and foremost we are very satisfied with the verdict and think that justice was finally served. The guilty verdict was very satisfying, no doubt about it."

The slayings almost ruined Brown's Chicken, which saw an immediate 40 percent drop in sales. But Brown's owner Frank Portillo Jr. says his business losses can't be compared to the losses suffered by family members of the victims.

"What those parents went through, oh, man, I tell you, I still get emotional," Portillo says Tuesday night, his voice choked with emotion. "I'm just happy for bringing closure to the victims' families and to Brown's. I'm just glad it's all behind us now."

A 16-year-old mystery is finished.

"It seems like it was yesterday, and it seems like a lifetime ago," Mullins says, expressing sympathy for the victims' families. "It was an ugly cloud. This hopefully will let them finally come back into their lives. I know you can't replace people. They're gone forever."