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Verdict brings closure to Palatine police officers
By Ashok Selvam | Daily Herald Staff

Former Palatine Police Chief Jerry Bratcher speaks briefly Tuesday about the jury verdict in the Browns Chicken murders.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/29/2009 10:41 PM | Updated: 9/29/2009 10:42 PM

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For nine years, former Palatine Police Chief Jerry Bratcher watched as the unsolved murders of seven people at Brown's Chicken & Pasta cast a cloud over his department.

That veil began to lift after the 2002 arrests of former Brown's employee Juan Luna and his buddy James Degorski. Luna's 2007 conviction gave investigators a victory.

On Tuesday, Degorski's conviction provided vindication, closing a 16-year episode that saw the police scrutinized for their handling of the case.

"It's just the last chapter of a long, painful story," Bratcher, now retired, said Tuesday evening, peeking through the storm door of his Palatine home.

While Bratcher remained reserved, Inverness Police Chief Bob Haas didn't hide his enthusiasm. Haas served as the Palatine Police Department's shift commander the night of the murders on Jan. 8, 1993.

"It's a banner day for the Northwest suburbs, for the task force, especially for the families. I mean it's something a long time coming," Haas said.

Tuesday's verdict was the culmination of hard work for investigators and another step toward closure for the victims' families, Haas said. He still recalls the initial radio call and arriving at the crime scene to find bodies inside the restaurant's cooler. He said no police training could prepare anyone for what he and his fellow officers saw that day.

Like Bratcher, his former colleague, Haas said he wasn't surprised by the jury's decision.

"It was basically a slam dunk," he said.

When reached from his home in Wisconsin, Jack McGregor, deputy chief at the time of the murders and police chief after Bratcher, said he hadn't closely followed the Degorski case and heard the verdict from a reporter.

"I welcome the verdict and hopefully that will bring some peace, some closure for the victims' families," he said. "But also to law enforcement and prosecutors that have been involved in this from day one."

It took a gruesome case of this magnitude to change how suburban police investigate major crimes, said Mike Lyons. Lyons delivered a scathing report criticizing Palatine police while a lead investigator for the Better Government Association in 1997.

The association's report questioned whether investigators worked fast enough and were equipped to solve the mass murder case. The Illinois State Crime Commission issued a report of its own offering praise of the investigation.

Police later reacted by forming the Major Case Assistance Team, a task force uniting local police departments so they could share resources.

"This case proved you can't do this type of case with small village police departments," Lyons said.

MCAT's current director is Sgt. Mike Brady from the Hoffman Estates Police Department, who helped investigate the Brown's murders. Brady credited Luna's and Degorski's convictions to a relentless police effort. He added that the Degorski verdict validates MCAT's existence.

"You just never give up; you've got to believe and keep plugging away," he said. "I'm just happy, I'm happy for the Palatine Police Department."

Despite Tuesday's verdict, Lyons said Palatine police "bungled" the case. He said prosecutors should have been armed with more physical evidence but were handicapped by Palatine's police work.

Brady took the criticism in stride and said police should expect to be under scrutiny on a trial of this magnitude.

"You read the papers, you watch the news at the time, you see the criticism," Brady said. "But to those who worked on the task force, they knew how much manpower hours, they knew how much work was put into it."

Lyons, Brady and Haas all credited forensics officers who saved chicken bones from the restaurant. The bones went through DNA lab analysis and were used by prosecutors in 2007 to link Luna to the slayings. The bones were saved until technology improved to where DNA could be better analyzed.

"That move was brilliant. It was ahead of their time," Lyons said. Luna remains in prison on a life sentence.

Haas remained disturbed by witnesses who waited years to come forward with information that could have solved the crimes faster, he said. But with the two convictions, he feels the wait was worth it.

"Everybody wanted this end result," Haas said. "We wanted to solve this, especially for the families."

Closure: Police officials say forensics officers were 'brilliant'