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Palatine councilman turns attention toward paying reward
By Kimberly Pohl | Daily Herald Staff

Anne Lockett England


NBC 5 photo

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Published: 9/30/2009 7:23 PM | Updated: 10/1/2009 12:24 AM

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The Palatine Police Department - drowning in a pile of leads - accepted all the help it could get in the days after the slayings of seven workers at the Brown's Chicken in 1993.

That included Councilman Jack Wagner's offer to set up a reward fund. He started by chipping in $1,000 of his own money and then combed village streets in the bitter January cold, soliciting money from businesses. He passed out letters stating a desire to "resolve this matter as quickly as possible," as well as a goal to raise $100,000.

Sixteen years and two convictions later, Wagner is contemplating exactly what to do with more than 100 donations totaling $98,000 in the bank and another $51,000 in pledges.

"This was a tragedy that happened in one of our local businesses, so plenty of people donated, anxious to solve it," said Wagner, who served as the liaison between the police department and the village council.

Though their testimony helped convict James Degorski on Tuesday and Juan Luna in 2007, Wagner doesn't mask his disgust toward the two women who stayed quiet for nine years. Anne Lockett England and Eileen Bakalla shouldn't get a dime for keeping the men's confession a secret, he said.

Instead, Wagner hopes a committee he heads will agree to give the reward to Melissa Oberle, who called Palatine police within 15 minutes of learning from England what really happened inside the restaurant. Luna and Degorski were arrested less than two months later.

"If anyone deserves the reward, it's her," Wagner said. "The money was put together as an incentive to get somebody to come forward and (Oberle) came forward immediately after she was told about the murders. The other two? Forget about it."

A special committee was established in 1993 to allocate the funds at the proper time, but since then, all the members except Councilman Greg Solberg have left. Wagner said he will approach Police Chief John Koziol, Mayor Jim Schwantz and Village Manager Reid Ottesen about replacing their predecessors on the committee.

Wagner also intends to call Brown's Chicken & Pasta owner Frank Portillo, who on Jan. 19, 1993, wrote Palatine officials a letter "to confirm and guarantee" the company would contribute $25,000 upon an arrest and conviction. But Portillo made the pledge without fully realizing the shadow the slayings would cast on all the Brown's franchises. Sales immediately dropped 40 percent and never fully rebounded.

Portillo was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but he said before Degorski's trial began that he wasn't in a position to contribute anymore because of the restaurant chain's struggles.

He added that he had a separate reward fund of more than $110,000 collected through his restaurants, but that he divided it among the victims' families years ago when he doubted a killer would ever be found.

Portillo also agreed with Wagner that neither England nor Bakalla should get the reward money.

However, Oberle herself told the Daily Herald in a 2002 interview she doesn't think she's entitled to it. She acknowledged she played a "vital role" in bringing about the arrests and said she'd perhaps accept "maybe a small percentage" if it were offered.

But she remained adamant that the credit - and reward - belongs with England.

In March 2002, England called Oberle asking her to forward an anonymous letter detailing the murders to police. Oberle knew several Palatine police officers and served as a go-between between her friend and the department. She prodded England for more information, and England agreed to let Oberle pass along her first name and phone number.

Oberle emphasized England remained quiet out of fear that Degorski would hurt her, a fear England echoed during testimony in Degorski's trial. Oberle told the Daily Herald she thought England would have come forward on her own eventually.

While the reward's recipient still must be decided, the exact amount is also unclear. In addition to Portillo, Wagner plans on calling two hospitals who promised donations. The medical staff at Holy Family Hospital in Des Plaines pledged $10,000 and the medical staff at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights committed $15,000.

"I'm not sure whether you can hold someone's feet to the fire after 16 years," Wagner said. "But we'll try."

The Daily Herald's efforts to reach spokesmen for the two organizations were unsuccessful.

Should the committee decide not to give anyone the reward, Wagner said it's possible money could be refunded because a log was kept of most donors. He said donating it to a charity was also a possibility.