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Dark clouds lifts for innocent man eyed in Brown's Chicken killings
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/4/2009 12:06 AM

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With two men now convicted in the Brown's Chicken murders, a dark cloud over Celso Morales has finally vanished.

Like more than a dozen people pursued as possible suspects in the infamous slayings of seven, Morales had struggled for years under the scope of investigators trying to catch the killers.

When news broke in the spring of 2002 that police had finally arrested two men for the 1993 murders, Morales dropped to his knees.

"I felt a huge burden lift off my shoulders," Morales recalls. "I prayed, I prayed for the families of the victims."

With the conviction of James Degorski on Tuesday - the second after the 2007 conviction of accomplice Juan Luna, those long wrongly under scrutiny are finally, truly free.

No official number of suspects has been made public. But the trail left by investigators in more than a decade of searching for the killers ranges from some of the restaurant's employees to Chicago gang members and suspects in similar fast food killings across the nation.

In all, at least two individuals were coerced into actually confessing to the crimes, prosecutors have conceded in court. The former suspects testified at Degorski's trial about the pressure police employed and the lasting impact on their own lives.

The innocent suspect who got the most public exposure was Martin Blake, then a young Elgin resident who had been fired from the Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine before the murders. Informants pointed authorities to Blake. One day after the killings, police swooped in on his house, guns drawn, as the media watched.

After two days of questioning, Blake was released, later settling a defamation suit against the Palatine police.

The unrelenting scrutiny chased Blake from Elgin to Texas, where he later told the Daily Herald he had worked to put the accusations behind him and start anew.

"Finally, hopefully, I'm going to be exonerated and people are going to apologize to me," Blake said after the 2002 arrests.

Palatine police declined to comment on prosecutor allegations in court of coerced confessions and the scrutiny placed on innocent suspects over the years.

However, as the investigation grinded on in 1997, then-Police Chief Jerry Bratcher said, "There's no perfection in the world in anything any of us do."

"But generally speaking, the major steps we took ... we did the appropriate thing," he added.

The identities of most of those pursued as possible suspects in the killings were never made public, like Morales. He said investigators focused on him as a Brown's employee and he spoke of what he called several instances of harassment.

Morales said the pressure frustrated him, as the then 17-year-old was already dealing with intense emotions of sadness and guilt over the killings. He said he knew the victims well and previously was on a work schedule that would have put him in the restaurant for closing on the night of Jan. 8, 1993, when the seven were murdered.

"I started thinking I was maybe that villain they portrayed me to be," Morales says. "They sure made me feel like garbage."

Morales says the impact of interrogations by police, which he said occurred several times every year - with police showing up at his home or work or school - and then being ostracized required years of therapy to overcome. He blames the scrutiny for leading to his later dropping out of college.

But, Morales says he has worked hard to put it all behind him and move forward with his life. He is now an executive chef.

Despite his attitudes toward how the police handled the investigation and targeted him, he won't leave Palatine.

"I lived for 10 years in a public imprisonment," Morales says. "I picked up the pieces and had to start living my life. I had to stop saying, 'Woe is me.'"

For nearly 10 years after the killings, Luna and Degorski lived free of harassment from the police.

They were not suspects.

They were not even on the radar.

In that time span, many innocent people felt the heat and faced accusations and pressure to confess, as investigators burned through one lead after another.

Casey Haefs was one of them.

As a teen she worked at Brown's Chicken and came into the sights of detectives who suspected her boyfriend of being involved.

In 1999, then 22, Haefs said she was pressured into a confession after an eight-hour interrogation. Haefs testified in Degorski's trial that she told police of a recurring nightmare she suffered.

"I used to have nightmares about the people being shot, one by one. As soon as the gun was pointed at me, I'd wake up," she testified.

Haefs said police told her that wasn't a dream, it was a suppressed memory of the actual crime.

That same year, John Simonek was also coerced into a confession, according to prosecutors. He had been a prime suspect in the murders for more than two years.

"They were constantly hounding me," Simonek testified in Degorski's trial. "They wouldn't leave me alone."

Morales says the convictions of Luna and Degorski should remove the stigma that suspects like him have faced for years. There will be no more interrogations, no more wondering who might know they had a target on their back.

Above all, Morales says he feels most for the families of the victims: restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Rico Solis, Guadalupe Maldonado, Marcus Nellsen and Thomas Mennes.

"This held back my entire life," he says. "I can't even imagine what all the other family members are going through. They had to go through this imprisonment too."

- Daily Herald staff writers Christy Gutowski and Kim Pohl contributed to this report.