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Juror replaced as court hears more testimony about Degorski family life
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

James Degorski


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Published: 10/14/2009 2:16 PM | Updated: 10/14/2009 8:02 PM

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Psychologists, social workers, therapists and teachers testified Wednesday that the Degorski family made a memorable impression for all the wrong reasons.

More ugly details about the abusive, dysfunctional home in which James Degorski grew up emerged as his capital murder trial entered its seventh week.

The jury that convicted Degorski two weeks ago in the 1993 slayings of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta now must decide whether he lives or dies. Arguing for the former, Degorski's defense team has presented mitigation witnesses in an attempt to convince the jury to sentence the 37-year-old former Hoffman Estates resident to life in prison without parole, the same sentence his co-defendant Juan Luna received following his 2007 conviction.

For nearly two hours Wednesday morning, clinical and forensic psychologist Robert Shapiro testified about the alleged physical, sexual and psychological abuse he said occurred within the Degorski family. Shapiro testified he became acquainted with the family's myriad problems when he treated the defendant's father, William Degorski, from 1984 to 1987 at the behest of the elder Degorski's employer, Schaumburg-based Motorola.

Motorola managers reported to Shapiro that William Degorski had trouble getting along with co-workers and supervisors. After William Degorski brought a gun to the company parking lot, Shapiro was brought in to evaluate and treat Degorski in an effort to save his job, Shapiro testified.

Some clients you never forget, said Shapiro. William Degorski, his wife Patricia and their children are such clients, he said.

Shapiro diagnosed the elder Degorski as suffering from a paranoid personality disorder that caused him to be suspicious, angry, bitter and resentful.

"People around him were afraid of him. He made people uncomfortable," said Shapiro, adding that Degorski was his only client to actively stalk Shapiro and his family.

Shapiro described the troubled childhood of the elder Degorski, saying his client told him his mother became a prostitute after his parents divorced and his adoptive family took him in only because they wanted his younger brother. Shapiro testified that the elder Degorski claimed he was sexually abused as a child and became sexually involved with his future wife when he was 15 and she was 11. The couple married after William Degorski returned from Vietnam and divorced in 1989 after having five children.

Around 1985, Shapiro began treating Patricia Degorski, who told him that as a child, she suffered abuse at the hands of neighbors.

"Both of these young people (William and Patricia) were set up for this behavior by their own upbringing," said Shapiro, who diagnosed Patricia Degorski with multiple personality disorder. "It was tragic." That abuse severely compromised the couple's ability to parent their children, said Shapiro, who described a home where emotional, physical and sexual abuse regularly occurred. Abuse allegations eventually reached the Department of Children and Family Services, which investigated the family and removed William Degorski from the home.

"Clearly it was one of the most dysfunctional families I have ever worked with," Shapiro said.

He wasn't alone in his assessment.

Judith McCaskey, a retired, first-grade teacher who taught four of the five Degorski siblings in her Palatine classroom, testified that she observed the family "didn't function as a normal family should function."

McCaskey described a young Jimmy Degorski as a "freckle-faced, sandy-haired little boy, a teddy bear child who needed attention or TLC." She said something didn't feel right. Neither she nor the elementary school's social worker detected signs of physical abuse, but "we had strong feelings that things were not right there," albeit not sufficient to warrant an investigation.

Clinical social worker Patricia Stone was working for the Hoffman Estates department of health and human services when she was assigned to the Degorski family around 1990.

Stone described her first meeting with Patricia Degorski and the children as "absolute pandemonium." By that time, the court had ordered William Degorski out of the home, said Stone, who was engaged as the family's therapist to help "manage what had been a very chaotic situation."

She described the situation as violent and the children as fearful. Stone testified that the siblings said their father routinely set them to fight against each other and labeled each with a derogatory nickname. The children also claimed William Degorski told them he had spies who would keep tabs on them when he was not around, Stone said.

In William's absence James Degorski took on the role of "surrogate father figure," said Stone who invited the then-18-year-old to participate in counseling. He declined, and on one visit Stone made to the home, he said to her "loose lips sink ships," parroting one of William Degorski's favorite sayings.

The prosecution challenged Stone about having no records to document her interaction with the Degorskis. Stone replied that they were the property of the village and that they had likely been destroyed by now. But she insisted she did not need records to recall the Degorskis, which she described as "one of the worst family situations I had ever seen."

Before testimony began, Judge Vincent M. Gaughan excused a juror whose wife and daughter had developed flu-like symptoms. The judge appointed the first alternate, a recently married man in his late 20s who recalled during jury questioning that Degorski's co-defendant Juan Luna had been sentenced to life in prison following his conviction in 2007. The man also said that he would likely impose the death penalty for someone convicted of seven murders.

Testimony resumes Thursday in Chicago.