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One family tells of the grief Luna brought to them, to his own family
By Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/16/2007

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Juan Luna wept openly in court Tuesday as the youngest daughter of the Brown's Chicken owners confronted him about the brutal slaying of her parents and five of their employees.

"How could you have such little respect for life?" Joy Ehlenfeldt asked. "With your brutal and inhumane desire to kill, you robbed the world of seven good people. There are no words to begin to adequately describe how your crime has impacted our family."

Her nine-page statement served as the dramatic peak of an emotionally charged day in the Brown's Chicken murder trial. Earlier in the day, the jury ruled Luna is eligible for the death penalty for the fatal shootings of seven people inside the Palatine restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993.

The decision, which came after 5½ hours of deliberation over two days, allowed the trial to proceed to the death penalty phase. But the panel failed to reach a unanimous verdict on all counts suggested by prosecutors, perhaps signaling disagreement on the facts of the case and the possible difficulty the jury may have actually sentencing him to death.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are now putting on witnesses to bolster their positions as to whether Luna should be executed for the crime.

During the first day of the death penalty hearing, the jury heard witnesses testify that Luna beat up a child, tortured a sick kitten and bragged about stabbing a hooker. The Carpentersville man has never been charged in connection with any of those incidents.

The same 12 jurors who will decide his fate already found him guilty last week of killing seven people: Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Rico Solis, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes and Marcus Nellsen.

Before the jury found Luna eligible for the death penalty, his relatives joined Castro's family outside the courthouse to protest his possible execution. If Luna escapes the death penalty, he will be sentenced to natural life in prison without parole.

Though all three Ehlenfeldt sisters oppose capital punishment, they opted not to stand alongside the Lunas at the vigil. Joy Ehlenfeldt, who watched the protest from about six feet away, later reiterated her stance on state-sponsored executions.

"I am against the death penalty in all situations," Ehlenfeldt said.

Hours later, Ehlenfeldt read a heart-wrenching letter to Luna inside the courtroom. She was afforded the opportunity as part of a victim impact statement each of the six families is allowed to give. Five other victims' family members also read statements in court Tuesday.

But Ehlenfeldt's drew the most reaction from Luna and others in the court.

"Juan Luna, this is the story of my father and what you took from me," she said.

Ehlenfeldt went on to describe her dad's passion for politics, practical jokes and a good bargain. She told how the sisters missed their father on big occasions - such as when they walked down the aisle alone at their weddings - and in small moments like when they need to know whether to use duct or electrical tape on a home-improvement project.

Just 18 years old when her parents died, Ehlenfeldt lamented having to grow up so quickly. Her voice choked with emotion when she told jurors her sisters' children know her parents only as "Grandpa and Grandma Angel."

"We never had an opportunity to form an adult friendship with them because of your cruel, dark actions," she said.

Ehlenfeldt looked directly at Luna while reading the statement. He bowed his head and wiped away tears as she spoke to him in an angry, wounded tone.

"I often wonder why you didn't just wear a mask and take the money," she said. "Then I realize it wasn't about money, was it, Juan? It was about power and fear and terrorizing innocent and good people."

She also expressed concern about Luna's own son, who like the Ehlenfeldt daughters has essentially lost a father. Even if Luna's life is spared, 10-year-old Brian Luna won't be able to share important milestones and everyday moments with his dad.

"Your son will not know the presence of a father for the rest of his life," Joy Ehlenfeldt said, departing from her prepared text. "How could you do that to him?"

Ehlenfeldt's poignant and pointed statement brought the jury, including several hardboiled male members, to tears. Luna's family and other victims' relatives also wept as she told Luna he brought these consequences upon himself.

"Not only are you responsible for the suffering and grief of six families, you are also responsible for your own family's suffering," she said. "Your family will join ours in a circle of grief. You owe them an apology. You owe us all an apology."

Luna's tears marked his first noticeable reaction to testimony during the monthlong trial. He has remained stone-faced throughout most witnesses' testimony, including Eileen Bakalla, a former friend who told jurors Luna and his pal Jim Degorski admitted to the crime hours after it took place.

Degorski, who is being tried separately, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Bakalla returned to testify in the death penalty phase Tuesday, telling the jury about a time shortly after the 1993 murders when she, Luna and others tortured a sick kitten. She said that while smoking pot in Degorski's garage, the group placed the tiny cat in a box and blew marijuana into it so the pet would get high.

The stoned friends then got in Bakalla's car and headed to the store. Luna placed the kitten on a leash and threw it out the window to see if it could keep up with a moving vehicle on Palatine Road.

She later admitted she didn't see Luna put the cat outside the car.

"They decided it would be fun to walk the cat next to the car," she said. "Obviously at 55 miles per hour, the cat couldn't keep up and it went under the tires and ended up dying. I heard a thump."

A former Degorski girlfriend, Kristen Smith, also testified about witnessing Luna beat up a boy who had thrown a snowball at his car in March 1992. However, she denied the incident took place when police questioned her about it.

"I felt he was a violent person, very high-strung," she said.

Several months after the snowball incident, Degorski was convicted of misdemeanor battery for forcing Smith into a car, punching her in the face several times and slamming the door on her legs. The jury, however, did not hear details of the crime.

Instead, they heard two audiocassettes on which Luna threatens her if she follows through with the charges. She kept the profanity-laced answering machine messages, she said, in case something ever happened to her.

"I'm going to kick your (behind) you little ho," Luna says on the tape. "I'm going to kill you. Later, you BL (expletive)."

Another friend testified Tuesday that Luna boasted of stabbing a hooker in Chicago. But David Johnson, who recently was released from prison, acknowledged Luna often became a nonsensical braggart when drunk.

The majority of jurors did not take notes during Tuesday's testimony. The panel, which appeared emotionally drained after two days of deliberations and five weeks of court proceedings, received a pep talk from Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan before the death penalty phase began.

"We know there's a lot of responsibility riding on your shoulders," Gaughan said.

The split decision and surprisingly long deliberations in the eligibility phase, however, suggest the panel may have a hard time sentencing Luna to death. The group agreed the notorious slayings included multiple killings and were committed during an armed robbery - two of four legal factors prosecutors said qualified Luna for capital punishment.

But the panel didn't come to a unanimous decision on whether Luna actually killed anyone in the restaurant or if the murders were cold and calculated.

The announcement surrounding the eligibility decision was far less emotional than the guilty verdict read last week. The victims' families and Luna's relatives showed little emotion during Tuesday's announcement.

However, one juror, a woman who wept openly during the guilty verdict announcement, looked visibly upset. Her voice cracked when a courtroom clerk polled the panel to double-check its vote.

The defense needs only one person to refuse the death penalty in order to save Luna's life. Attorney Stephen Richards stressed that fact to the jury at the beginning of the death penalty phase Tuesday.

"Each one of you again has the power to save a life," he said. "I'm begging you to do that. But I'll also be showing you evidence."

Nothing the defense presents, prosecutors say, can make up for the fact Luna and Degorski killed seven people on a cold January night 14 years ago.

"The magnitude of this crime," Assistant State's Attorney Linas Kelecius told the jury, "calls out for the ultimate sentence."

Daily Herald staff writer Joseph Ryan contributed to this report.

Joy Ehlenfeldt's victim impact statement