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Columnist
Suburbanites will always carry sadness for Brown's victims
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 5/11/2007

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One piece of the puzzling murder that has haunted the suburbs since a cold, bleak January night in 1993 finally fit into place Thursday just as a sunny, glorious May afternoon was ending.

After more than 14 years of mystery, a Cook County jury deliberated about eight hours before declaring Juan Luna guilty of killing seven people at a Brown's Chicken restaurant in Palatine. A second suspect, Luna's high school pal Jim Degorski, has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial on charges that he was a partner in the Jan. 8, 1993, mass murders.

Luna, now a 33-year-old husband and father, was still a teenager when, according to his own videotaped confession, he and Degorski robbed the restaurant where he used to work. Luna said they rounded up the husband-and-wife owners and five employees, herding them in the walk-in cooler and freezer.

Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Marcus Nellsen, Thomas Mennes and Rico Solis were executed, each shot in the head during a 20-shot barrage of bullets. Luna said he slit Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat when he got caught up "in the moment."

That moment was a turning point for the suburbs. Often regarded as a haven from violent crimes, the suburbs erased that stereotype forever when news of the Brown's Chicken mass murders hit.

Palatine, described in news accounts of the time as "a quiet suburb," was in shock. The grisly discovery of seven blood-soaked corpses seemed so out of place in a fast-food joint.

Seven dead at a Brown's Chicken restaurant in Palatine?

The news seemed too foreign to mesh with the suburban landscape. A gas leak, perhaps? Or a freakish grease fire. But murder? Why? It made no sense.

Killings where the victims were hanging with the wrong crowd, caught in a drug deal gone wrong or engaging in some stupid and dangerous activity tended to mitigate the horror of murder for us.

But there was no way to put such a spin on the killings of seven innocent people who simply were doing their jobs.

The crime created a new kind of panic. Parents didn't want their teenagers working at fast-food places. Malls hired extra security. When an early possible suspect turned out to be innocent, officials warned that a killer or killers were still at large.

The slaughter put Palatine on the map. Suburbanites vacationing in foreign lands would see the story on TV and think they surely misunderstood. The news footage of body bags being wheeled from the restaurant offered sad confirmation.

When the overwhelmed and often-criticized police couldn't find the killers, the crime became one of the most notorious mysteries in the suburbs, if not the nation.

News of an unrelated fast-food shooting or robbery in some far-flung state would fuel speculation that the gunmen had struck again.

The Brown's Chicken closed, became a dry cleaners, closed and was paved under to become part of the parking lot.

Life went on, but the mystery remained -- until two female friends of Degorski and Luna came forward nine years later to say that the men had told them about the killings shortly after they happened.

With Thursday's verdict, the families of all the victims have part of the answer to a question that has haunted them for 14 years.

The suburbs, and the nation, are different places today. We see the daily body counts in Iraq. We know the terror of surprise attacks that wipe out 3,000 people in minutes. We feel the pain of school shootings that slay dozens.

But what happened in that Brown's Chicken in 1993 always will occupy a sad part of the brains of those who were in the suburbs. And now, Thursday's guilty verdict will, too.