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'We can finally exhale'
Victims' families say �justice has been served, see no reason to celebrate
By Tara Malone and Erin Holmes | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/11/2007

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The families of seven people brutally killed on a cold January night 14 years ago sat with clasped hands united in grief.

The tears came before the verdict.

Jennifer Shilling bent over, holding her head in her hands, as jurors filed into the courtroom after deciding the fate of one of two men accused of murdering her mother and father in their Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant in Palatine.

Epifania Castro clasped her hands together in prayer, waiting to hear the fate of her son's alleged murderer.

Guilty. Juan Luna, the 33-year-old Carpentersville man accused of brutally slaying seven people in the most gruesome killing in Northwest suburban history, convicted of first-degree murder.

Twelve jurors -- nine men and three women -- deliberated for nearly eight hours in reaching the verdict. The victims' families had been waiting much longer.

"I'm glad we have justice for my family after 14 years. Fourteen years, it's been very hard for us," said Juan Maldonado.

Now 28, he was 13 when his father, Guadalupe Maldonado -- Lupe, to his friends -- was killed.

Maldonado would have picked up his first paycheck -- about $230 -- on Friday, Jan. 8, 1993. He'd planned to use the money to repay a loan to his brother for plane tickets that brought Maldonado, his wife and three sons to Palatine that Christmas.

The Maldonado boys sat in the courtroom every day of the two-week trial. They, along with friends and family of the other victims, filled four rows.

For 14 days, the familes lived in the past, said Shilling, the eldest daughter of Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt.

Her parents had sunk their life savings into the Brown's Chicken franchise in the spring of 1992. The Arlington Heights couple routinely dropped off leftover food at the workday's end at the Little Sisters of the Poor convent in Palatine.

This year would have marked their 43rd wedding anniversary.

"Today, we believe they are finally at peace knowing this is over," said Shilling, a Wisconsin state representative, reading from a statement after the court proceeding. "Our parents are gone, but our lives continue. We survive; we will continue to survive."

Yet the struggle for the Luna family is just beginning.

Shilling, speaking for all the victims' families, addressed about a dozen of Luna's family and friends who also came to court every day on his behalf.

"In many ways, you have lost a son, brother, husband and father," she said. "And your lives will be changed from this day forward. Your grieving has just begun."

Luna's parents -- Juan Sr. and Alicia -- sat surrounded by supporters. They, too, clasped hands as the jurors were led into the courtroom and the verdict that would decide their son's fate was read. They, too, wept silently as the victims' names were said aloud. They watched as Luna, sitting just a short distance away, took off his wire-rimmed glasses and wiped his eyes.

As he left the courtroom, Luna looked at his family and offered a small wave.

The Luna family did not comment as they filed toward their cars. Many in the group held onto one another as they walked, and shied away from the television cameras.

It was not a day for celebration, victims' family members said. No verdict, they said, can ever bring complete closure. Nothing can ever bring their loved ones back.

"It doesn't really help a lot," said Jessica Nellsen, whose father, Marcus, was among the victims. "I have grown up without a dad."

Marcus Nellsen, a former Navy cook, had worked his way up to de facto assistant manager and was on his way to officially becoming part of the Brown's management when he was killed. He had been scheduled to take a management training session days later.

Tom Mennes, also among those slain, often could be spotted riding his rickety black bike around Palatine. One coworker remembered him as "the nicest guy in the world."

"Justice is served," said Jade Solis, whose older brother, Rico, was among those killed. Rico had taken at job at the restaurant at the urging of his friend, Michael Castro, who dreamed of becoming a U.S. Marine. Solis, a 17-year-old Palatine High School student, had arrived from his native Philippines four months before his death.

"I've been waiting for this day," Jade Solis said.

The waiting will continue.

Jurors will reconvene Monday to decide the second phase of their deliberations: whether Luna will receive the death penalty, a sentence many of the victims' families said Thursday they support. Also ahead is the trial of Luna's high school pal, James Degorski, who is charged in connection with the slayings. Degorski has pleaded innocent.

Through it all, Juan Maldonado said, the victims' families will draw solace and strength from one another.

"We are like a big, huge family," Maldonado said as he stood with his wife, two brothers and mother. "We are just going to stay together."