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Now, should Brown's reward be paid?
Opinions split on if women deserve $140,000 for late tips
By Sara Faiwell | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/12/2007

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The killers of seven people at the Palatine Brown's Chicken have had a bounty of more than $100,000 on their heads since the vicious slayings in 1993.

Yet with Thursday's conviction of Juan Luna, it remains uncertain whether any of three women who helped crack the case - one of whom admits she kept quiet to protect the defendants - will see a dime of that purse.

The Palatine officials who set up the fund as authorities scoured the country for suspects say they haven't considered whether the women should get the money.

"People donated the money with the perception it would be paid to someone to come forward," said Palatine Councilman Jack Wagner, who spearheaded the collection. "I would imagine we have an obligation to look real carefully at the person or persons who were responsible for this."

Some donors have strong opinions that waiting nearly a decade to come forward should vacate any claim to the cash. The owner of the Brown's Chicken & Pasta chain, who has pledged $25,000 to the reward fund, holds that view.

"Do I think they deserve it? Hell, no," Frank Portillo scoffed.

Portillo had a separate reward fund of about $110,000 he collected through his stores and other donors, but he divided the money among the victims' families years ago when he thought the killers never would be found.

Luna was convicted Thursday after a 14-day trial and nearly 12 hours of jury deliberations. The jury will hear arguments next week on whether he should be executed for shooting to death the two owners of the Palatine restaurant and their five employees Jan. 8, 1993.

The man accused of being his accomplice, Jim Degorski, is being tried separately and also could face the death penalty if convicted. Degorski has pleaded not guilty.

On Friday, Wagner said a decision on the Palatine reward money likely won't come until Degorski is tried. His court date has not yet been set.

Once that trial is complete, the village will reconvene a committee to decide how to disburse the reward money, Wagner said.

In all, more than $140,000 has been pledged, Wagner said, including $93,000 in cash sitting in a village bank account, according to records.

But figuring out who should get the money may be tricky, he said.

Anne Lockett, Degorski's former girlfriend, came forward with her story in 2002, giving authorities their first indication the two men committed the crime. They were arrested shortly afterward. DNA and print evidence also tied Luna to the crime scene, and he gave a videotaped confession.

Lockett told police the men excitedly detailed the crime to her a few weeks after it was committed. She says Degorski threatened to kill her if she told police, but she dated him for another year and then spent about seven years traveling the country.

Lockett's best friend, Melissa Oberle, is credited with persuading her to step forward. Oberle made the first call to Palatine police after Lockett told her of the men's confession in 2002.

Witness Eileen Bakalla told police about her knowledge of the crime after Luna and Degorski were arrested. Bakalla testified she helped the two men divvy up cash stolen from Brown's the night of the killings.

Bakalla received a letter from prosecutors saying she didn't face criminal charges before testifying against Luna. Bakalla said she didn't want Degorski to go to jail because they were friends. In fact, she said that about two months before his arrest, they were on a vacation together with friends.

Wagner said that just because the women eventually came forward, that doesn't mean any of them will get the reward.

"We could return it to people," he said. "We could donate it."

More than 100 local people and businesses gave money to the reward fund.

Doctors at Northwest Community Hospital gave $15,000, $3,000 was collected from a restaurant in Florida, and $1,000 came from an unidentified donor in Wisconsin.

One of the contributors was local business Von Sydow's Moving & Storage in Palatine. Owner Brad Von Sydow gave $100 to the fund back then and now says no one should get the money besides the families.

"I absolutely don't think Lockett should get a dime," he said Friday. "She waited for nine years to turn him in. The poor families suffered for nine years."

Jerry Mennes, brother of victim Tom Mennes, agrees. The women, he says, waited "so long" to come forward with their story. The families could take the money and build a memorial to the victims, he said.

But Manny Castro, father of victim Michael Castro, disagrees.

"I think Lockett should get it. She's the one who started this thing. If she died before she talked, what would happen to us?" he said. "She got enough guts to go to the police. I think she should get it."

Oberle acknowledged she played a "vital role" in bringing about the arrests in a 2002 Daily Herald interview, but she said she wasn't "entitled" to any reward money.

At the time, however, she did say perhaps she would accept "maybe a small percentage" if it were offered, but she added that she would probably give some of it to an organization such as Crime Stoppers.

"I think Anne should get it. Anne did a lot of, you know, she did work. I didn't do any work. She did a sting, you know, got Jim on the phone," she said during the 2002 interview.

• Daily Herald staff writers Joseph Ryan, Erin Holmes and Tara Malone contributed to this report.