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Jury watches videotaped confession
By STACY ST. CLAIR | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/26/2007

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When the first gunshot rang out that night 14 years ago inside the Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta, Juan Luna says, he assured the seven people inside that they would be fine if they obeyed his orders.

"Everyone get down on the floor and no one will get hurt," he told them.

But as Luna admits in a chilling videotape played at his murder trial Wednesday, the evening ended much differently than promised.

Less than 40 minutes after being ordered to the ground, he says, those same seven people were fatally shot in one of the bloodiest crimes in suburban Chicago history.

Authorities allege Luna, who once worked at the restaurant, and his high school buddy Jim Degorski killed the restaurant's five employees and two owners on Jan. 8, 1993.

The men, who are being tried separately, have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

Though Luna now maintains his innocence and his lawyers say someone else also confessed, he provided a bullet-by-bullet account of his involvement hours after his May 2002 arrest. The confession, conducted by a Cook County prosecutor, was played inside a dimmed Chicago courtroom Wednesday.

The 43-minute video kept some jurors perched on the edges of their seats, but Luna, now 33, showed no discernible emotion as he watched.

On the tape, Luna says the two friends initially intended a robbery, but things quickly spiraled out of his control. He admits to slicing restaurant owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat but blames Degorski for the shootings.

A medical examiner later ruled all seven deaths were caused by fatal gunshot wounds. Lynn Ehlenfeldt's knifing, however, was a contributing factor in her death, court records show.

Dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt on the tape, Luna says he and Degorski had half-heartedly talked of committing a robbery in January 1993. Luna suggested Brown's Chicken & Pasta, where he had worked as a cook for several years during high school.

He knew the building's layout and that the owners kept no guns on the premises, he says. He suggested robbing the place at closing time, when only a few people would be there and the safe would be filled with that day's revenues.

"I picked it because it would be easy," he says. "I knew the doors didn't have no alarms ... it'd be simple."

On Jan 8, 1993, the two decided to breathe life into their scheme, Luna says. Degorski laid out a detailed plan for the robbery, which included Luna guarding the doors while Degorski took the money, he says.

Luna drove the duo to a lot behind the restaurant so as not to call attention to his black Ford Tempo, he says. As they entered Brown's, Luna made sure to cover his hand with his sweater when he opened the door.

"I didn't want nobody to find my fingerprints because I'd be caught," he says on the tape.

Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49, greeted the two from the counter. She recognized Luna, who had worked briefly for her, but she did not seem to recall his name, he says. She served him a chicken dinner, which cash register receipts show was purchased at 9:08 p.m. Luna says he ate the meal, then threw the trash in the garbage.

DNA discovered on those half-eaten chicken bones and a partial palm print left on a discarded napkin link Luna to the crime, prosecutors say.

Luna says he next slipped on latex gloves and walked over to 17-year-old Rico Solis, a relatively new worker who was mopping the floor, and told him to go back in the kitchen. Solis seemed puzzled by the command, Luna says, until Degorski fired a shot and announced the robbery.

"He (Solis) knew things were going to be real serious," he says.

From that moment, Luna portrays himself on the tape as a somewhat surprised accomplice. He insists he only intended a robbery, but Degorski deviated from that plan when chicken breader Thomas Mennes attempted to escape.

Mennes, 32, first tried going out the employee exit, but the would-be robbers had placed a wooden wedge underneath it before entering the restaurant. When the door didn't open, Mennes tried to vault over the front counter.

Degorski responded by shooting him in the back, Luna says.

"I heard the person say, 'Oh, I've been shot and crying in pain," Luna says on the tape.

Degorski took Mennes back to the restaurant's cooler and ordered co-owner Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, to go inside, as well, Luna says. Luna then heard several gunshots coming from the refrigeration unit.

After the first shootings, Luna says Degorski herded the remaining employees into the freezer. Solis went first, followed by 16-year-old cashier Michael Castro and cook Guadalupe Maldonado, 47.

Assistant manager Marcus Nellsen, 31, attempted to escape, but Luna says he stopped him with a "karate stand." At that point on the tape, Luna gets up and demonstrates the move for Cook County assistant state's attorney Darren O'Brien.

Luna says he pushed Nellsen and asked him to obey their orders.

"Hey, don't do this," Luna recalls saying. "Cooperate and just go in the freezer."

While Luna was trying to restore order, he says, Degorski came up and whacked Nellsen on the head with the butt of the revolver. Prosecutors allege that blow caused the skull fracture found during Nellsen's autopsy.

"He was kinda like drowsy, like kind of unconscious (after getting hit)," Luna says of Nellsen. "His feet were wobbly."

Degorski then handed his friend a pocket knife, Luna says, and ordered him to watch Lynn Ehlenfeldt, who was still lying on the floor near the cash registers. Luna ordered her to open the safe, he says.

On the video, Luna mimics how the 49-year-old Ehlenfeldt's hand trembled as she tried unlock it.

"With everybody going all wild and crazy, I guess I just got caught up in it and cut her throat," Luna says on the tape, making a slashing motion across his neck with a pen. "She was laying on the floor. She started gargling and ran out of breath."

Degorski then dragged Ehlenfeldt's body across the floor toward the freezer, leaving massive amounts of blood in his wake, Luna says.

After dumping Ehlenfeldt's body in the back, Luna says, Degorski began mopping the bloody floor. Luna, meanwhile, took the revolver and says he fired a warning shot into the freezer.

"They were yelling, 'Don't shoot us. Please don't shoot us,' " Luna says. "Their hands were shaking, too."

Degorski then took over and fired "a bunch of" shots into the freezer, Luna says. As Luna flipped the circuit breaker to darken the restaurant, he says, Degorski poked the victims with a broomstick and kicked them in the face to make sure they were dead.

The two men left the building together. When they got back to Luna's Tempo, he says he couldn't drive.

"At that time, I was just so shook up and scared and nervous, I didn't know what to think," he says. "He (Degorski) ended up driving my car."

Luna says he wasn't with Degorski when his friend got rid of the knife and gun used in the murders. He assumed Degorski had disposed of both weapons.

Before the tape ends, Luna accepts a chance to apologize for the highly publicized crimes. In a slightly wavering voice, he acknowledges the pain he has caused.

"A lot of people have been hurt by this, and my family is going to be hurt by this also," he says on the tape.

He says he would never commit such a heinous act again.

"Well, I know I can't change time no more and I can't bring people back," Luna says. "I feel so sad, and I'm so sorry."

Police records confirm Luna never committed a crime as horrific as the Brown's murders after January 1993. At the time of his 2002 arrest, he was working as an appliance deliveryman and living in Carpentersville with his wife and 4-year-old son.

Before the trial, Luna's defense team tried to prevent the tape from being shown to the jury. They argued Luna, who already was in pain from an injured ankle, had been roughed up before the interview.

They also say that Luna was worried about the whereabouts of his 4-year-old son, Brian, who was in the car with him at the time of his arrest. They contend Luna would have said anything to be reunited with his child.

Luna's attorneys also argue police fed him key details about the crime. The defendant testified in a pretrial hearing that he repeatedly asked for a lawyer, but investigators - who he claimed punched, shoved and slapped him - said they only wanted Degorski, not him.

On the video, however, Luna states that he was treated well by police, having been offered sausage pizza, bottled water and pop. He also says he gave the statement voluntarily, waiving both his right to an attorney and to remain silent.

The defense will present evidence of a similarly detailed confession, which included facts only the killer would know, from another person whom police dismissed as a suspect.

The prosecution is expected to rest today, after eight days of testimony.

sstclair@dailyherald.com

What's new:Jurors viewed a videotape in which Juan Luna admits to taking part in the Brown's chicken murders.

What's next:Prosecutors are expected to officially rest their case this morning. Defense begins.