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Sergeant concedes Palatine police "got an innocent man to confess"
By Stacy St. Clair and Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/3/2007

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What's new: Police sergeant testifies to taking a detailed statement from a suspect in 1999. The defense wraps up its case.

What's next: The judge will review whether the Illinois State Police Crime Lab complied with an order to turn over all data related to the case.

Prosecutors shredded a confession made by another suspect in the Brown's Chicken case Wednesday in an attempt to prove only Juan Luna has truthfully implicated himself in the murders.

In doing so, however, a veteran officer was forced to concede Palatine police were capable of getting an innocent man to confess. The defense hopes that admission will cast doubts on the veracity of Luna's own videotaped statement, taken shortly after his May 2002 arrest.

After nearly four days of testimony, the defense wrapped up its case with a 13-minute video in which Johnathan Simonek, then 22, says he and a friend killed seven people inside the restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993.

Prosecutors, however, attacked the police department's handling of the statement, suggesting investigators either fed Simonek details of the massacre or promised him something in return for confessing. Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Scott Cassidy pointed to Simonek's robotic-sounding voice and the coaching he received from the detective conducting the interview as reasons to doubt the confession's veracity.

In attacking the integrity of the biggest investigation in Northwest suburban history, the prosecution left itself vulnerable to defense claims of improprieties in the Luna case.

"Are you telling me that a perfectly innocent person in the custody of the Palatine Police Department can confess to a crime that he absolutely did not commit?" defense attorney Clarence Burch asked Palatine Sgt. Steve Bratcher on the stand.

"Yes," Bratcher replied, sending a slight rumble through the courtroom gallery.

Palatine police declined comment on Bratcher's testimony. Simonek could not be reached Wednesday.

Neither Simonek nor the friend he implicated in the crimes was charged with the killings. No physical evidence links either man to the scene, prosecutors say.

Bratcher testified he videotaped Simonek's statement shortly after midnight on Aug. 6, 1999. At that time, Simonek was under arrest for the murders and had been taken into custody roughly 15 hours earlier.

Bratcher, the son of then-Palatine Police Chief Jerry Bratcher, testified he assisted other Palatine officers in Simonek's arrest in Plainfield but was told not to tell his supervisor or another sergeant involved in the case about the arrest. Simonek drove back to the police station with Palatine police Sgt. Jack Byrnes and Jim Bell, the man tapped to lead a task force looking into the crime.

When the law-enforcement officials got back to the station, Bratcher testified he saw Byrnes and a weepy Simonek hugging. The embrace lasted at least a minute, he said.

At the time, authorities had previously spoken to Simonek on at least four separate occasions. Bell also had been advised that Simonek had an attorney and was told not to contact the suspect again without permission from prosecutors, Assistant Cook County State's Attorney John Dillon testified.

Despite the order, Bratcher and other detectives interviewed Simonek for several hours before taking his written statement around 9:50 p.m. Shortly after midnight, Bratcher videotaped another statement while Detective Keith Kirkpatrick asked questions.

Bratcher testified he never saw nor heard other officers feed information about the crime scene to Simonek. Still, he said he had doubts about the Palatine man's truthfulness, in part because Simonek used police jargon and changed his story several times. Like Luna, Simonek used terms such as "east door" and "west freezer" to describe various locations in the restaurant.

"I had big concerns about it at the time," testified Bratcher, who joined the case a few days before recording the statement. He had not been involved with Simonek's earlier interviews.

When prosecutors implied investigators -- including Bell, Byrnes and Kirkpatrick -- fed information to Simonek, Bratcher said nothing to dispel the notion. Under defense questioning, however, he acknowledged he did not witness any wrongdoing.

"I don't know what happened in those previous interrogations," he said. "I'm not suggesting anything."

Bratcher says he never wrote the concerns down and he did not call his supervisor that night to discuss his misgivings.

He testified his doubts stemmed from Simonek's frequent revisions to his story. For example, he said in earlier interviews that the murder weapon was an automatic pistol, but later changed it to a revolver -- the type of weapon used in the killings.

When Simonek describes a revolver on the videotape, Kirkpatrick can be heard saying "perfect" after he finishes.

"That is not something you would typically do in an interview," Bratcher testified.

Prosecutor Dillon also testified Simonek gave him five different versions of the crime during a 1998 interview, including a "vision statement" in which he used mental images to figure out what happened that night.

As Luna did in his confession, Simonek describes himself as a surprised accomplice in one of the goriest slayings in suburban Chicago history. Dressed in a T-shirt and speaking in a monotone voice, Simonek describes how his friend opened fire on the seven victims.

He also marks a diagram of the restaurant during the interview, showing investigators his various moves throughout the crime scene. Though the murders happened five years earlier and Simonek never worked at Brown's, he barely glanced at the diagram before entering marks upon Kirkpatrick's request.

On the video, Simonek says his accomplice ordered a meal shortly after entering the restaurant. When he finished eating, Simonek said, his friend pulled out a gun.

"It scared the hell out of me," he said.

The friend ordered the victims into the west freezer, then commanded Simonek to take two of them to the east cooler, Simonek says. While on the other side of the restaurant, Simonek said, he heard gunfire coming from the freezer.

"I started freaking out," he said. "I didn't know what he was doing."

Simonek told police that his friend ordered him to kill the two people inside the cooler. He states on the video that he shot one of them when that person escaped from the refrigeration unit.

He admitted firing another shot into the cooler but said he wasn't sure if he hit anyone because he couldn't see through the plastic strips covering the entrance. A strip recovered from the crime scene contains a bullet hole, though that fact was never released to the public.

Simonek told police he helped his friend carry one of the victims into the cooler and they placed the body so it faced east. Brown's employee Thomas Mennes was found lying that way at the crime scene.

After leaving the cooler, Simonek said his friend returned to the freezer where he stabbed two or three dead bodies. He describes on the tape how the man pumped his arms up and down while he knifed the victims.

Restaurant co-owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt and employee Michael Castro were found with stab wounds. Though both sides agree Castro suffered the knife wound after his death, they have divergent opinions on when Ehlenfeldt's throat was slit.

Two medical examiners have testified it happened before the fatal gunshot wound to the back of the head, in keeping with Luna's statement to police. A defense expert, however, said the cut was made after a bullet pierced her brain.

Like Luna, Simonek accepted an offer to express his regret about the killings at the end of the recording.

"I'm sorry it happened," Simonek says on the tape. "I wish I never met (the accomplice) and I never became friends with him. I wish now this would be over. I don't want anything else to do with this."

Luna's 43-minute videotaped confession is among the most damning evidence against the 33-year-old Carpentersville man. Prosecutors also say they can link Luna to the crime though DNA and a partial palm print found on evidence discovered in a restaurant garbage can.

The defense has spent all 12 days of the trial chipping away at the evidence with help from witnesses who testified about possible DNA contamination, lost evidence and breaks from police procedure.

Luna's attorneys added more ammunition to their arsenal Wednesday, when an Illinois State Police Crime Lab employee testified the office was in possession of a data disk that had been previously sought by the defense. Attorneys on both sides were under the impression that the disk could not be located.

Clearly upset about the revelation, Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan did not let forensic scientist Jamie Gibson continue her testimony. He ordered her to return to court today and instructed attorneys to find out why the information had just been revealed.

The prosecution will continue calling rebuttal witnesses this morning.

Prosecutors allege Luna and his high school pal Jim Degorski killed seven people: owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Rico Solis, Guadalupe Maldonado, Marcus Nellsen and Thomas Mennes.

Luna and Degorski are being tried separately and have both pleaded not guilty.

They could face the death penalty if convicted.