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Prosecution calls confession by another man blatantly coerced
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/2/2007

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Prosecutors Wednesday ripped apart a 1999 confession from a man other than defendant Juan Luna in the Brown's Chicken murder trial, labeling it blatantly coerced.

But in doing so, they walked a fine line on the defense's contention that Palatine police forced Luna to confess to the worst mass murder in suburban history, conducting a 19-hour interrogation and promising they would pin the whole crime on alleged accomplice Jim Degorski.

"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 after the jury saw a 12-minute videotaped confession taken from John Simonek.

The defense ended its side of the case this afternoon. Burch walked a fine line himself in Bratcher's questioning, allowing the prosecution to discredit the confession as forced, but also maintaining that it could have been true.

Bratcher, son of former Palatine Police Chief Jerry Bratcher, participated in the arrest of Simonek in August 1999 at the orders of his superiors, who had interviewed Simonek at least four times over the previous year. Simonek was interrogated by the younger Bratcher and other detectives for about 12 hours before he signed a written confession. The next morning Bratcher recorded the videotaped confession as another officer asked the questions.

Bratcher said he never saw or heard other officers feed information about the crime scene to Simonek. But he said he thought the confession was questionable, in part, because Simonek used 'police jargon' and described locations in the restaurant by their directions, like east or west.

"I had big concerns about it at the time," said Bratcher, who also acknowledged that he never put those concerns in writing to superiors. Luna also used terms like east and west to describe locations in his confession.

Bratcher also said Simonek "would change his story frequently" during interrogation. For example, Simonek said in early interviews that the murder weapon was an automatic pistol, but later changed that to a revolver - the type of weapon used to shoot and kill the seven victims on Jan. 8, 1993.

Simonek also allegedly said early on that he shot at a frying pan hanging on the wall, and then later said it was a fryer hood, where a bullet dent was actually found at the crime scene.

At one point, Bratcher said he saw one officer hug Simonek for longer than a minute as the suspect wept.

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

Simonek, who blamed most of the killings on an accomplice, was never charged with the crime. Cook County state's attorneys declined to prosecute, presumably because of a lack of evidence. No physical evidence is known to tie Simonek to the crime scene.

Luna's 43-minute videotaped confession is perhaps the most damning evidence against the 33-year-old from Carpentersville. The prosecution also says garbage from what is believed to be the last meal ordered that night contained Luna's DNA and palm print. Plus, two old high school friends testified that Luna and Degorski told them of the crimes shortly after they carried them out in a quest to "do something big."

The defense has chipped away at this other evidence, putting on an expert who says the DNA evidence was botched, disputing the palm print and accusing the witnesses of being too drugged out to remember the statements.

The prosecution will begin its rebuttal this afternoon. The victims include owners Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 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.

jryan@dailyherald.com