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Famed crime scientist says half-eaten meal was immediate clue
By Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/18/2007

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When he first reviewed evidence in the Brown's Chicken murders 14 years ago, famed forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee knew a half-eaten chicken meal would prove invaluable.

His hunch made him a key expert witness today in the case against Juan Luna, one of two men charged with killing seven people at the Palatine restaurant.

Lee was hired as a consultant in the case in 1994 after leads had grown cold. He reviewed the evidence, including crime scene photographs, police procedures and materials collected. Among the issues he found was the four-piece meal, which was purchased at 9:08 p.m. on Jan. 8, 1993, the last known transaction at the restaurant.

Pieces of the meal were the only remnants found in a trash container at the crime scene. Lee noted that it seemed suspicious that the vast majority of the meal - including at least three untouched pieces of chicken, two uneaten biscuits, unopened honey containers and more than three dozen french fries- had gone uneaten.

If a person were hungry enough to buy a full meal after or near the store's closing why didn't he or she eat it?

"If someone goes there hungry to eat, they should eat it," Lee testified. "That person is either an important witness or a suspect."

Lee, who became the country's best-known forensic scientist after his testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial, suggested the meal be sent out for testing. The entire meal was sent to a Connecticut laboratory where a DNA sample was taken but proved too small to produce any results.

Advances in DNA research however, made it possible to test portions of the meal a few years later, he said. Investigators say those results connect Luna to the half-eaten chicken meal and thus the crime.

In an effort to prevent the trial from becoming bogged down by police procedure and losing its emotional punch, the prosecution spends time each day focusing on one of the seven victims: Michael Castro, Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

Wednesday, prosecutors called Schaumburg resident Diane Clayton, Nellson's mother. Clayton told jurors how she called Palatine police after learning there had been a shooting at the restaurant. Her son, a navy veteran, was a manager trainee there.

"He [the officer] said, 'Ma'am are you sitting down?' " Clayton recalled. "He didn't have to say anything else,"

Prosecutors contend Luna, a former Brown's employee, and his high school pal Jim Degorski fatally shot the restaurant's two owners and five workers in an attempt to "do something big." Both men have pleaded not guilty to the crime and are being tried separately.

If convicted, they could face the death penalty.