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Woman: I didn't want friend to get in trouble over Brown's killings
By Stacy St. Clair and Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/18/2007

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What's new:Former Degorski friend Eileen Bakalla testifies about waiting nine years to talk to police about the murders.

What's next: More prosecution witnesses.

From the moment a teenage Eileen Bakalla met classmate Juan Luna, he rubbed her the wrong way.

"I just never liked him," Bakalla, one of the prosecution's star witnesses in the Brown's Chicken murder trial, testified Tuesday. "He gave me the heebie-jeebies."

Bakalla, however, didn't dislike Luna enough to turn him into police after she says he and mutual friend Jim Degorski told her they killed seven people inside the Palatine restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993.

Instead, she testified that she kept their secret for nine years until being confronted by police after Luna's 2002 arrest. She talked to authorities at that time, she said, only after receiving a letter of immunity from prosecutors.

Prosecutors contend Luna, a former Brown's employee, and 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.

Had she offered such information to police nearly a decade earlier, Bakalla might have provided a much-needed break in the horrific case - and perhaps provided comfort to the victims' relatives - but she appeared unrepentant on the stand Tuesday. Wearing a floral print dress and a glittery cross around her neck, she said she was worried about the consequences for both herself and Degorski if she came forward.

"I was scared about what would happen to me, what would happen to my friend (Degorski) who I cared for very much so," she said in a videotaped deposition shown to jurors.

Bakalla, now 34, testified she picked up Luna and Degorski at a Carpentersville supermarket the night of the murders and noticed green rubber gloves in Luna's car. She drove to her Elgin townhouse where she says the trio smoked marijuana and split the money the men said they had robbed from Brown's.

Degorski gave Bakalla $50, a gesture she said was meant to repay an earlier loan. Luna and Degorski split more than $1,000, she said.

Police have said Bakalla, then a waitress at a Hoffman Estates pizza joint, used the money to buy shoes. She acknowledged during defense questioning that she and Degorski went shopping at a Kenosha, Wis., outlet mall in the days after the murders.

She also testified she did not notice any blood on the men's clothing or on their skin the night of the killings. There were no stains left on her couch or in her car, either, she said.

A few hours after hanging out at her townhouse and smoking marijuana, Bakalla said, she dropped Luna at his car and then drove past the restaurant with Degorski. She saw the ambulances and police squads but said she did not feel compelled to share her insider information with authorities.

She testified she does not remember feeling conflicted or guilty about her silence.

"I don't recall how I felt," she said under intense defense questioning.

Bakalla spent that night with Degorski, with whom she had an occasionally intimate relationship. The next evening, she accompanied Degorski while he cleaned Luna's black Ford Tempo at a Streamwood car wash, even though she now says she knew the men had just written one of the bloodiest chapters in suburban Chicago history.

Bakalla testified she did it to protect Degorski, a high school pal and former co-worker whom she had known for four years. The two hung out almost every day at Degorski's house, where Bakalla said they smoked pot in his basement bedroom or garage.

"He was still my friend regardless of what he had done," said Bakalla, who now works as a supermarket cashier in the suburbs.

In the days after the murders, Bakalla said Luna described to her how he slit Brown's owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat after Ehlenfeldt opened the restaurant safe.

"It was almost like he was bragging about what he had done," she said. "He smiled about it."

Though Degorski and Bakalla stopped seeing each other as frequently after the murders, they stayed in monthly contact. She accompanied him and Luna in 1995 to the Palatine police station, where she served as Luna's alibi the night of the murders.

As part of standard procedures, law-enforcement officials had interviewed Luna and other ex-employees in the weeks after the slayings. At that time, Luna told authorities he had spent the entire evening with an ex-girlfriend named Eileen, according to court records. Luna said he could not remember his former flame's last name, police reports say.

During her meeting with investigators in 1995, Bakalla repeated that same story. She testified Tuesday that she had not considered fingering Luna or Degorski during police questioning because she feared retaliation.

Both men told her to keep her mouth shut, Bakalla testified, though neither threatened physical harm.

"I was scared what they would do to my family," she said.

Those fears, however, did not stop Bakalla from remaining close to Degorski. Though they grew apart in the months after the killings, the two renewed their tight-knit friendship in the late 1990s and remained close after he moved to Indianapolis.

They even went on vacation together with a group of friends in April 2002 - a month before Degorski was charged with the killings.

She and Luna, however, did not stay in touch after she provided his alibi, Bakalla said. The two last saw each other in the late 1990s.

Luna, now 33, eventually moved to Carpentersville, where he was living with his wife and 4-year-old son at the time of his arrest.

After Bakalla's testimony, prosecutors ushered her out a private exit so she would not have to face the media throng waiting for her. No other witnesses - including the victims' families - have received such special protection thus far.

Prosecutors are expected to take several weeks presenting their case, which includes DNA evidence found on half-eaten chicken pieces at the scene and a taped confession from Luna. In addition to Bakalla, their star witnesses include Ann Lockett, Degorski's former girlfriend.

Lockett is expected to testify Degorski told her about the murders and threatened to kill her if she went to the police. She came forward with her story in 2002, a move that eventually led to the men's arrest.

Bakalla testified Lockett was an acquaintance who used hard drugs. Though both women were sleeping with Degorski, the two had no problems with each other, she said.

In earlier testimony Tuesday, retired Arlington Heights officer Ronald Sum discussed interviewing Luna as part of the investigation on Feb. 17, 1993.

Sum, however, failed to take Luna's left palm print, which prosecutors now say matches a partial print found at the crime scene. Sum also wasn't directed to follow up on Luna's alibi - that he was with his ex-girlfriend all night - even though Luna could not remember her last name during the interrogation.

Luna's defense team drilled Sum about the interview and his apparently lax paperwork procedures. An aggravated Sum told attorney Mark Lyon that he wasn't even sure he had interviewed Luna until he was shown the paperwork he apparently filled out.

During his four months on the task force, Sum said he interviewed more than 100 people and that he wasn't instructed to bring questionable witnesses to the attention of higher-ups. He was only to fill out the paperwork and file it, Sum said.

No one checked out Luna's odd alibi until 1995, according to testimony Tuesday.

Law-enforcement officials could not locate the original copy of Sum's report, though they found the fingerprints he took and the Polaroid picture he shot of Luna.

In an effort to prevent the trial from becoming bogged down by police procedure and losing its emotional punch, the prosecution is spending 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.

On Tuesday, Jade Solis testified about passing her 17-year-old brother in the high school hallway on Jan. 8, 1993. When Rico didn't return home from work at 10 p.m. that evening, her concerned mother tried to file a missing persons report but was told the teen hadn't been missing long enough.

After worrying all night, her mother called police again in the morning and they sent a Cook County sheriff deputy to pick her up. Jade Solis turned on the radio at home.

"I had heard on the radio that seven people were murdered at Brown's Chicken in Palatine," she said her voice slightly cracking. "I knew that it was over."

Later that day, her mother returned and "was hysterical," Jade Solis said.

"She was just screaming, 'He's gone. Rico's dead," she said.

sstclair@dailyherald.com

jryan@dailyherald.com