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Former friend of suspect testifies about waiting 9 years to talk to police
By Joseph Ryan and Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/17/2007

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

"I just didn't like him," she testified Tuesday afternoon as one of the prosecution's star witnesses in the murder trial against Luna for the 1993 Brown's Chicken massacre. "He gave me a wrong feeling."

Bakalla told police in 2002, after Luna's arrest, that she helped him and her friend Jim Degorski divvy up the cash stolen from Brown's in the early morning hours after the two men allegedly killed seven workers at the Palatine restaurant. Degorski is also charged with the murders and will face trial separately.

Bakalla, now 34, recounted on the witness stand Tuesday how Luna told her of cutting owner Lynn Ehlenfeld's throat after Ehlenfeld opened the safe.

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

Bakalla also told the jury that she picked up Luna and Degorski at a Jewel in Carpentersville after she got off work at Jake's Pizza in Hoffman Estates that bloody night. She said she saw green latex gloves in Luna's black Ford Tempo and a canvass money bag filled with more than $1,000.

Later at her Elgin home, the three smoked pot and Degorski gave her $50 from the stolen cash to cover a loan. Police have said she used that money to buy shoes. Before daylight, she said she and Degorski drove by the Brown's Chicken.

Bakalla said she stayed friends with Degorski for years, having even gone on a vacation with him and a group of friends a few months before his 2002 arrest. She said she didn't stay friends with Luna, who she last saw around 1996.

Luna's defense team is cross-examining Bakalla this afternoon.

Prosecutors allege Degorski and Luna, a former Brown's employee, shot and killed five of the restaurant's workers and its two owners on Jan. 8, 1993, in a quest to "do something big." After writing the most violent chapter in Northwest suburban Chicago history, the defendants returned to unassuming lives and kept their actions a secret for nine years, police say.

Luna was living in Carpentersville with his wife and 4-year-old son at the time of his arrest. Degorski was working as a repairman in Indianapolis.

If convicted, both men could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors are expected to take several weeks presenting their case. Another of their star witnesses is Ann Lockett, Deogrski's former girlfriend, who says he told her about the murders and threatened to kill her if she went to police. She came forward with her story in 2002 and both men were arrested shortly afterward when DNA on some chicken bones at the scene and a palm print were matched to Luna.

Luna gave a videotaped confession of the crime, but his defense attorneys say it was made up because he was in pain and wanted to see his son after 19 hours of interrogation.

Luna's defense team also says Bakalla and Lockett are lying drug users. They say the DNA and palm print evidence is unreliable.

The defense team's case will be bolstered by the not-insignificant weaknesses of the prosecution, namely that the police work surrounding the murders often has been criticized as sloppy and ineffective.

On Tuesday, retired Arlington Heights officer Ronald Sum testified that he interviewed Luna a month after the killings as part of the investigation. Luna was picked because he had worked at Brown's until June in 1992.

But Sum failed to take a left palm print - he took a print from the right palm - that prosecutors said in 2002 matched a napkin at the scene. He also wasn't directed to follow up on Luna's alibi: that he was with Bakalla the night of the murders.

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

Over 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 to only fill out the paperwork and file it in a box, Sum said.

Bakalla testified that it wasn't until 1995 that she was called in to verify Luna's alibi. She said she went to the Palatine station with both men, and lied to officers that they were together all night.

In an effort to prevent the trial from becoming bogged down by scientific evidence 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 the morning after the murders, when she first found out her 17-year-old brother was killed at work. After worrying all night, her mother called police in the morning and they sent a Cook County sheriff 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," Jade Solis told the jury.

She was 14 years old at the time.