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Forensic scientist tells how she preserved DNA evidence
By Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/17/2007

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What's new:Forensic scientist Jane Homeyer testified about her decision to preserve a half-eaten chicken wing.

What's next:More prosecution witnesses

Two days after the Brown's chicken murders, a cash register receipt and a trash can gave investigators some hint as to what happened in the minutes leading up to the killings.

On the evening of January 8, 1993, a customer came in after closing and ordered a four-piece chicken meal. The dinner included French fries, coleslaw and a small drink, according to the receipt. The bill came to $6.69.

At 9:08 p.m., the customer indicated he would be dining inside the restaurant and handed over $10. Prosecutors say that customer was Juan Luna, one of two men accused of killing seven people inside the Palatine establishment. After eating the meal, police say Luna and his high school pal, Jim Degorski, killed the restaurant's two owners and five employees in a quest to "do something big."

The men, who are being tried separately, have pleaded not guilty to the charges. If convicted, both could face the death penalty. The discarded chicken dinner is the strongest piece of physical evidence linking Luna to the crime, prosecutors say. The remnants of the four-piece meal _ along with at least three other pieces of chicken _ were found in a trash can inside the restaurant two days after the murders.

DNA found on one of the bones matches Luna's, authorities say. That evidence is expected to be presented in coming days.

The crime scene investigator who preserved the register tape and chicken bones took the stand Monday during the second day of testimony in Luna's trial. Forensic scientist Jane Homeyer explained how she collected and inventoried evidence in the days after the murders. She told the jury she found the chicken in the bottom of a trash bin, along with French fries, coleslaw, uneaten biscuits, honey packets and a coffee stirrer.

The near-empty bag also had four used napkins, one of which contained a partial palm print. Four days after first discovering the discarded dinner, Homeyer placed the food in a freezer at the Northern Illinois Crime Lab. Until that time, she said, the meal had sat at room temperature. Homeyer acknowledged under defense questioning that DNA can erode if not properly frozen.

Though law-enforcement officials hailed Homeyer as a hero after Luna's arrest because of her decision to save the chicken dinner, the defense used her testimony to highlight police errors in the case. Though she always wore proper protection while at the crime scene or while handling evidence, Homeyer testified some investigators inside the restaurant did not wear gloves.

Luna's lawyers reinforced her statement by showing jurors a picture of a Palatine police officer inside the restaurant without his hands covered.

After finding a partial, left-palm print on a used napkin, Homeyer received copies of finger and palm prints taken from former Brown's employees _ including Luna's, who had worked there during high school and knew the owners.

In February 1993, Luna gave his finger and right-palm prints to the police who were trying to rule out suspects in the case. However, authorities did not take his left palm print - an omission that prevented Homeyer from striking him from the suspects' list 14 years ago. Homeyer said she notified authorities of the oversight and noted it in a report, but she left the department before the matter was resolved.

"I know I reported it out," said Homeyer, who now works for the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. "I'm sure I would have placed a personal phone call."

Police did not connect Luna to the partial palm print until after his 2002 arrest, according to court records. The frozen food and coffee stirrer eventually were sent to a DNA lab in March 1994, at the urging of an expert hired to review the case. Though the evidence was not shipped on dry ice, it was frozen upon arrival at the laboratory, witnesses testified.

The DNA researcher who handled the evidence testified Monday that he tested only one chicken bone and the coffee stirrer back then. As part of the process, he attempted to extract the DNA from the items by soaking them in a chemical solution. The move produced nothing from the stirrer and roughly 2 nanograms of DNA from the chicken, which at the time was not enough to determine its makeup.

"Any evidence in the case was not going to come from this sample," researcher Rich Cunningham testified Monday.

The process, however, stripped the chicken bone and the coffee stirrer of any DNA, making them useless to law-enforcement officials. Cunningham threw out both pieces of evidence but sent the untested food items back to Palatine police in 1995.Luna was linked to another chicken bone from the discarded meal years later with the help of more advanced DNA testing, prosecutors say. Jurors appeared to lose interest in the dry, often tedious, scientific evidence as the day progressed Monday.

At one point, Cook County Judge Vincent Michael Gaughan stopped the trial and chastised a juror for falling asleep.

Prosecutors began the day just as they had on Friday, with a victim's family member discussing the last time he saw his loved one alive. Each of the victims _ Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, Guadalupe Maldonado, Michael Castro, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis - is expected to be remembered this way during the trial.

On Monday, Robert Mennes talked about sharing dinner and watching a movie with his younger brother, Tom, the night before the murders. The next time he saw his sibling was at the Cook County morgue, he said. After his testimony, Mennes told reporters he has mixed emotions about the listening to the trial.

"Some of it's disturbing," he said. "Some of it's educational."

sstclair@dailyherald.com