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Brown's tipster tells her story
Lee Filas | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/29/2007

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First published: September 23, 2002

It seemed a normal enough phone call at first.

It was about 5 p.m. on a weekday. Police would later pinpoint the date as March 25.

Melissa, 27, who has asked that her last name not be published, has never spoken publicly about that call, which wound up leading to arrests in the 1993 Brown's Chicken & Pasta murders of seven workers. She recently agreed to tell her story to the Daily Herald.

At the time of the call, Melissa was at home paying bills, trying to get through them in time for dinner.On the other end of the line was Anne Lockett, an old Fremd High School friend who now lived in Charleston.

"It wasn't unusual that she called," said Melissa, who chatted by phone with Lockett, 27, a few times a year to catch up on gossip. "I had left her a message on her machine probably two or three weeks before. ...So I thought she was just returning my phone call."

But the conversation quickly took an unusual turn.

"The reason Anne was calling me was to ask me if I would forward an anonymous letter to the police for her," Melissa said.

At first, Melissa said, Lockett wouldn't say anything more about the letter, telling her only in general terms that she had information about a crime.

The letter would provide police with those details while keeping Lockett safely anonymous. She needed Melissa, of suburban Chicago, to mail it so it wouldn't have a Charleston postmark, Melissa believes.

Curious, Melissa persisted in asking questions. After about 15 minutes, Lockett started to crack.

"She goes, 'Do you remember when I told you, like, a dozen times before, if anybody called looking for me, to tell them you don't know where I'm at?' I'm like, yeah, and I thought nothing of it. I thought maybe, you know, there's a creditor looking for Anne," Melissa said.

It wasn't a creditor Lockett was avoiding, Melissa said, but Jim Degorski, another former Fremd student and Lockett's ex-boyfriend.

Degorski and another former Fremd student, Juan Luna, had committed the murders, Lockett finally told her, Melissa said.Stunned, Melissa reached for her cigarettes to calm her nerves. She would smoke six in the next half hour.

"I never thought that I would get so close to it," Melissa said.Within 10 to 15 minutes of hanging up with Lockett, Melissa estimates, she called police.

The friendship

The road that led Melissa and Anne Lockett to this point had begun, like many friendships, in high school.

The first week of freshman year, the two bonded in gym class when they began poking fun at a classmate who was passing notes.

From there, the two began hanging out nearly every day and shared a locker.

The friendship continued through high school, only taking time off, Melissa said, when either one met a new boyfriend, as was the case when Lockett started her relationship with Degorski in 1992.Melissa said Lockett met Degorski when he dated one of Lockett's and Melissa's other friends.Melissa found him controlling, and Degorski wasn't fond of her either. He steered Lockett away from her, Melissa said.Because of the conflict, Melissa lost touch with her friend during their senior year of high school.

Separate lives

It was during this separation that the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murders were committed.

Like most Palatine residents at the time, Melissa remembers the event well, and she shared the revulsion the community felt.

Then the case hit even closer to home. Shortly after the murders, police arrested Melissa's friend, Martin E. Blake.Police eventually released him. When they did, Melissa said she and her sister went to the police station to pick him up.Blake, reached by phone at his Texas home, said he can't remember who picked him up that day, but conceded it's possible it was Melissa. He did confirm his friendship with Melissa, however.Melissa thought she would never have to deal with the murders up close and personal again.She was wrong.

The fearAfter Lockett and Degorski split up in 1994, Melissa renewed the friendship with Lockett. However, they never became as close as they had been in high school.

That distance kept Lockett from telling Melissa about how her life had come to be ruled by fear of Degorski, who regularly called Lockett, Melissa later found out.

Police have said Degorski threatened to kill Lockett if she talked.What's more, Melissa said, Degorksi kept reminding Lockett he knew where she was.

"He always seemed to find her wherever she moved to. She moved a lot. You know, across the country. I didn't even always know where she was, you know? I'd have to wait three months to find out, 'Oh, you moved again,' " Melissa said. "And I think that's why she was scared. 'Cause he never let go."

"She was under the impression that Jim was still ... keeping tabs on her," Melissa said. "And she knew that her and Eileen (Bakalla) were the only two people that could ever rat them out.

Bakalla, formerly of Hoffman Estates, was another witness who police said found out immediately after the murders that Degorksi and Luna had committed them.

Lockett's fear was so great, Melissa said, it stymied several attempts by Lockett to write even anonymous notes to police.

"She said that she had written an anonymous letter on several occasions over the last, I don't know how many years," Melissa said. "She never mailed it, or she never finished the letter. On several occasions she'd start the letter, she'd get scared or freaked out, you know, 'Oh, Jim's going to find out.'"

Degorski's uncanny ability to locate Lockett, coupled with her intense fear of him, made Lockett even wonder if Degorski had somehow managed to tap her phone line, Melissa said.

The go-between

But the desire to come clean apparently never left Lockett. It just needed a little help, Melissa said.

While Melissa gives full credit to Lockett for coming forward, she characterizes the call as one where Lockett wanted to do the right thing, but needed help to do it.

Melissa said it's a characterization Lockett may differ with, but she sticks by her assertion.And, she said, Lockett was also conscious of the possibility that she might face criminal charges for not speaking up for so long.

"She wanted me to receive an anonymous letter and I said, 'Well, can't we contact somebody and leave an anonymous tip that way?' She said she didn't want to be part of that. And I told her, I said, 'Why don't you want to come forward with this?' And she said that she was afraid, that she was afraid that she would be in trouble. And at that point, I offered my services. You know: 'I have some friends (on the police department). Let me call them and find out what the legalities are involved in all this,' " Melissa recalled.

When asked what led her to press her friend so hard instead of just forwarding the letter, Melissa gave two simple answers."I didn't like being asked to do something if I didn't know what I was doing," Melissa said.

The second part was just natural curiosity."Who wouldn't want to know more?" she said.

Eventually, Melissa said she prevailed, and Lockett spilled her secret.

Melissa then convinced Lockett to let Melissa talk to a friend who was a Palatine police officer. Melissa knew several of them from working years ago at a gas station in Palatine. Although Lockett OK'd the contact, she still specified that she had to remain anonymous.

Melissa pushed for more information. She believed her friend, but she knew she had to sound credible to police, she said.

"I kept asking her questions so that I could confirm it in my own mind. ...I needed details. I needed specifics."She told me she couldn't remember all of it. But she said, you know, the kid threw up french fries," Melissa said.

That fact, that one of the victims had thrown up french fries after being shot, would end up being key. It convinced police Lockett knew what she was talking about, Palatine police Sgt. Bill King said at a news conference when the arrests were announced.

Melissa asked for even more details.

"She said they (Luna and Degorski) changed the time on the clock and they wedged the back door shut before they even came into the restaurant and they took the garbage out. And ... she knew what kind of gun they used, although I don't remember (what it was)."

Some of the details Lockett relayed would turn out to be incorrect, Melissa said.

"Like she told me the type of car that Juan was driving, to the best of her knowledge. And that was not the car he was driving at the time," Melissa said.

Finally, armed with enough information, Melissa called the police station, only to find out her main contact wasn't there.

Melissa refused to name the police officer but said she has known him for six or seven years. The two aren't friends socially, but chat when they run into each other.

"I know him good enough to know that he's a good guy, and he knows me well enough to know that I'm a good source," she said.

Anxious to speak with someone, she asked for other officers she knew. None of them were working. Finally, she asked the dispatcher to call the officer at home and have him call her. The dispatcher did, and the officer called her promptly.

"He was excited to hear it all," Melissa remembered. "I asked him what liabilities would she (Lockett) have. He said none."

The officer then said he'd contact the detective on the case and have him call Melissa.

Melissa hung up and waited. Nearly an hour passed.

Finally, the phone rang.

It was Lockett.

She wanted to know what was happening. Again, Melissa prodded her friend.

"The detective didn't call you yet?" Melissa remembers Lockett asking. "I said no. But when he does, is it OK for him to talk to you? And we agreed that she would talk to them, but she wouldn't give them any information, her personal information."

Eventually, Melissa said, Lockett agreed to let Melissa give police the name "Anne" and a phone number.

Melissa said she immediately hung up and tracked down the detective on duty at the station. She declined to name him as well.

"He was on the phone with me for four minutes tops... and hung up," Melissa said. "He called Anne after that and did the same thing."

The next day, police called Lockett and reviewed her story again.

The waiting

And then the wait began.

After a night of monumental upheaval, after phone calls of urgent negotiations, after serving as a go-between between a police officer and a detective, and after a night of no sleep, there was an anti-climax for Melissa.Melissa heard almost nothing from police.

She also was afraid, having just become a witness in a capital murder case, and took a few precautions.

"As soon as we called the police that first night, we (Melissa and her roommate) were locking doors, locking doors constantly. Even when we were home, windows were locked. Usually we just leave (them) open," Melissa said.

Two, perhaps three weeks went by, and Melissa began to wonder if they were being taken seriously. While she knows her officer friend believed her, she thinks the detective she talked to was skeptical.

"They have had about 15,000 tips about this thing, but nothing had ever come of it," Melissa said. "He had received hundreds of phone calls about it, and I'm sure he thought I was just another tip that would have led to nothing."

Actually, it was lead No. 4,842 in the case. And if police were skeptical at first, it became apparent two or three weeks later they were taking her very, very seriously.

That's when Palatine Police Chief John Koziol showed up on her doorstep one evening.He was with Cook County Sheriff's police Commander John Robertson and Scott Cassidy, an assistant Cook County state's attorney and the head of the county's cold case unit.

The three questioned Melissa intently, making her repeat her entire story and probing for detail.

"Those guys were so on the ball," she said. "They asked me to call her. She wasn't answering the phone. ...They were going to drive to Anne's house that night after they talked to me. It's like 9 o'clock at night, and it's a three-hour drive. They're like, 'Not a problem.' "The intensity of the investigators put her at rest."At that point, I was impressed. I knew then that this was solved," Melissa said.

But again, there was more waiting. More weeks would pass while Melissa heard nothing from police or Lockett.She would learn later that Lockett was busy working with police, who set up a wire tap and had Lockett call Degorski under the pretense of asking him what to do because police had approached her and asked questions.

Melissa, who has talked to Lockett several times since then, recalled what she thought was a surprising dynamic of that conversation.

"He wasn't shocked to hear from her... He didn't say anything like, 'Wow, Anne, how did you get my number?' ...Anne told me about it afterwards. He kept apologizing to her:... 'I'm sorry I got you involved. I'm sorry that the police are hounding you.' "

Other perspectives

Police and prosecutors refused to confirm or deny details provided in Melissa's interview.Degorski's attorney did not return phone calls last week seeking comment, but both Degorski and Luna have pleaded innocent to the murders.

Lockett could not be reached, but a roommate said Lockett did not want to comment either.

Lockett's attorney, Ken Goff, agreed with some of Melissa's portrayals, but took issue with others.

Like Melissa, he has emphasized that Lockett feared for her life.But he portrayed Lockett's changes of address and Degorski's calls slightly differently.

"It wasn't like Anne was trying to hide... He knew where she was. She was clear on that.

"He knew she was down in Charleston. She said he knew where she was all along. I can't comment on why he would keep calling her; I guess we all can assume why."

And he flatly denies that fear of charges held Lockett back initially.

"She was never afraid whether she was culpable or not," Goff said. "She didn't think she did anything wrong."

Goff said he did not know if there was any discussion in the March 25 call about Melissa forwarding an anonymous letter from Lockett.

"I know Anne sought out her friend, Melissa, because she had contacts at the Palatine police department," Goff said. "

Anne wanted to come forward. She wanted to get the message to the Palatine police department, and she felt Melissa was the best conduit for this information so it would be taken seriously, so it wouldn't be passed over like an unreliable source."

"The bottom line is, she did come forward," Goff said. "Knowing Anne, if she wanted to remain anonymous, it was because she didn't want the notoriety. It was more driven by that. She didn't want the attention."

He also answered questions about reward money in regards to Lockett.

Donors have put up an $86,000 reward in the event of a conviction. Some victims' family members have objected to the idea of Lockett and Bakalla getting any of it.

"We touched on the money. She said she's not really concerned," Goff said. "That was not a concern when she came forward. That's something, she figures, once everything is said and done, we'll see what happens. She was never motivated by the reward. It's not something she was concerned with. It was never a driving force."

Arrests and aftermath

On Saturday, May 18, police announced the arrest of Degorski and Luna.

"I was happy that they had actually done something with the information," Melissa said. "I was glad that I finally made a difference. I had something to do with this. It was very exciting."

Melissa tried to call Lockett but couldn't reach her. Melissa assumed she was in a witness protection program.

In fact, Lockett was simply away at a wedding, and she returned the call later that day. The two talked as Melissa relayed Chicago television news updates that were being broadcast.

At this point, both were unknown to the media. They decided to keep it that way. Both agreed not to speak to the media.But eventually, their names came out. Lockett's name was published within 24 hours of the arrests being formally announced, and Melissa was approached by several newspapers within a week.

To try to throw off the media, Melissa spent the better part of three months denying she was the woman who encouraged Lockett to come forward, even though reporters confronted her with the fact that law enforcement sources had already confirmed it.

"Why would I (come forward)?" she said. "The first two weeks on the news, all they were doing was ripping Anne and Eileen to little, tiny shreds, feeding them to the world. Oh, I want to jump on that bandwagon."

So why come forward now? Melissa gives several reasons.

For one, Lockett's lawyer, Goff, talked to media, trying to explain her nine-year silence." (Lockett's) attorney pretty much gave me away during his press conference, so it wasn't really a secret anymore. I figured it was time to go ahead and tell my side," Melissa said.

Why then, keep her last name secret?

" 'Cause I don't want the general public to call me," she said simply.

Another reason for coming forward is that Melissa wants it clear that some rumors circulating about her simply aren't true.

"The first day they were reporting that the source that came to the police was arrested, and that's why the source had to give up all this information, to get out of another charge. Meaning me - I'd been arrested," she said.

The only arrest she's ever had, she said, was at age 17 for violating curfew. A check of local court records by the Daily Herald turned up nothing but a few traffic violations.

The money

When the talk turns to the reward, Melissa avoids absolutes. She acknowledges she thinks she played a "vital role" in bringing about the arrests, but said, "I wouldn't say I'm entitled."

But she conceded that perhaps she would accept "maybe a small percentage" if it were offered, but added that she would probably give some of it to Crime Stoppers or some similar organization.

On one point, though, Melissa is adamant, time and again: "I think Anne should get it. Anne did a lot of, you know, she did work. I didn't do any work. She did a sting, you know, got Jim on the phone."

And even if Melissa hadn't prodded Lockett that night, she firmly believes Lockett would have eventually done the right thing.

"I think Anne would have come forward with the information someday," Melissa said. "I don't think she would have gone to her grave with it."

Melissa also scoffs at the contention of Luna's defense attorney, Clarence Burch, that Lockett, who was in a psychiatric hospital both during and shortly after the murders, may have been incompetent when she received a call from Degorski. The call is important because during it, prosecutors said, Degorski told her to watch television because he "did something big."

Lockett was in Forest Hospital in Des Plaines, a private psychiatric and substance abuse rehab hospital, at the time of the murders when she received the phone call, Burch said.

"She was in there for personal family issues, but not for anything drug related," Melissa explained. "It was more counseling type of things, but nothing that would make her incompetent. Trust me when I tell you that Anne's head was always screwed on straight."

The hero?

Although Melissa believes she played an active role in the arrests, she does not think of herself as a hero.

"I have a personal belief that most people would come forward with this information," she said.

That belief flies in the face of police's assertion that seven people knew the same basic information she did, but did not come forward.

"The police chief even told me, he's like, 'Why did you come forward with this information?' (I said) anybody would have. And he said, 'No. Not anybody would have because seven other people knew and they didn't.' And that was a shock to me. I'm like, anybody would do this."

"I think the one thing that I did do that was important was sway Anne into coming forward instead of writing an anonymous letter," Melissa said. "I think I made her comfortable enough to talk to the police, and, honestly, it gave her the push she needed to get it out."

But, she said, eventually, "Anne would have come forward."Authorities would not comment on how they view Melissa's or Lockett's actions, and what praise each may or may not deserve.

Prosecutors have previously used the word "hero" in connection with both.

Police Chief Koziol, in announcing the arrests in May, hinted that one may deserve more credit than the other.

"She (Lockett) spoke with a friend of hers (Melissa) who had a stronger moral compass than she did, who reached out to us, and she convinced her to speak to us," Koziol said.

Diane Mennes, sister-in-law of Brown's victim Tom Mennes, has kind words for Lockett.

After thinking more about the reports of Lockett's fear, she said she has a greater appreciation for Lockett's dilemma. "I can understand where Anne Lockett was coming from," she said.

And Melissa?

"She's a real good person. She did the right thing," said Mennes.