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Brown's task force hoping time is on its side
By Dan Rozek and Sandra Del Re | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/29/2007

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First published: January 8, 1996

The police task force investigating the 1993 murders at Brown's Chicken in Palatine has dwindled from more than 100 people to just seven. Detectives check a shrinking number of leads and the telephone doesn't ring nearly as often as it did in the frenzied first weeks after the killings when police sometimes received 200 phone tips a day.

But three years after the horrifying murders of seven Palatine restaurant workers, what remains the same for the investigators still on the case is their dogged determination to bring the killer or killers to justice.

While frustrations born of three years of so far unsuccessful work weigh on investigators, they remain convinced they still will solve the Jan. 8, 1993 slayings at Brown's Chicken & Pasta.

"I don't know when, but it will be solved," said Palatine Police Chief Jerry Bratcher, who heads the task force investigating the murders. "I believe that."

As the third anniversary of the killings approaches, Bratcher said in an interview that the police have not hit a dead end, that investigators still are studying possible suspects and said there are no plans to disband the downsized task force or call a halt to the marathon investigation.

"It's very active, it's ongoing and it will continue," Bratcher said of the investigation, adding that despite the length of time that has passed "all it takes is one phone call, one bit of information to solve this."

In an effort to shake loose that missing piece of the puzzle, police on Monday are scheduled to publicly release what they called "significant pieces of evidence" in hopes the so-far unspecified information will stir new public interest in the killings.

"Maybe it will trigger that one phone call we're looking for. That's our motivation here," said Bratcher.

That's possible, say other law enforcement officials, who are impressed that the Palatine investigation has continued as long and as strongly as it has.

"If it was me who did this (crime), I'd be scared to death," said Chicago Police Sgt. Paul Carroll, a veteran detective who served on the Palatine task force for eight months after the murders. "These guys are just tenacious."

Not everyone shares those upbeat assessments about the chances of solving the crime.

In recent weeks, Brown's Chicken President Frank Portillo has strongly criticized task force investigators, saying law enforcement sources have told him that police may have mishandled or not fully investigated some leads.

While insisting he's not trying to pick a fight with police, Portillo said he is concerned that personality clashes between investigators from different departments may have disrupted the probe and kept skilled investigators from remaining on the task force.

"I think they're trying as they can, really trying as hard as they can," Portillo said of task force officers. "I just don't feel they're the best of the best."

Outside experts warn that solving mass murders becomes more and more difficult with each passing week.

"When these crimes are resolved, they tend to be resolved very quickly," said Jack Levin, a Northeastern University criminologist and author who has written extensively on mass murders.

But the Brown's killings from the beginning proved to be as unusual as they were shocking.

In a quiet suburb, at a fast-food restaurant along a busy street, early on a Friday evening, seven workers were methodically gunned down in the building's walk-in refrigerator and freezer.

Killed were restaurant owners Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49, and her husband, Richard, 50; along with employees Michael Castro, 16, Guadalupe Maldonado, 47, Thomas Mennes, 32, Marcus Nellsen, 31, and Rico Solis, 17.

Police theorize the slayings may have occurred during a robbery shortly after the restaurant closed at 9 p.m. The number of people involved in the slaying remains uncertain, although police believe one person did all the shooting, firing more than 20 times.

Despite the time and location of the murders, there are known no witnesses and so far, no arrests.

Those facts alone make the case an exception to most mass murders, Levin said.

"Most mass killings aren't committed for profit," he said. "They're typically a crime of vengeance."

The circumstances of the Palatine slayings makes it more difficult for police because it likely means the killer or killers didn't know or have any kind of relationship with the victims murdered in Palatine, he said.

"In most cases, there's a quick resolution because there's a relationship and a lot of evidence," he said. "In the Brown's Chicken killings, you have none of this."

The obstacles blocking police from finding the killer grow larger and more numerous as each day passes, Levin said.

Physical evidence, such as blood spots or fingerprints, don't deteriorate over time, but experts say if that evidence was strong in the Brown's case, it likely would have already led to arrests.

Witnesses' memories fade, or witnesses move away, while police investigative efforts wind down.

The killer or killers may leave the region or state, lessening the chances of being apprehended. Sometimes, the killers themselves die, leaving investigators stymied.

"It's just a cold trail," said James LeBeau, a criminologist at Southern Illinois University.

Bratcher doesn't see it that way.

The seven full-time investigators still working the case stay "very busy" either checking new tips and information, or reviewing past leads to see if anything might have been missed.

While Bratcher acknowledged that the volume of new leads is "down substantially" from the early days of the inquiry, there remain tips and tidbits of information to check, and possible suspects to keep track of.

"Are we zeroed in solidly on one person? No, we are not," Bratcher said. "There are a number of people who are still very much in our focus, people that we're still very interested in."

Bratcher and others hold out hope that even after three years, new witnesses or evidence could swiftly surface.

Someone involved in the killing might come forward, or be arrested in another crime and offer information about the Palatine murders. Partners in crime could turn against each other.

"Time has a way of working in your favor," said attorney Patrick O'Brien, a former Cook County assistant state's attorney who investigated the killings. "Circumstances that caused offenders to come together change and over time, relationships can change for the worse."

That's happened before in other murder cases.

Palatine police in 1992 cracked a 15-year-old murder case when they arrested businessman Edward Lyng in the 1977 murder of his estranged wife. Lyng, who was arrested when a former girlfriend implicated him in his wife's disappearance, was convicted of the murder in 1994.

"I've solved cases that are 20 years old," Carroll, the Chicago Police detective, said. "They're out there - we work on them all the time."

Even a minor mistake by the killer or killers could help solve the crime, Levin agreed.

In New York, police tracked down David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer who gunned down six people, after he received a parking ticket at 5 a.m. near one of the murder scenes, Levin said.

In the Palatine case, as recently as last summer, two or three new leads emerged that Bratcher said "looked pretty good for a time," temporarily raising investigators' interests and hopes.

"They look good and you chase it as far as it goes," Bratcher said of the tips police tracked, "then it loses its legs."

Such setbacks are frustrating for even the seasoned investigators working the case, Bratcher acknowledges.

"But the mark of a good investigator is tenacity," he said. "We have a group of investigators with great tenacity, talent and patience."

A mark of the determination to solve the case is that the task force hasn't shrunk in the last year - remaining at four investigators and a supervisor from Palatine, and one investigator each from the Illinois State Police and Cook County Sheriff's Police.

That persistence makes the task force noteworthy - it has gone on longer than almost any multi-department murder task force assembled in the country, Bratcher and others say.

Most task forces shut down within six months if there are no arrests, Carroll and others say.

The Palatine task force has not only continued operating, but the police department last year hired ex-FBI specialist James Bell to oversee the effort. Bell specialized in coordinating FBI task forces investigating serial killings and other major crime sprees.

Palatine officials say they remain committed to the investigation and the task force.

"If the case is solvable, it will be solved by this task force," said Trustee Jack Wagner.

Portillo, who has followed the investigation closely, isn't as sure.

He claimed investigators, because of departmental rivalries and differing theories on the killings, didn't work harmoniously together during the early phases of the probe.

And he contends some mistakes were made by police. He said only late last week he gave police a list of company employees who were in the restaurant shortly before the killing so investigators could compare the fingerprints with some of the unidentified prints found after the killings.

"How did they let the fingerprints go so long?" Portillo said.

Bratcher previously has faulted Portillo for not providing that information to police sooner and called the lack of employees' fingerprints "inconsequential."

Investigators, he said, have spared no effort in trying to solve the bloody killings.

"This isn't unsolved because of a lack of talent or effort on the part of investigators," Bratcher said.

Although still haunted by the murders, Palatine Village President Rita L. Mullins remains convinced the crime eventually will be solved.

"It is something constantly in the back of my mind," she said. "It's always there. It doesn't go away. I have great empathy for the families (of the victims). They need closure."