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How scientist's foresight led to preservation of clues in Brown's Chicken murder case
Bob Susnjara | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/28/2007

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First published: May 20, 2002

When Jane Homeyer methodically searched the Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine for evidence after the massacre there in 1993, some colleagues raised their eyebrows when she zeroed in on some trash.

Homeyer, a forensic scientist for the Northern Illinois Police Crime Laboratory, saw a partially eaten chicken dinner as evidence that one day might become valuable.

She did not know in what way the food could help lead to those responsible for killing the seven Brown's workers - perhaps bite marks on the chicken pieces, future DNA testing or fingerprints - but she considered it worth saving.

"It could be the most insignificant thing that becomes the key of a case," Homeyer said Sunday during a telephone interview from her home in Virginia.

Nine years later, authorities say one of the men charged last week in the Brown's slayings gave a videotaped confession after DNA tests on saliva extracted from a chicken piece placed him at the restaurant.

Homeyer, who eventually became executive director of the Highland Park-based crime lab and now works for the FBI Academy in Virginia, said she was nervous when she was asked to submit her own DNA to the Illinois State Police Crime Laboratory about three years ago to ensure the chicken evidence was not tainted. That was when genetic material was first found on the chicken bones.

It turned out there was no other DNA on the chicken that authorities say eventually was linked to former Fremd High School students Juan A. Luna, 28, of Carpentersville and 29-year-old James Eric Degorski of Indiana, both of whom have been charged with seven counts of murder.

"I wore gloves," Homeyer said. "I know I wasn't stupid enough to touch (the dinner) with my hands."

Luna ate a four- or five-piece chicken dinner with a roll and drink, authorities say, which they said angered Degorski because he thought the greasy food might allow fingerprints to be left behind.

As it turned out, it was the DNA in Luna's saliva that authorities said he left as a clue. It's estimated the odds of Luna's DNA match being wrong are one in more than a trillion.

Police said they recently swabbed the inside of Luna's mouth for a saliva sample, which on May 8 was found to have matched the DNA on the chicken. Luna and Degorski willingly allowed the swabs.

Homeyer said her training at the crime lab drummed into her the importance of collecting and saving as many pieces of evidence as possible at a crime scene. She said she caught some law-enforcement personnel inside the Brown's by surprise when she, accompanied by other crime lab personnel, viewed the dinner as important evidence.

"What are you guys doing digging through the garbage?" Homeyer recalled being asked.

At the time of the killings on Jan. 8, 1993, she said, DNA was in the beginning stages for criminal investigations. Homeyer said she knew DNA technology was improving, so that's why she had the dinner stored in a crime lab freezer for the future testing that occurred in 1999.

Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Michael Mermel, who heads his office's felony trial division, worked with Homeyer extensively before she left the crime lab for the FBI in 1999. He said he had extensive dealings with Homeyer and was not surprised she had the foresight to save the chicken.

"She (was) a fine director," Mermel said. "Meticulous in her science approach."

Police said the Brown's slayings happened after 9:10 p.m., when the final sale was recorded on the restaurant's cash register. A $5 chicken meal was the last item sold in the evening, police said.

The Brown's case is not the first time local forensic scientists looked to the future in preserving evidence. Another Palatine murder case serves as the example.

Elizabeth Ehlert was convicted of killing her newborn girl on Aug. 21, 1990, wrapping the baby in plastic and dumping her into Salt Creek. That conviction was overturned on a technicality, but she was convicted in a second trial in 1998.

Homeyer said tissues from the baby were taken during an autopsy, frozen and stored at the crime lab, with the idea of one day linking the baby to Ehlert. Unlike the first trial in 1993, the woman's lawyers did not contest the DNA evidence showing she was the baby's mother five years later.

Jane Homeyer