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Brown's suspects had plans to do'something big,' authorities say
Shamus Toomey and Rhonda Sciarra | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/28/2007

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First published: May 19, 2002

They planned it for weeks and went in intending to kill someone for the thrill of it, police said.

The two high school buddies charged with committing one of the most vexing and gruesome crimes in the suburbs' history entered Browns Chicken & Pasta in Palatine nine years ago with hardened hearts, a pocketful of bullets and plans "to do something big," authorities said Saturday.

Juan A. Luna, now 28, and James Eric Degorski, 29, did just that, leaving seven bullet-riddled dead bodies in the restaurant's two coolers, authorities say.

It was a crime done with premeditation and without conscience, an emotional Palatine Police Chief John Koziol said Saturday when announcing the arrests of Luna and Degorski on mass murder charges.

"They are people without a soul," Koziol said.

The two men's confessor, Degorski's former girlfriend, has told police Luna, just 18 at the time, wanted to kill someone that cold Jan. 8 night in 1993. The older Degorski, who used to torture animals with Luna, agreed to go along, prosecutors said in court Saturday.

Luna had proposed the Brown's Chicken on Northwest Highway because he had worked there the summer before. He knew the layout, knew there was no security alarm and knew that if they went just at the 9 p.m. closing time, there would be few people, prosecutors said.

Koziol believes they planned the crime for weeks, and that Friday was the day they decided to finally pull off a robbery. But the police chief said robbery was "absolutely" not the only motive.

"You don't walk into a fast-food restaurant with a gun and a pocketful of ammo just for a robbery," he said.

Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine agreed.

"There's a general belief that while there was a robbery involved, the basic motivation was to go in and kill other human beings," Devine said.

Degorski's former girlfriend, an unnamed 26-year-old who sources say is attending Eastern Illinois University, gave police a detailed description of the crime, an account she said was told to her by Luna and Degorski in the days after the shootings, authorities said.

The former girlfriend, identified as Witness A, told police that on that night, Luna and Degorski said they piled into Luna's Ford Tempo, drove to Palatine and parked in a townhouse complex behind the shopping center where Brown's sat, assistant Cook County state's attorney Linas J. Kelecius said in court.

Wearing old clothes and old shoes, they walked through the snow to the Brown's in a strange gait, different from their own. They later stepped in their own footprints when they fled the area, he said.

As they approached the Brown's, they wedged shut a rear service door so no one could flee. Then they entered through another door, Kelecius said.

It appeared as if the employees had begun to clean because the garbage cans had been emptied. The two suspects ordered chicken, and, despite being past closing time, they were served, Kelecius said.

Luna had quit working at the restaurant shortly after Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt had taken over ownership the summer before, but he quit on good terms and had no conflicts with the new owners, Koziol said.

"They informed us that the people in the restaurant were real nice people," Koziol said of Luna and Degorski's confessions.

Luna ate a four- or five-piece chicken dinner, something that angered Degorski because he thought the greasy meal could allow fingerprints to be left behind, Kelecius said. As it turned out, it was DNA in saliva, not fingerprints, that he left as a clue.

After eating, the two put on vinyl gloves and began a crime that shocked the area and, until recently, had even the optimistic and determined Koziol wondering if it would ever be solved, police said.

The two had brought a snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver into the restaurant. When the robbery began, it quickly deteriorated into mayhem, Kelecius said.

"People starting running," the prosecutor said. "One man ran for the back door and couldn't get out because the door jam was in there. They started shooting everybody."

Luna's ex-girlfriend told police that the worker who first tried the back door next jumped over the counter. But he was shot as he fled, Kelecius said.

All seven of the workers in the restaurant were then forcefully herded into two coolers. Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Rico Solis, Guadeloupe Maldonado and Marcus Nellsen were put in one cooler, Dick Ehlenfeldt and Thomas Mennes in the other.

Luna took the gun and shot the first five at close range. One didn't die, and Degorski took the gun and killed him, Kelecius said.

Investigators determined 21 bullets were fired, leaving 24 gunshot wounds as some shots hit more than one person.

Degorski used the gun to kill the other two in the separate cooler, the prosecutor said.

The two didn't use just a gun in the slaughter. Luna also held the neck of Lynn Ehlenfeldt and, using a knife, slit her throat. While doing so, he called her a vulgar name for something she had done with the restaurant's safe during the robbery, Kelecius said.

After the seven were dead, the two used a mop to try to clean the floor. Police for years have said they found shoeprints believed to be made by a Nike shoe, size 12 1/2 to 14. Degorski, who wore a size 12 wide, told police the shoe prints were his, Koziol said.

Before leaving, they took more than $1,800 from the safe, leaving some money behind, authorities said.

When they left, they took off their old clothes, disposed of them elsewhere in separate trash bins and tossed the gun into the Fox River near a dam in Algonquin where the two used to fish, Kelecius said. It has not been recovered.

A close female friend of the two, in an interview with police May 15, admitted that Degorski called her at work the night of the killings to say "we did something big," Kelecius said. He asked the woman - identified as Witness B - to meet them at a grocery store in Carpentersville. When she arrived and got into Luna's car, she spotted vinyl gloves and a canvas bag filled with cash, Kelecius said.

Knowing her roommate was away, they drove to her townhouse in Elgin. During the ride, the two told her that they robbed a Brown's Chicken in Palatine. When they got to the townhouse, they smoked marijuana and split up the money, giving the woman $50, Kelecius said.

Witness B drove them back to the store and Luna picked up his car. Degorski and the woman then drove off, and he asked her to drive by the Brown's Chicken, where police had already found the bodies, Kelecius said.

The next day, Witness B and Degorski picked up Luna's car and had the interior washed. Several days later, she told police, she used her $50 to buy shoes. Degorski used part of his money to buy clothes, Kelecius said.

On the day after the killings, Degorski called his girlfriend at the time, Witness A, and told her to watch the news because he had done something. The news that night was of the Brown's murders. The girl asked her mother to cut out all of the newspaper articles about it, Kelecius said.

She told police that several days after the crime, while in the home Degorski shared with his mother, brother and sister, he told her more. In Degorski's basement room - where she had previously seen his gun and knives - Degorski confessed, Kelecius said.

"Degorski then told her, 'If you ever tell anyone about this, we'll kill you,' " Kelecius said.

She held the secret for years, but finally confided in her new boyfriend about seven months ago. Fearing for her safety, they struggled with what to do. They later confided in another person, and then the woman's mother. The break came when Witness A told a friend who approached police in March, Kelecius said.

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

It was lead No. 4842 in the grueling investigation. When Palatine Sgt. Bill King interviewed the woman, she recounted the details that had haunted her for years. Of particular interest to police, she recalled the two telling her that one younger employee had vomited french fries during the shootings, authorities said.

That information had never been divulged to the public before, said King, who has worked solely on the Brown's case for nine years.

"I was pretty convinced with some of the statements the lady made that we were looking at the right guys," King said.

Luna, along with some 300 other former employees, had been interviewed in the days after the killing, but was never considered a suspect. He had told police he was with Witness B on the night of the killings, which Witness B backed up. But that alibi crumbled as Witness B admitted what she knew in the case when interviewed by police last week, authorities said.

Both Luna and Degorski were contacted in April, put under 24- hour surveillance, and they willingly provided DNA swabs from their mouths. Luna's DNA matched genetic material extracted just three years ago from the discarded chicken bones he ate the night of the murder. The technology to extract such a tiny sample was not available in 1993, but police kept the sample nonetheless, authorities said. It paid off when the Illinois State Crime Lab pulled a sample in 1999.

The DNA match came May 8. The odds of Luna's DNA match being wrong were said to be one in more than a trillion. Both were arrested Thursday, Luna in Carpentersville and Degorski where he had begin living in Hamilton County, Ind., outside Indianapolis, authorities said.

When confronted with the DNA match, Luna confessed on videotape. Degorski confessed off camera, and began to confess on camera before stopping. The confessions were without emotion, authorities said.

"Pretty nonchalant, your typical sociopath," Koziol said. "They never showed any remorse throughout the investigations."

A weary but relieved Koziol expressed confidence in the evidence prosecutors now have to offer a jury after years of frustrating dead ends and criticism There are confessions, a DNA match, two witnesses and an incriminating 40-minute wiretap conversation of Degorski and Witness A talking about the killings and how to lie to police. Witness A set up the call to help police, authorities said

"We have amassed a formidable case against these cold-blooded killers," Koziol said.

Police believe the two men were the only ones responsible. Neither Witness A nor Witness B will be charged as accessories, Koziol said.

"We need all the witnesses in this case we can get," Koziol said.

James Degorski; Juan Luna