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After 12 hours, divers unable to findBrown's murder weapon
Tom O'Konowitz | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/28/2007

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First published: May 29, 2002

After more than 12 hours scouring the bottom of the Fox River in Carpentersville Tuesday, dozens of divers failed to find the gun police say was used in the 1993 slayings at Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine.

Authorities remain confident the weapon is embedded in the river's floor near Carpenter Dam, but trying to pinpoint its exact location has turned out to be a tremendously difficult task they likely won't pursue any further.

Palatine police said they wanted the gun because it would have been a key piece of evidence against the two defendants - James Degorski and Juan Luna - but they said Tuesday's search of the river probably was their first and last attempt.

"I'm a little disappointed - I wish we'd have found it," said Palatine Police Commander Jim Haider. "We had the right equipment, just not today."

Poor visibility and lots of debris underwater hindered the divers, who closely screened more than 150 yards of the river until sunset Tuesday. Furthermore, nine years of rough currents may have buried the small handgun in mud beyond the reach of underwater metal detectors and sonar devices being used by the dive team.

"We have talked to a hydrologist, and there's a good chance it would have hit the water, sunk and stayed there," Haider said. But Tuesday's unsuccessful, yet thorough, search showed finding it now is unlikely.

Haider said he believes the .38-caliber handgun, possibly wrapped in a canvas bag, was thrown in the river near its east bank just north of Carpenter Dam. He said Degorski told police that's where he dumped it the day after he and Luna used it to kill seven people at Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine Jan. 8, 1993.

May 17, the day after he was arrested, Degorski went with police to the Fox River and showed them which direction he threw the gun, said Haider. Degorski's girlfriend at the time, Anne Lockett, 26, who told police she saw him toss the weapon, also took police to the same spot this month, authorities said.

Police initially said the gun was tossed into the river near a dam in Algonquin, but Tuesday said they likely confused the two dams since they are only miles apart.

Locating the gun would have supplemented the prosecution of Degorski and Luna, as it could corroborate previous statements they made to police and prosecutors. Still, the two men already face conclusive DNA evidence, witness testimony and videotaped confessions in the cases against them.

Tuesday's exhaustive and intensive search for the handgun started about 6 a.m. when Palatine police officers and firefighters met in Carpentersville with nearly 25 divers from Aquatics Underwater Recovery and Rescue Team Inc. in Crown Pointe, Ind.

Teams of five or six divers spent the entire day taking turns scavenging the muddy bottom of the river using ropes to set up a grid that ensured they covered nearly every inch of their target area near the river's shore.

In their search the divers used their hands to feel the floor of the chilly river and dig into inches of mud, but they also used high-tech underwater metal detectors and sonar devices to try and locate the weapon.

When the electronic devices failed to turn up the gun after nearly 10 hours, police took a more simplistic approach, tying another gun to a rope and repeatedly throwing it into the river. They hoped that exercise would highlight key areas where the real gun may have landed.

By 6:30 p.m., as the sun went down and they remained without luck, the divers decided to call it a day and head home.

Palatine authorities originally thought the search for the gun would not happen for months because parts of the river are deep and dangerous, but they realized the area they wanted to search actually was quite shallow. Divers near the shore stood in 2-3 feet of water, while those farther out stood in about 5 feet of water as they shoveled through the mud and sand below them.

Police remain prepared in case they decide to launch another search for the gun, noting they can't just grab it and take it to shore if they see it.

"Once air would reach something like this after so long it would start to cause deterioration" Haider said. "It's probably gone through enough deterioration as it is."

He said the divers first would have to photograph the gun underwater and then seal it in a storage container underwater. Then it could be transported to a lab for testing.

While the gun likely would be noticeably damaged, Haider said it could be cleaned by experts and the serial number possibly could be raised and identified. Most importantly, the gun could be dissembled and its unique grooves in the barrel could be compared against the bullet remnants recovered from the scene of the Brown's Chicken & Pasta killings.

Should police decide to search the river later this summer, the task likely would remain as difficult.

Some people living near the dam said Tuesday the area has long been a popular fishing and swimming destination. They speculated the gun may have been found by a fisherman or local resident years ago.

Fisherman Enrique Nieves of Chicago said the Carpentersville area of the river is tough to maneuver because it's filled with so many rocks and so much debris.

"You've got to go slow because you don't know what's down there," he said. "I've fallen a few times myself."

And Dave Olson, assistant dive master for the Elgin fire department's underwater rescue and recovery team, said the Fox River is far from ideal for water searches.

"It's not the best place to work - doing search and rescue in the Fox is essentially feel-only," said Olson, noting visibility usually is between zero and 6 inches. "If you don't have a detailed drop point it's a lot of ground to cover.

"It can take a lot of time, especially if you're looking for something as small as a gun."