Daily Herald
Brown's Chicken murders case could be entering final phase
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/2/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 8/2/2009 12:18 AM

People v. James Degorski

Jury selection: Begins Thursday, Aug. 6; expected to take two weeks.

Opening statements: Monday, Aug. 31

Duration of Juan Luna's 2007 trial: Expected 20 days from opening statements to a verdict.

More Coverage

Minutes. Hours. Months. Years.

The road to a conclusion of one of the most notorious crimes in suburban history - the killings of seven people in a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant - is a study in time. It enters what could be a final phase this Thursday, when jury selection begins in the trial of James Degorski, the second man charged in the killings.

Authorities say it took less than 45 minutes for Degorski and his friend Juan Luna to commit the crime. It began as an armed robbery a little after 9 p.m., closing time, on Jan. 8, 1993. It ended with the murder of owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and their employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

Fourteen years later, Luna's trial commenced in May 2007. It concluded in two weeks with a conviction and, then, a life sentence, which he's serving at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He's now 35 years old.

And now, it's Degorski's turn. He'll turn 37 later this month, more than 16 years since the murders occurred.

But for the families of the victims, justice has taken, literally, a lifetime - the lifetime of the youngest victim, 16-year-old Michael Castro.

Search for suspects

Twelve hours or so after the victims were found in a walk-in cooler and freezer early on Jan. 9, 1993, Palatine police had a suspect, a 23-year-old Elgin man fired by the Ehlenfeldts a few days before the slayings. After three days of questioning, they let him go. Days later, a jail informant implicated a Chicago street gang member. A few months later, the informant reportedly committed suicide in Cook County Jail. The gang leader he fingered was eventually convicted of an armed robbery in Skokie, but was never linked to the Brown's murders.

Ten days after the killings, a headless body - later identified as Dean Fawcett - was discovered in a Barrington field, about five miles from the Brown's restaurant. Palatine and Barrington police investigated, believing the murder might be related to the Palatine murders. It wasn't. Paul Modrowski was convicted of Fawcett's murder and sentenced to life. Co-defendant Robert Faraci was acquitted, but served time for theft and forgery. He was paroled earlier this year after serving seven years in prison.

About a month after the Brown's murders, a crime mimicking them unfolded in a Crystal Lake Arby's. Robbers herded workers into the restaurant's cooler but no one was harmed, and the police found no connection to the January killings.

Within weeks, the reward for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of the killer or killers at the Palatine Brown's Chicken restaurant exceeded $100,000.

It went unclaimed.

The trail grew cold.

The initial task force numbered 102 investigators from 21 state and federal police agencies. It dwindled to seven in 1995. By 2002, only two investigators remained on the case full-time.

A frustrated Frank Portillo, president of Brown's Chicken & Pasta, lobbied for an independent examination of the Palatine investigation. In 1997, the Better Government Association responded with a scathing critique of the Palatine task force assembled to investigate the murders. Three years later, the Illinois State Crime Commission responded with its own report which praised police efforts.

In an interview with the Daily Herald marking the third anniversary of the murders, now retired Palatine police chief Jerry Bratcher said solving the case would take "one phone call, one bit of information."

The call came in 2002, more than nine years after the killings.

It came the year Michael Castro would have turned 26.

It came from a friend of Anne Lockett, Degorski's former girlfriend, who attended Fremd High School in Palatine with Luna and Degorski. In late March of that year, Lockett confided to a friend that she knew who committed the Palatine murders. The friend immediately called Palatine police and told them to contact Lockett.

"I can't live with this anymore," Lockett told prosecutors.

She recounted to police that the day after the murders, Degorski called her at Forest Hospital where she was undergoing treatment for substance abuse. Lockett said Degorski told her to watch the news because he had done something big. She also claimed Degorski and Luna detailed their involvement during a conversation with her in the weeks following the murders. She told police that Degorski threatened to kill her if she talked.

In April 2002, police put Degorski and Luna under surveillance and requested a DNA sample. Both men complied.

This wasn't Degorski's first run-in with authorities. Records indicate he pleaded guilty to breaking into a Hoffman Estates construction trailer and received a year's supervision in 1990. He failed to report to court-ordered counseling and was later arrested on charges of riding in a stolen vehicle. Eight months before the murders, he received probation for beating up a girlfriend.

Honing in on Degorski, Luna

Early in the investigation, Palatine police interviewed Luna, along with other current and former Ehlenfeldt employees whose alibis police checked. He had worked briefly for the couple after they took over the franchise in May 1992 and quit on good terms the summer before the murders. At Degorski's suggestion, Luna went voluntarily to the police station, said Lockett who accompanied him, again at Degorski's suggestion, but did not speak with police.

Except for a 1999 arrest for writing a bad check, court records showed Luna had no significant contact with police from the time of the murders until his arrest nine years later. However, Arizona police arrested Degorski for marijuana possession in 1994. He paid a fine and received probation, police said. In 1998, Barrington Hills police arrested him for DUI, speeding and possessing a small amount of marijuana.

Lockett also led police to Eileen Bakalla, another high school friend. Bakalla told them Degorski called her at work shortly after the murders and asked her to pick him and Luna up at a supermarket parking lot in Carpentersville. Bakalla said that en route to her Elgin home, the men told her they had robbed a Brown's Chicken. She later claimed they smoked pot and she helped the men divide the $1,800 they said they stole from the restaurant. She also said she accepted $50 from them.

The following day, Degorski asked Bakalla to drive him by the restaurant where he confided that more than a robbery occurred, authorities said. Unlike Lockett who kept quiet out of fear, Bakalla kept quiet out of loyalty, authorities said in a 2002 Daily Herald report.

Police arrested Luna and Degorski on May 16, 2002. At the time, Luna installed appliances for a Crystal Lake company and lived in Carpentersville with his wife and young son. Degorski lived outside Indianapolis and worked repairing condominiums.

In a Daily Herald interview following the arrests, Palatine Police Chief John Koziol called Luna and Degorski "people without a soul."

Their attorneys called them innocent. Degorski's attorneys still do.

One conviction

Police believe the killers entered the restaurant shortly after 9 p.m. A cash register timestamp indicated the last meal was sold at 9:08 p.m. A stopped clock read 9:52 p.m., the time police believe the killer or killers switched off the lights as they left the building.

Evidence showed the killers fired 21 bullets from a .38 caliber handgun, which required them to reload three times, police said. Cook County medical examiners reported all the victims suffered head wounds. A killer slashed one victim's throat. Another victim received a cut on the arm.

The killers left behind no shell casings. One of the killers used a mop to clean up the blood, but left behind no fingerprints, police said. Clues proved elusive. But one held promise for former Northern Illinois Police Crime Laboratory forensic scientist Jane Homeyer.

Homeyer preserved the partially eaten remains of a chicken dinner found in an otherwise empty trash can. The evidence remained in a freezer until 1999, when technology made it possible to extract DNA from it. In May 2002, scientists matched that DNA to Luna. Arrests followed.

Five years and countless court appearances later, Juan Luna's trial began. Along with the DNA from the chicken and a palm print, the evidence against him included a 43-minute videotaped confession in which he detailed how the murders unfolded.

On May 10, 2007, a jury of nine men and three women convicted Luna on seven counts of first-degree murder. The same jury found him eligible for the death penalty.

A single vote spared his life.

The Degorski case

The case against Degorski is weaker. No fingerprints or DNA link him to the scene. But Lockett and Bakalla's statements place him there.

So does Degorski's videotaped statement taken by Palatine detective Bill King and former Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Michael McHale the day after police took him into custody.

Jury selection in the People of the State of Illinois vs. James Degorski begins this week.

Michael Castro would have turned 33 last May 24.