Originally published Jan. 9, 1994
One year into the investigation of the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murders, Palatine Police Chief Jerry Bratcher sat down for an interview with Daily Herald Staff Writer John Carpenter. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.
Q. One of the questions we're constantly asked is, are the police close to solving it?
A. The only way I can respond to that is to say that the investigation continues. We're still very active. The investigators who remain on the task force remain very busy.
Q. Is that different from what it was six months ago?
A.I think not.
Q. Are you at the same level of frustration you were one month into the investigation?
A. The time enhances the level of frustration.
Q. What makes this case different?
A. I've worked double murders before. This was the first time I worked seven. Just the very volume and magnitude is, you know. ... Of course, it strikes you as a human being. There's young people. I'm a father myself. I have kids the same age as some of these victims. If you let your personal emotions take over, you just feel like crying. But you can't allow that to happen as a professional. You have to begin to assess the situation. You have to shift into a different gear where you don't allow the normal emotional feelings that could take over. You have to start setting priorities. You have to start thinking like an investigator, marshaling the resources to get the job done.
Q. Regarding reports of money in one victim's sock, etc. Does that suggest robbery was the motive?
A. We didn't release anything regarding that. We've looked at a number of possible scenarios, one of which is the possibility of an armed robbery gone bad, which seems to make the most sense.
Q. As far as scenarios, can you tell us some of the other scenarios that you've considered?
A. I might mention a couple just for contrast. Revenge.
Q. Is drugs something you looked into?
A. We looked at every possible scenario that we could think of, and we have the people up in the behavioral-science division up at (FBI headquarters at) Quantico. They spent literally hundreds of hours trying to do a crime-scene analysis, to try to do a re-enactment, try to get different scenarios down.
Q. Have scenarios been ruled out?
A. I'll just say that right now that consensus of opinion, what we're basing the investigation on as we move along now, is the theory that it was an armed robbery gone bad.
Q. When you say gone bad, someone made a move?
A. Possibly. Somebody resisted? One person was shot so the killer or killers were identified? Somehow or another they had to kill all of them to protect themselves. That's a possibility.
Q. Early on you characterized these murders as execution style. It sounds like you may have said that to protect the families.
A. That was early on in the investigation where some elements of the media had come out and said that these were torture murders. This kind of conjures images in one's imagination that there was, you know, fingers cut off, ears cut off or castration or some gross thing like that. But it was quite enough that the families had gone through this trauma. It was bad enough. They needn't be tortured by those kinds of images. And so we came forward and said they were killed relatively quickly with shots to the head.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the wounds? Was there anything particularly striking in terms of, for example, stab wounds?
A. All seven of the people died of gunshot wounds to the head. That was what killed each of them.
Q. At some point, you are going to get a break in the case. Do you feel the task force is prepared, that you have gathered enough evidence, to take advantage of that break?
A. That's a difficult question to respond to. It depends on so many variables. We hope that if we get a break, we'll be able to work it properly and bring it to a conclusion. It depends on a lot of things.
Q. It's got to increase the frustration when other crimes, such as the New York commuter train shooting, are solved immediately by sheer luck.
A. What you have to do is begin to put this kind of crime into perspective. If you take out sniper killings like the Texas tower, and you take out serial killings like John Wayne Gacy and (Ted) Bundy, this will probably go down in the annals of history as one of the dozen largest mass murders in the history of the United States. It has been paralleled to the Richard Speck case. That was over a quarter of a century ago. But that was unique in that there was a witness, a near-victim witness. If you take this case (Palatine), it is unique. The guy shooting people on the train, a guy that goes into the school and shoots people, generally these people either kill themselves or they are killed by the police. Speck didn't do either of those things, but there was a witness. In our situation, there was no witness. There was no surviving victim to give us one bit of information. Moreover, there was an attempt to clean the scene and all that sort of thing.
Q. Is community support still there?
A. I believe - and my primary frame of reference that brings me to this conclusion is the elected officials who deal with their constituents - that for the most part the community does believe that we've done everything possible, that we've worked hard and brought the proper resources and the skill and ability that was within our reach to bear on it. So my sense is that most of the community supports what we've attempted to do.
Q. Do you feel the questioning of the first suspect was handled properly?
A. The thing that struck me. and I got a little impassioned about, was his comment that we ruined his life. Did we have reasonable cause to hold him and would we have been indeed remiss and damn near criminal if we hadn't? The answer is yes. So what choice did we have in the matter? But we didn't throw the light on this guy. We didn't say. "Hey, come take his picture, follow him around" and all the stuff that went on with that guy. That was a media circus. not a police circus.
Q. Do you feel comfortable with the way the crime scene was processed?
A. I don't believe that there has ever been a crime-scene search that was conducted in a more painstaking, meticulous manner than this. As a matter of fact, I doubt very much that there has been a more meticulous crime-scene search. There was great painstaking effort. We did not push the technicians. We said, "Take your time," even though we had the media bracing at the bit for information. People (outside) were not understanding what's going on, and we couldn't explain it. At the time, we can't even give a positive identification of the victims. But that had to be done and I believe it was done.
Q. Do you honestly feel that the news media have hurt the investigation? Or has it simply made life miserable for the investigators?
A. It's hurt the investigation in two ways. There are things we wanted to keep quiet. They dug and, of course, that's their job, to find information. But what are the ethics, what are the standards by which you are guided? We fight by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. They fight and kick and gouge. I understand that sometimes there is a frenzy to get information. But does that excuse purposeful distortion of information? Docs that excuse creating lies and innuendo? And you know that that happened. You saw it happen. And it had to make you blush for your profession. Now there was a lot of responsible reporting that went on. But one of the things that concerns me a lot was the purposeful distortion to discredit the investigation, out of, I can only assume, frustration that information wasn't coming, to kind of create something. They'd go and take this canvassing business and say we hadn't talked to people when they knew that we had. The TV reporters, they didn't care about the facts. They just had something that they could take into the 10 o'clock news. That bothers me. And when they take information and they distort it like that, I think it hurts the investigation. I think you have to go back to the very genesis of this case. Five bodies are stacked up in a cooler. You're trying to conduct a crime scene. You can't identify the people on the bottom. And you can't bring them out because you contaminate the crime scene. And it's going to take hours to do a proper job. And now, in the meantime, you've got the people out there screaming. And understandably the community and the press arc going to say, "What the hell are they doing? Why aren't they giving us the information?" If you were sitting on my side of the table, you could see clearly why you couldn't do that. You're 99.9 percent sure who's on the bottom. But you can't give names until you've made a positive identification. So by the time we finished the crime scene and could bring the bodies out, which was hours later. and we're not saying anything, there's a dichotomy that's dug pretty deep between us and the press. And then we made the final decision that we are going to hold the facts pretty close to our vest. More frustration. And i I think it was out of that frustration that the least of your flock started to do some pretty questionable sorts of things out there.
Q. Were there certain points during the year when you felt more or less of a sense of frustration?
A. It's been characterized as an emotional roller coaster. You have leads and you've got things going, and then when those leads give out then you feel down again. But then, you keep on with a process. So sure, there have been ups and downs during the course of the investigation. I think you can hearken back to some things - the Harrington case, which we were very much involved with, a cooperative effort with the Barrington (police). There are other aspects of the case that you're as familiar with as I am that the task force was involved in. There's a lot of police work, a lot of cases brought to conclusion through the task force. Unfortunately, the murder's still unsolved.