Daily Herald
Trial of 2nd Brown's suspect offers little comfort for victims' families
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/30/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 8/30/2009 4:18 PM

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Diane Clayton has no happy memories of her son Marcus Nellsen.

Grief underscores every recollection she has of the 31-year-old former Navy cook, murdered along with six others at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta in 1993.

Every joyful image she conjures is tainted by the horrible image of his lifeless body, slumped in a freezer alongside four co-workers. Two other victims, also co-workers, were found in a nearby cooler.

"You can't think of the good times without thinking of the bad times," said Clayton, wiping away the tears that accompany any discussion of Nellsen. "My kids were my whole life. Without him a part of me is gone also."

After some troubled years marred by a divorce, treatment for depression and a struggle with and triumph over alcoholism, Nellsen was living in Palatine, happily employed and settling into a management position at the restaurant owned by Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt of Arlington Heights. Nellsen got on well with the owners and said Lynn reminded him of his mom.

The restaurant offered a fresh start for Nellsen as it did for the Ehlenfeldts, who used their life savings to open the restaurant after Richard fell victim to corporate downsizing. Owning the restaurant was not her parents' ultimate career goal, said Joy Ehlenfeldt, the youngest of the couple's three daughters, but they did it to support their family. And in doing so, they extended a helping hand to others.

"They still held true to their values and their belief in reaching out to the community to help people out, to try to give people a break," she said.

The restaurant was also a new beginning for Rico Solis, 17, who had emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines eight months before the murders, and for Guadalupe Maldonado, 47, of Palatine, who had arrived from Mexico with his family about three weeks earlier.

But it all ended violently on Jan. 8, 1993, when authorities say James Degorski and Juan Luna entered the restaurant intending to rob it and left with about $1,800 after murdering seven people. Luna was convicted of the murders two years ago and sentenced to life in prison. His co-defendant Degorski goes on trial Monday in Chicago. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Jurors will hear how Nellsen's body was found with Lynn Ehlenfeldt's and fellow employees Michael Castro, 16, of Palatine, Maldonado and Solis in the walk-in freezer. The bodies of Richard Ehlenfeldt and Thomas Mennes, 32, of Palatine, were found in the walk-in cooler.

Clayton remembers thinking it was all a horrible mistake. At the morgue, she confronted the truth. The sorrow she felt then has never gone away.

It never will.

"There will never be closure," she said.

However, other victims' families believe the trial could offer them relief.

"I'd like to get it over with so we can get on with our lives," said Robert Mennes, Thomas' older brother. "For me, it's just a long, long time."

In the days after the murders, Clayton was certain police would catch the killer.

"I thought, any day now, any day," she said, speaking in the quiet southern lilt that recalls her Georgia roots.

But time went by and no suspects emerged. Weeks turned into months, which stretched to years. When no arrest came, Clayton began to worry that she might not live to see her son's killer arrested, tried and convicted. Maldonado's wife returned to her native Mexico. Solis' family left Palatine for Chicago's Northwest side.

Three or four years after the murders, Ehlenfeldt reconciled herself to the likelihood that the crime would never be solved.

"For me to move on, I needed to accept that," she said. "My one prayer was that the individuals (responsible for the murders) were not going out and committing other crimes."

During the nine years that the case remained unsolved, Palatine and its police department continued to support her family, Ehlenfeldt said.

"We have high regard for the Palatine Police Department and appreciate all their efforts," Ehlenfeldt said. "We know how invested they all became."

In 2002 one of Clayton's daughters called her at her Tennessee home to tell her police had made an arrest. Within two hours, she was in a car, driving to Palatine.

The families waited five years after the arrests for Luna's trial. Degorski's comes 16 years after the murders and two years after his co-defendant's.

Ehlenfeldt says she and her sisters are relieved it has finally come. It won't be easy to endure, but the family is better prepared for how the legal system works, Ehlenfeldt said.

"You have to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself to be taken back to that time," she said. "You don't really want to go there. But it's important for use to be there to represent our parents and to see justice come to fruition."

Since Marcus' murder, both his younger brother Paul and Clayton's husband have died. Clayton and her daughters Laura, Mary and Carolyn and Marcus' 21-year-old daughter Jessica - a preschooler when he died - will represent Nellsen at Degorski's trial.

While Clayton dreads seeing the crime scene photos again, she says nothing will keep her away from the courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago.

"I'll be there every day for Marcus," she said.

United in grief, divided by the punishment, the victims' families disagreed on the appropriate sentence after Luna's conviction. Clayton favors the death penalty, and at the time of Luna's sentencing, members of the Maldonado and Solis families shared Clayton's views. Epifania Castro, Michael's mother; Robert Mennes; death penalty opponent Joy Ehlenfeldt and her sisters Jennifer Shilling and Dana Sampson favored life in prison.

"There are times when it's hard to be against the death penalty," Ehlenfeldt said.

Luna avoided the death penalty after one juror voted to spare his life.

At the end of this second trial, no verdict or sentence can compensate for what Clayton has lost.

"It's not going to be a happy day," she says. "He (Degorski) has family. I'm sure they're hurting."

"No one's going to walk away from that case a winner," she said. "We all lost."

Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report