Daily Herald
Prosecutor: Brown's Chicken killings about 'thrills,' doing 'something big'
Defense contends Degorski 'was not there' when 7 were slain
By Christy Gutowski and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/31/2009 1:17 PM | Updated: 8/31/2009 10:26 PM

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Prosecutors painted James Degorski as a cold-blooded killer during Monday's opening statements in his trial for the 1993 slayings of seven people at a Palatine Brown's Chicken.

They say Degorski and co-defendant Juan Luna - convicted of the murders in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison - committed the crime out of a desire to do "something big." Afterward, Degorski is accused of methodically covering his tracks to avoid being linked to one of the bloodiest chapters in suburban history.

The defense argued Degorski is innocent and insisted the state's circumstantial case relies on unreliable witnesses and lacks physical evidence linking him to the murders.

"He was not there. He did not do it. He is not guilty," lead defense attorney Mark Levitt told jurors.

More than 30 members of the victims' families crowded the courtroom gallery, watching through teary eyes as prosecutors gave a horrific account of the violence they said unfolded Jan. 8, 1993, inside the restaurant owned by Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt.

Degorski, 37, dressed in a green shirt and olive tie, listened intently, but did not otherwise outwardly react. He may face the death penalty if convicted. About 10 members of his family were present.

The bodies of the Ehlenfeldts and their employees - Michael Castro, 16, Guadalupe Maldonado, 46, Thomas Mennes, 32, Marcus Nellsen, 31, and Rico Solis, 17 - were found in a walk-in freezer and a cooler.

During his opening statement, Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Lou Longhitano told jurors in painstaking detail how each victim died.

Lynn Ehlenfeldt suffered a gunshot wound to her head and sustained a 5-and-a-half-inch knife wound to her throat. Richard Ehlenfeldt had five gunshot wounds to his head and upper body. Nellsen received a gunshot wound to the head and suffered a fractured skull after prosecutors say he was pistol whipped. Mennes received three gunshot wounds to his head and upper body. Maldonado was shot twice in his head and once in his hand. Castro, who sustained the most wounds, was shot six times in the head and torso, including one gunshot wound to his palm which prosecutors described as defensive in nature.

His father, Manny Castro, 68, was the first witness to testify, describing his frantic search in vain to locate his missing son early that snowy January morning. He said he went back and forth between the restaurant and his home, just 500 yards away, throughout the night before police finally told him of his son's fate.

"This wasn't a robbery gone bad," Longhitano said. "This was never about the money. It was about the thrill. They wanted to do something big, and they made a big splash in the blood of seven innocent victims."

Degorski is accused of providing the knife, gun and bullets that night. Prosecutors said he announced the robbery, fired the first shots, set up the alibi and scrubbed down Luna's Ford Tempo the next day following the killings. Prosecutors said Degorski killed two victims - Richard Ehlenfeldt and Mennes - in a walk-in cooler.

"They were on their knees but he showed them no mercy," Longhitano said.

Later, Degorski took the gun from Luna to "finish" what his accomplice had begun in the larger freezer, Longhitano said.

Police linked Luna, 35, to the killings through a detailed videotaped confession, his DNA on the remains of a chicken dinner and a partial palm print found on a discarded napkin. Prosecutors lack such physical evidence against Degorski - a point the defense made the cornerstone of its case. Fingerprints and shoe prints found at the scene do not match Degorski, Levitt said. Neither do hair or fiber evidence found at the scene. Levitt also stated that the chicken dinner remains had two distinct DNA profiles. One matched Luna, the other matches his accomplice, neither matches Degorski, Levitt said.

"There is not one single piece of evidence that ties James Degorski to this case, because he was not there," said Levitt, a member of the Public Defender's Homicide Task Force. "It doesn't exist. Over the years, memories fade, stories change, but physical evidence does not lie. Never did; never will."

The state's strongest evidence is a brief May 17, 2002, video in which prosecutors said Degorski admitted shooting two of the seven people. The defense, though, suggested the admission was coerced over more than nine hours of interrogation. They noted another man earlier confessed, only to be later cleared.

Police never found the gun used in the shootings, but Longhitano said a man who sold Degorski a chrome-plated, .38-caliber revolver in the summer of 1992 will testify during the trial. Prosecutors said the revolver likely fired the 20 bullets and fragments recovered at the crime scene.

Degorski's former girlfriend, Anne Lockett, and another high school friend, Eileen Bakalla, will testify that they saw the gun in Degorski's basement before the murders, Longhitano said. The women, who said Degorski confessed to them years earlier, waited nine years before coming forward with the break police needed to finally make the arrests.

Lockett, who the defense noted had a history of emotional and drug problems, is expected to testify that Degorski threatened to kill her if she shared the secret.

The final prosecution witness to testify Monday was the first to discover the crime. Gurnee police Sgt. Ronald Conley, a former Palatine police officer, went to the darkened restaurant to investigate Manny Castro's complaint of a missing son.

The officer told the six-man, six-woman jury what he saw after stepping inside the restaurant through an employee entrance that had been left ajar.

"A mass of humanity," Conley said, fighting back emotion as he described the five victims found in the walk-in freezer and two in the cooler. "The bodies almost were piled on top of each other; arms and legs intertwined. There was a lot of blood."

Jurors were taken back in time when prosecutors showed a 25-minute police video of the crime scene. The camera panned into the freezer and cooler, focusing on the bullet-riddled bodies of the victims.

Prosecutors said the killers cut the restaurant's power before fleeing, and the video zoomed in on an electric clock forever stopped at 9:48 p.m.

The trial, before Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan, will likely continue for several weeks in Chicago. The prosecution's forensic experts are expected to lead off Tuesday's testimony.