Daily Herald
Scientist describes food evidence in Brown's case
By Christy Gutowski and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/1/2009 1:45 PM | Updated: 9/1/2009 8:58 PM

More Coverage

Eight minutes after closing time, one last customer at the Brown's Chicken ordered a four-piece chicken meal inside the Palatine restaurant for $6.69.

After nibbling on part of the meal, prosecutors allege, Juan Luna and his high school pal James Degorski killed the restaurant's married owners and five employees just for kicks to "do something big."

The crime scene investigator who preserved the register tape and the chicken bones back in 1993 testified Tuesday during the second day of Degorski's capital murder trial.

"It was obvious at some point in time that evidence could be valuable, either through DNA or bite mark evidence," said forensic scientist Jane Homeyer, now a national security expert for the U.S. government. "So, we were going to freeze it for future (evidence)."

Her decision more than 16 years ago helped lead to the arrests of two men charged in the infamous Jan. 8, 1993, mass murder.

Degorski, 37, who maintains his innocence, may face the death penalty if convicted.

Luna, 35, is serving a life prison term after his 2007 conviction. He was linked through his DNA on the remains of a chicken dinner, a partial palm print on a discarded napkin, and a 45-minute videotaped confession in which he also implicated Degorski.

Prosecutors, though, lack such compelling physical evidence against Degorski - a point his lawyers hammered as the crux of his defense.

Homeyer told jurors Tuesday she collected remnants of the meal, including French fries, coleslaw and uneaten biscuits, in an otherwise empty trash can inside the restaurant two days after the murders were discovered. Jurors also were shown old photos of the crime-scene evidence.

Days after discovering the discarded dinner, Homeyer said she placed the food in a freezer at the Northern Illinois Crime Lab. Homeyer said authorities knew the evidence could be significant because it was consistent with the purchase on the cash register receipt, which showed the meal was ordered after closing.

Prosecutors argue that DNA evidence against Luna connects Degorski to the crime scene, as well, through other witness testimony to be presented later in the trial. The case remained unsolved for nearly a decade until Degorski's former girlfriend, Anne Lockett, told police he had confessed to her shortly afterward.

She kept his secret out of fear, prosecutors said. Another friend, Eileen Bakalla, who provided Luna's alibi years ago after police questioned the former employee as part of the investigation, also is expected to testify that both men confessed to her.

The defense team argues no evidence connects Degorski to the crime scene. They admit Degorski and Luna were friends and that their client may have known of his co-defendant's involvement in the murders, but the defense told jurors they cannot find someone guilty simply by association.

The bodies of the victims - restaurant owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, and employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and 17-year-old Rico Solis - were found in a walk-in freezer and a cooler.

Robert Mennes testified Tuesday that he and his brother, Tom, last saw each other one day before the murders. He identified a photo of his brother during his brief testimony.

Back in 1993, DNA testing was still advancing in sophistication. It wasn't until 1998 that experts gleaned a usable DNA profile from the partially eaten chicken piece at the Brown's scene.

In fact, two separate profiles were identified, authorities say. One later was traced to Luna; another profile still hasn't been matched.

The defense maintains that second DNA profile belongs to Luna's real accomplice.

Homeyer, who testified for 31/2 hours, said the forensics team collected more than 200 prints. She testified that crime scene analysts wore gloves and bootees so as to not contaminate the evidence they retrieved. However, she said, the analysts did not wear masks because it was not standard practice then.

"Technology and awareness is much greater today," she said.

During cross examination, Assistant Public Defender Brendan Max asked Homeyer if she directed a colleague to collect hair and fiber evidence - specifically "Negroid hairs" - from some of the victims. Following up, Max asked her whether she knew that at one time police had a black suspect in mind and were interested in finding out whether his prints matched any found at the scene.

Homeyer said she did not know the suspect was black and said that she directed the colleague to collect trace evidence - namely hair and fibers - from the victims.

"I did not direct him to pull out Negroid hairs as opposed to any others," she said.

Prosecutors said Degorski and Luna wore rubber gloves in a carefully planned robbery, in which they netted less than $2,000. Degorski is accused of providing the knife, gun and bullets. He fired the first shots, prosecutors said, and was the one who destroyed evidence by tossing the gun into a river.

The most compelling evidence the prosecution has against Degorski is a short videotaped statement in which they said he admits to killing two of the victims. The tape, less than 5 minutes long, has not been played during the trial yet.

Though Degorski cannot be linked through DNA, the prosecution insists, the chicken and napkin evidence are part of a puzzle that along with Bakalla and Lockett's testimony proves his guilt.

"Years before, Degorski knew that chicken could come back to haunt him and he was right," Assistant State's Attorney Lou Longhitano said in his opening statement on Monday. "Life has a funny way of catching up with people."

The trial continues Wednesday in Chicago.