Daily Herald
Prosecutors climb uphill battle in first week of Brown's Chicken trial
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/6/2009 12:01 AM

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They've been gone as long as the youngest among them lived.

More than 16 years ago, two Palatine Brown's Chicken owners and their five employees were murdered in a violent, senseless act of terror.

In a dimmed Cook County courtroom last week, the horror of that night no longer seemed so far away as prosecutors played a video of the bloody crime scene for the riveted jury. The victims' families, seated in four pews in the packed gallery, quietly wept as images of their bullet-riddled loved ones appeared on a large screen.

"A mass of humanity," former Palatine police officer Ronald Conley said in describing what he saw as the first officer to arrive that night. "Bodies almost piled up on top of each other, arms and legs intertwined. Lots of blood. There were no signs of life."

His haunting words were among those heard during the first week of James Degorski's long-awaited trial - the final chapter of a murderous mystery that rocked Chicago's suburbs.

Degorski, 37, may face the death penalty if convicted of the mass murder late Jan. 8, 1993.

He has waited in jail since May 2002 for the chance to try to clear his name. Police said he lacks a soul. Prosecutors called him a "thrill" killer who along with his high school pal Juan Luna gunned down seven innocent people in a quest to do "something big."

But, to prove it, the prosecution team faces an uphill battle.

In an impassioned opening statement, Mark Levitt, the lead defense attorney, attacked the credibility of the prosecution's case - which lacks forensic evidence tying Degorski to the crime scene.

Levitt conceded Degorski knew about the murders through Luna, now serving a life prison sentence since 2007 after another jury's guilty verdict. Levitt suggested Degorski even falsely bragged to a couple high school friends that he was there when Luna "went ballistic" and started killing people.

"Knowing something and keeping it a secret does not make James Degorski a killer," Levitt said. "It was irresponsible. It was wrong, but it doesn't make you guilty."

He added: "There is not one single piece of evidence that ties James Degorski to this case, because he was not there."

The absence of such evidence is not proof of Degorski's innocence, the prosecution countered. They said the men wore rubber gloves in a carefully planned robbery at Luna's former workplace.

The case remained unsolved for nearly a decade until Degorski's former girlfriend Anne Lockett told police in Spring 2002 he confessed to her back then. She kept his secret out of fear, prosecutors said. Lockett is expected to testify this week as the prosecution's star witness.

So far, nearly 20 prosecution witnesses took the stand in the trial's first week. Most of the focus centered on forensic science testimony that links Luna - not Degorski - to the crime scene. To break up the tediousness of the technical experts' testimony, the prosecution began each day by calling a relative of one of the slain.

The bodies of the victims - 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. All were shot in the head. A few died with their eyes open. Luna cut Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat as she fumbled to open a safe.

In testimony, Manny Castro described his frantic search to find his 16-year-old son. Robert Mennes told jurors about how his brother often came over for spaghetti dinners. Diane Clayton fought back emotion in recalling the sight of her son's body at the morgue. Jade Solis remembered passing her brother in their high school hallway. It would be their last encounter.

Degorski, seated feet away, listened to their memories, but he showed no outward signs of emotion. His mother, Patricia, with other family, has attended each day of the trial.

Prosecutor Lou Longhitano spoke of the senselessness of it all.

"This wasn't a robbery gone bad," he 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."

Juan Luna purchased a four-piece chicken meal at 9:08 p.m. that night, according to a register receipt. Authorities retrieved the half-eaten meal from an otherwise empty trash can. It would be years before DNA testing advanced in sophistication but, eventually, Luna's genetic profile was matched to that on the nibbled chicken.

The defense argues a second, never-identified DNA source on the chicken belongs to his real accomplice.

Luna's partial left palm print also was recovered on a discarded napkin. The former Carpentersville man confessed in a detailed 45-minute videotaped confession in which he also implicates Degorski, but this jury won't get to hear Luna's words.

So far, the Degorski prosecution team has focused largely on retrying Luna through the forensic testimony. The only witness to directly link Degorski to the mass murder is Eileen Bakalla, one of his friends. The 36-year-old Lake County divorced mother of two shyly smiled at Degorski when asked to identify him.

She testified Degorski admitted to her that he took part in the murders that same night. Bakalla said she was even with him when he and Luna split the robbery proceeds and, later, when Degorski meticulously cleaned Luna's getaway car. She kept his secret for nine years, out of loyalty, until police confronted her in 2002.

Though Bakalla admitted her memory was somewhat fuzzy, she told jurors she'd never forget her friend's confession, no matter how hard she tries. She offered no apologizes.

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. Prosecutors are expected to play the tape, less than 5 minutes long, toward the end of their case. The defense, though, suggested that admission was coerced. They noted another man, John Simonek, gave a detailed confession in 1999, only to be later cleared.

Police never found the gun, but Longhitano said a man who sold Degorski a .38-caliber revolver in the summer of 1992 will testify. Prosecutors said the revolver likely fired the 20 bullets and fragments recovered at the crime scene - a point the defense vigorously disputes.

Though Degorski cannot be linked through DNA, the prosecution insists, the chicken and napkin evidence against Luna are part of a puzzle that along with Bakalla and Lockett's testimonies prove Degorski's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Years before, Degorski knew that chicken could come back to haunt him and he was right," Longhitano said. "Life has a funny way of catching up with people."

The trial, in which Cook Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan is presiding, continues Tuesday in Chicago.