Daily Herald
Expert describes wounds that killed Brown's victims
By Kimberly Pohl and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/8/2009 2:04 PM | Updated: 9/8/2009 7:35 PM

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Not one of the seven victims of the 1993 slayings at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta gave James Degorski and Juan Luna any trouble on the fateful January night 16 years ago.

That's what Palatine Police Cmdr. William King said Degorski told him on May 17, 2002, over the course of nine hours of questioning about the killings.

King testified about the exchange Tuesday as Degorski's capital murder trial entered its second week in Chicago.

Degorski, 37, has been charged with the murders of Brown's co-owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and their employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31 and Rico Solis, 17. Luna was convicted of the murders in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison. If convicted, Degorski could face the death penalty.

Degorski described the victims as nice people, said King, who testified about the late evening and early morning conversations he had with Degorski at the Streamwood police station that day. Degorski, working as a repairman in Indiana at the time, agreed to accompany King and a fellow Palatine officer back to Illinois for questioning, King said.

King testified that Degorski's comment about the victim prompted a question.

"If they're nice people why did you kill them all?" recalled King. "He said they wanted to do something big."

King received word in late March 2002 from a fellow officer about a woman named Anne Lockett who had information about the murders. Lockett, Degorski's former girlfriend, told a high school friend in 2002 that Degorski confessed to her what he and Luna had done. A friend called Palatine police, which led to King to Lockett.

Prosecutors say Lockett will testify about what Degorski told her and how he threatened her if she told. In April 2002, police tracked down Degorski and requested a meeting with him at the Palatine police station where he complied with their request for fingerprints and a DNA sample, King said.

Statements by Lockett and another friend, Eileen Bakalla, who testified that Degorski and Luna also confessed to her hours after the murders, led police to Luna who was living in Carpentersville with his wife and young son in 2002.

DNA taken from the remains of a chicken dinner found at the scene, a partial palm print on a napkin and Luna's 45-minute confession link him to the crime. No physical evidence ties Degorski to the scene. Defense attorneys insist he did not commit the murders.

However, King testified that Degorski said he fired a warning shot and announced "this is a robbery." Degorski also told him he brought the gun, ammunition and knife and that he and Luna planned the robbery at closing time when fewer employees were there. Degorski gave Luna latex gloves and used a mop to clean up the scene, King said. Degorski said he threw the gun into the Fox River at the Carpentersville Dam, King said. The gun has never been recovered.

Some of the statements King says Degorski made corroborate Luna's taped confession. Degorski did not speak extensively about the murders on videotape. However, prosecutors have a short videotaped statement in which they say he admits to killing two of the victims. They have not yet played it for the jury.

During cross examination, Assistant Public Defender Michael Mayfield tried to cast doubt on the Palatine Police Department, particularly a now-defunct practice to destroy interview notes after an officer compiles a report. King spent three hours alone with Degorski interrogating him, Mayfield said, and the only evidence of the exchange that took place is the commander's summary.

"What we have is your word about what went on in that room," Mayfield said.

King said a law has since been passed that requires investigators to keep notes in a homicide case, but "that's what everybody did back then," he said.

The defense also questioned the absence of fingernail samples from the victims. Mayfield showed the jury a photograph of Richard Ehlenfeldt at the morgue with paper bags taped over his hands to preserve evidence. King, a 26-year veteran of the department, was given blood and hair samples and the victims' clothes to take to the crime lab, but no fingernail scrapings.

Former Cook County Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue said Tuesday that policy only called for him to take fingernail samples in cases involving sexual assault or close contact with the killer, while King responded he didn't specifically tell the doctor what to do.

Defense attorneys countered that close contact would include the abrasions and skull fracture suffered by Nellsen, and the stab wound to Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat.

King remained calm on the witness stand throughout nearly three hours of testimony, despite the defense's claims that Palatine residents questioned their own safety and even police's methodologies. He acknowledged he had only worked on six or seven previous homicides and repeatedly maintained he didn't feel additional pressure to solve the crime from peers, officials, the growing cost of the investigation or publicity surrounding the murders.

"I work hard on any case," King said.

Donoghue, who spent 13 years as chief medical examiner, gave a bullet-by-bullet account of gunshot wounds to Solis, Castro, Maldonado and Nellsen, who also suffered a fractured skull that prosecutors attributed to one of the assailants pistol-whipping him. There was no testimony about the autopsies conducted on Mennes and the Ehlenfeldts.

Testimony continues Wednesday in Chicago.