Daily Herald
Witness: Degorski asked if God would forgive murder
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/14/2009 1:33 PM | Updated: 9/14/2009 7:34 PM

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On the eighth day of James Degorski's capital murder trial, the prosecution rested.

In its attempt to prove Degorski killed seven people at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta on Jan. 8, 1993, the state called more than 30 witnesses and introduced some 200 pieces of evidence, including grim crime scene videotapes and heartbreaking photos of the victims' bodies.

But prosecutors did not play for the jury a brief video statement recorded at the Streamwood police station about 4:15 p.m. on May 17, 2002, in which they say Degorski confessed to the murders.

Prosecutors claim Degorski, 37, and his high school pal Juan Luna committed the murders out of a desire to "do something big." Luna was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison. If convicted, Degorski could face the death penalty.

The prosecution concluded its case with former Assistant State's Attorney Michael McHale, now a Cook County Circuit Court judge, who testified that Degorski gave him a detailed account of the murders.

That account came over about nine hours as Degorski was questioned by McHale and former Palatine detective William King. McHale said King introduced him to Degorski about 10:30 p.m. May 16. McHale read Degorski his Miranda rights and spoke alone with him for about 45 minutes. During their conversation, Degorski spoke quietly, appeared guarded and indicated he could not remember details about the murders, McHale said. However, Degorski admitted to robbing the restaurant with his friend Juan Luna and said they used a silver gun, McHale said.

After that interview, McHale, who was coming down with a cold at the time, said he slept for a few hours at the police station, during which time King, now a commander, questioned Degorski. At 3:45 a.m., officers informed McHale that Degorski was giving a more detailed account of the crime. Another conversation with Degorski followed, this one lasting about three hours, McHale said.

McHale testified that Degorski said he and Luna planned to rob the restaurant; that they brought a silver .38 caliber revolver which Degorski bought from Matt Wzientek and a knife that had brass knuckles attached to it; that he fired a warning shot into the ceiling and he and Luna ordered the workers into the back of the restaurant. Degorski also stated that he killed two men (later identified as Richard Ehlenfeldt and Thomas Mennes) in the cooler, pocketed the shell casings and reloaded the gun, McHale said. Degorski stated he began mopping up, fearing they had left footprints, McHale said. Degorski said he saw Luna yell at one of the victims and slit her throat and that he saw Luna fire into the cooler, McHale said. Degorski then described leaving the restaurant, throwing the knife and gun into the Fox River and dividing the money with Luna at the Elgin home of their friend Eileen Bakalla, who picked the men up from the parking lot of a Carpentersville supermarket, McHale said. Degorski also said he told his girlfriend Anne Lockett (now Anne England) about the murders, McHale said.

McHale's testimony corroborates earlier statements by Bakalla, Lockett, Wzientek and Palatine commander King.

During her rigorous cross examination, Assistant Public Defender Susan Smith suggested prosecutors are specially trained to "elicit" statements from suspects.

"I had one purpose," McHale said, "to go out there and talk to Mr. Degorski if he was willing to talk to me."

Although he worked in the State's Attorney's cold case unit at the time, McHale said he had not been involved in the Brown's investigation before May 16, 2002, although he did review "minimal" police reports and statements by Lockett and Bakalla before speaking with Degorski.

During a heated exchange, Smith also questioned the reliability of Degorski's statement, suggesting that Degorski might have been influenced by information provided to him by McHale or by other authorities while McHale was asleep. McHale defended the validity of the statement.

"Yes, I believed him," McHale said. "His statement was reliable based on the three-hour, face-to-face conversation about how he killed seven people."

Walter Hanger, a born-again Christian who worked with Degorski in Indianapolis as a handyman for a condominium association, testified about a conversation they had several weeks before Palatine police picked Degorski up for questioning in 2002.

Hanger testified that Degorski once asked him, "if you killed somebody, would God forgive you?"

God would forgive, Hanger said, but the person would have to pay for what he did.

Alesia Hines, a Cook County Jail emergency medical technician, testified that Degorski told her he committed the murders "for fun." Their conversation came as Hines treated Degorski for a fractured jaw he suffered at the hands of a Cook County Jail corrections officer several days after his arrest. The officer was later acquitted of aggravated battery.

Noticing a newspaper on her desk, Degorski remarked, "Oh, we made the front-page news," Hines said.

Lead defense attorney Mark Levitt challenged Hines' credibility. Under cross examination, Hines admitted that she did not include Degorski's statement about the murders in any reports, nor did she inform her supervisor of their conversation. Levitt also confronted Hines with discrepancies in her statements in which she first recalled Degorski saying they committed the murders for "fun" and later that they did it "for kicks."

Dana Sampson, daughter of restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, led off testimony as the trial entered its third week. Sampson calmly testified how her mother took over Sampson's shift that fateful night so that Sampson could go to dinner with her boyfriend and his parents.

Sampson's voice caught when she identified a photograph of her parents taken at her grandparents' anniversary party a year before Lynn and Richard's deaths. But the glare she directed at Degorski as she walked from the witness stand to her seat never wavered.

The defense presents its case beginning Tuesday in Chicago.