For years, Casey Haefs struggled with survivor's guilt for not being there that fateful night in 1993 when her two bosses and five co-workers were slain at the Palatine Brown's Chicken where she was a cashier.
Haefs even told police about a frequent nightmare that haunted her sleep in which she is among the victims, but awakes just as the faceless assailant points the gun at her.
But, Haefs testified Wednesday, police grew increasingly aggressive toward her in the next six years as they questioned her some two dozen times. Finally, during an eight-hour April 28, 1999, interrogation, Haefs said she broke and was pressured into concocting a false confession, admitting she was there as her boyfriend opened fire.
"It was terrible," said Haefs, a 33-year-old Crystal Lake medical assistant. "They're screaming at you. They're in your face. They get you to question yourself. I've never experienced anything like that and hope never to again. Words can't ever describe what it was like."
Her riveting testimony came Wednesday in James Degorski's death penalty trial.
Degorski, 37, formerly of Hoffman Estates, is accused of committing the Jan. 8, 1993, mass murder with his high school pal Juan Luna in their quest to "do something big."
Luna, 35, linked through his DNA and a 45-minute videotaped confession, in which he also implicates Degorski, is serving a life prison term after a lone juror in 2007 spared his life.
Prosecutors lack forensic evidence against Degorski, arrested in May 2002 after his former girlfriend told police he had confessed to her nine years earlier. Prosecutors said Degorski provided a detailed unrecorded confession after his arrest in which he admitted killing two victims, cleaning up and disposing the murder weapon.
Haefs is the second defense witness to testify that overzealous police coerced a false confession. Earlier this week, John Simonek recalled how he, then 22, was pressured into turning his "vision" of the crime into a reality.
The defense presented the testimony to show jurors that the Brown's task force was capable of getting innocent people to confess. They hope that will cast doubt in jurors' minds of the veracity of what authorities said Degorski told them.
Haefs, formerly Casey Sander, was a 17-year-old Palatine High School student who worked as a cashier for just six months before the murders. She was supposed to work that night, but 17-year-old Rico Solis took her shift to make extra cash. Haefs testified she stopped into the restaurant earlier that night to pick up her paycheck, then just drove around with her boyfriend.
She told jurors police grew increasingly dissatisfied with her answers through the years.
"As it progressed, they just got nastier and nastier until they were just downright mean," she testified in a determined, self-assured voice.
Then, during the April 28, 1999, interrogation, she said they were relentless. Haefs, then about 23, said she finally told police what they wanted to hear so she could go home.
"They guilt you into it," she said. "I already felt guilty for not being there."
She continued: "They said they didn't think it was a dream, that that was something that really happened and I subconsciously turned it into a dream, that I was a witness and should tell them the truth about what really happened."
"Finally, I gave them a story. I made up a story."
Upon cross examination, Haefs named former task force head James Bell and Jack Byrnes, a Palatine police detective, as the main investigators who interrogated her in 1999. Neither of them were involved in Degorski's 2002 questioning. Earlier, though, she did identify a picture of Palatine Commander William King as one of the authorities with whom she had some contact. It was King and former prosecutor Michael McHale, now a judge, who testified Degorski confessed to them.
The task force's focus on Haefs intensified after Simonek in 1998 identified Haefs' boyfriend as the killer. Simonek said he was with him, but he - similar to Haefs - painted himself as an unwilling participant. He officially confessed in videotaped and written statements Aug. 5, 1999.
Neither Haefs, Simonek nor the man both implicated were ever charged and no physical evidence connects them to the crime scene. Haefs said police weren't happy with her confession because it "didn't match up" to all the evidence. Still, they finally let her go home that morning.
The next day, she hired an attorney, "because I couldn't take it anymore." She compared the police interrogation to worse than that of the drill sergeants she encountered while in boot camp.
Of her false confession, Haefs said: "In hindsight, it was not a good idea."
The trial, before Cook Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan, resumes Thursday in Chicago.