Daily Herald
Degorski guilty of Brown's Chicken murders
By Christy Gutowski, Kimberly Pohl and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/29/2009 4:56 PM | Updated: 9/30/2009 8:30 AM

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Guilty, at last.

More than 16 years ago, prosecutors say Jim Degorski walked into Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt's Palatine restaurant with a pocket full of bullets and a twisted desire to "do something big." Tuesday, a Cook County jury took less than two hours to convict him of murder - seven times - in one of the most notorious crimes in suburban history.

Family members of the Ehlenfeldts and five employees working with them at the Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993, have waited literally a lifetime for this verdict - the lifetime of Michael Castro, the youngest victim, who was only 16 at the time. The other victims were Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

As the court clerk read the verdict for each of the seven victims, Robert Mennes, older brother of Thomas, slowly exhaled. Diane Clayton, mother of Nellsen, wiped away tears, while Richard Ehlenfeldt's sister Ann clasped hands with one of the couple's daughters, Jennifer Shilling, who dabbed her eyes with a tissue.

Profound sadness coupled with a sense of relief that their quest for justice is almost over swept across the faces of Ehlenfeldt daughters Dana Sampson and Joy Ehlenfeldt. It was evident in the way the Castro family embraced in the hall after the verdict, in the quiet strength Maldonado's sons displayed, and in the muffled sobs of Rico Solis's sisters.

Across the aisle, members of Degorski's family did not visibly react to the verdict. His mother, Patricia - her face flushed and her eyes teary and downcast - remained stoic. Her lower lip quivered, but she shed no tears.

Defense attorneys Mark Levitt and Susan Smith bent down to speak with her, appearing to offer consoling words and to explain what happens next. The somber family waited until the courtroom thinned out before leaving, staring straight ahead as they passed a throng of reporters.

Spectators in the packed courtroom obeyed Judge Vincent Gaughan's warning against any outbursts. As for Degorski, 37, he appeared nervous but otherwise did not outwardly react before being led back to his jail cell.

"We're obviously deeply disappointed but continue to respect the work this jury has done," lead defense attorney Mark Levitt said. "We'll continue to fight on."

Added Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez: "As you know, this case is not over. I'm very proud of the hard work this team (of prosecutors) has done. It's been a long road."

Palatine police Chief John Koziol, citing the judge's gag order, declined to comment. But the jury's verdict appears to vindicate police work that had been subjected to intense public criticism. Koziol and Palatine Cmdr. William King, who testified that Degorski confessed to him in May 2002, reacted to the verdict with smiles and later embraced prosecutors.

Family members on both sides declined to comment after Gaughan admonished them in no uncertain terms not to talk with the media or he would bar them from testifying during future phases of the trial.

The verdict marks the beginning of the end of a trial that got under way more than four weeks ago and has included more than 300 exhibits and some 60 witnesses. The jury of six men and six women will next consider whether Degorski is eligible for the death penalty based on certain statutory factors. His co-defendant, Juan Luna, was convicted of the murders in 2007 and sentenced to life without parole after one lone juror voted to spare his life.

The murders remained unsolved for more than nine years until Degorski's former girlfriend Anne Lockett, now Anne Lockett England, came forward to say he and Luna admitted to her what they had done, sharing details that had not been made public. Eileen Bakalla, another Degorski high school friend, told a similar story incriminating the two men after police confronted her. Both women testified during the trial.

Authorities linked Luna to the crime scene after matching his DNA to the remains of a chicken dinner and his palm print to a discarded napkin found in an otherwise empty garbage bag inside the restaurant. They also had a 45-minute videotaped confession in which Luna detailed how the murders unfolded.

The prosecution's evidence against Degorski was largely circumstantial. No DNA or fingerprints tied him to the scene, and the prosecution never played for the jury Degorski's five-minute videotaped confession in which they say he admitted killing two of the victims.

Yet all of the puzzle pieces fit convincingly for Degorski's jury.

Prosecutors say Degorski gave the same damning, detailed account to England and Bakalla in 1993 as he gave to King and former Assistant State's Attorney Michael McHale - now a Cook County judge - in 2002. He described using a wedge to block the exit, wearing gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, herding the employees into the back and later mopping up the scene.

Degorski also told McHale that he bought the murder weapon from an acquaintance and disposed of it by throwing it into the Fox River. The gun has never been found.

Prosecutor Thomas Biesty noted a half dozen witnesses who told the jury how Degorski implicated himself to them, revealing facts of the crime that had not been made public.

"As the blood of the victims and their life oozes out of them in the coolers, the defendants make their escape," Biesty said in his closing argument.

It was all about doing something big, Biesty said. "But what's the use of doing something big if you can't tell somebody?"

The defense team attacked the prosecution's case, saying that not one forensic scientist could link Degorski to the crime scene.

"Not one of them is able to place him at the restaurant, and the reason is simple: He was not there. He did not do it," Levitt said. "The prosecution has been scrambling. They can appeal to your emotions, because we all have emotions. They can appeal to your senses, but what they're lacking is evidence."

In the end, the testimony of prosecution witnesses proved sufficient to convince the jurors of Degorski's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Today, their work will resume at 11 a.m., as the testimony begins leading up to Degorski's sentencing. In the coming days, the prosecution will call witnesses to describe the brutality of the crime and its impact on the grieving families as paramount reasons to support execution.

To try to save his life, Degorski's attorneys will call his family members and others who'll describe a rough childhood and otherwise law-abiding life.

They'll likely try to paint Luna as the mastermind and Degorski as a more innocent tag-along - just the opposite of the image Luna's defense team portrayed.

Guilty: Judge warned family members not to speak publicly