Daily Herald
Victims' families confront convicted killer James Degorski
By Christy Gutowski and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 10/1/2009 1:50 PM | Updated: 10/1/2009 8:46 PM

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As the jury began hearing testimony in the sentencing phase of James Degorski's capital murder trial Thursday, prosecutors urged them to take the measure of the man and impose death.

The defense asked them to do the same and impose a sentence of life in prison without parole.

A hush fell over Courtroom 500 as tearful family members of seven people slain at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta confronted the man convicted of the murders. On Jan. 8, 1993, Degorski and his old high school pal Juan Luna killed the co-workers out of a desire "do something big," the jury determined. More than 16 years later, Degorski's past has come back to haunt him.

The bodies of 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 - who picked up a shift that night to make some extra cash - were found in a walk-in freezer and a cooler. All were shot in the head and some through their hands as they tried to shield themselves.

The jury convicted Degorski on seven counts of first-degree murder on Tuesday and found him eligible for the death penalty Wednesday. Now, those six men and six women will determine whether he lives or dies.

For Diane Clayton, a death penalty supporter, the decision is clear.

"You and Juan Luna left the Brown's restaurant after terrorizing and killing my son and six other victims and went on with your lives as if nothing ever happened," said the Schaumburg resident whose son Marcus Nellsen was among those killed. "How could you live with yourself?"

Clayton's emotional victim impact statement came on the first day of Degorski's death penalty sentencing hearing for the 1993 murders.

Degorski, 37, occasionally rocked in his chair at the defense table, but otherwise remained composed while family members of the victims expressed their loss and anger during one of the most emotionally wrenching days of the five-week trial.

Robert Mennes, older brother of Thomas Mennes, described watching movies, playing pool and riding bikes with the man he described as a "friend as well as my brother."

"Do you sleep? Do you have nightmares?" he asked. "I still see Tom in my dreams as he looked after he died, before he was made to look presentable and decent before he was laid to rest."

Maldonado's oldest son Juan, a child at the time of the murders, testified how difficult it has been for him and his two brothers growing up without their father. He recalled after the murders, hearing his brother asking "Where's my poppa? Why doesn't he come home?"

"We would run out of time, paper and words to explain our pain of how we miss our dad," Maldonado said.

Thursday's proceedings also included testimony from Degorski's former high school girlfriend, Kristin Smith, who described how he punched, slapped and verbally abused her during their one-year relationship. She described a particularly harrowing encounter May 11, 1992, after they broke up, in which he brutally beat and threatened to kill her, duct taped her hands and feet and made her get in the trunk of her car. He released her some five hours later. She made an official complaint and police filed charges against Degorski, who received a year's supervision and was ordered to stay away from her, Smith said. But she testified that he continued to drive by her house and call her occasionally for several years.

"He told me one time he was going to make himself famous and it wouldn't be the way I expected," she said.

Jade Solis, sister of Rico, read a statement written by her sister Jizelle who described her brother's murder as "a nightmare that came true - like someone put a broken glass into my heart and crushed it."

Mary Jane Crow's voice broke when she mentioned her baby brother Michael Castro, a helpful son and excellent student who had recently earned his driver's license.

"He didn't deserve to die like this. No one deserved to die at Brown's that night," said Crow, co-owner of a Palatine Dairy Queen. Grief-stricken when she took the witness stand, she grew defiant as she addressed Degorski directly.

"Did you enjoy seeing your handiwork unfold? Did you enjoy watching us suffer all these years, pleading and begging to the public for information?" said Crow, raising her voice and leveling a withering stare at Degorski. "What goes around comes around. All the pain and suffering you have caused will come back to you."

Dana Sampson, daughter of Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, concluded Thursday's testimony with a loving tribute to her mother, "a tireless worker for peace and justice (who) wanted other people to know they were loved unconditionally" and whose most cherished role was that of mother to her three girls.

"She kissed boo-boos and read bedtime stories and made the best brownies in the world," Sampson said. "Our family is incomplete without her here - There is an emptiness that can never be filled."

"You broke our hearts, nearly crushed our spirit, fractured our souls, and robbed us of our innocence," she said to Degorski. "Because of your selfish and reprehensible acts, we had to grow up before our time. Our grief is never-ending, but we are not paralyzed by your actions because the very woman you murdered taught us not to become consumed by hate."

A few jury members appeared to shed tears as they listened to Sampson and the others. The enormity of the task facing them was palpable.

Assistant Public Defender Susan Smith acknowledged that and alluded to the emotions jurors might be experiencing.

"You may be filled with vengeance and a desire to see blood spilled where blood has already been spilled," she said, referencing 17th century poet John Donne's "Meditation XVII" in which Donne writes "any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."

Smith indicated the defense will introduce evidence of Degorski's traumatic childhood, the abuse he suffered and the dysfunctional family in which he grew up as a way of mitigating a death sentence. Asking the jury to consider life, she assured them it guarantees Degorski will never again walk free.

"James Degorski is not a monster," she said. "James Degorski is a human being."

"At the end of the day his life is in your hands."