The fifth week of James Degorski's capital murder trial concluded with emotional testimony from Joy Ehlenfeldt, daughter of Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, owners of the Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta where Degorski and his high school pal Juan Luna shot to death seven people on Jan. 8, 1993.
"You said you wanted to do something big. You claimed you did something big. But what you did on Jan. 8, 1993, was small and cowardly," said Joy Ehlenfeldt, reading from her victim impact statement. "Someone who did do something big was my dad."
Earlier this week, a jury convicted Degorski of the murders of the Ehlenfeldts 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. Having found Degorski eligible for the death penalty, the jury will next consider whether he lives or dies.
The youngest of the Ehlenfeldts' three daughters, Joy Ehlenfeldt described her father as a loving son, dependable big brother, devoted husband and proud father. Passionate about social justice and service to others, Richard Ehlenfeldt also "loved a well-executed practical joke, was a zealot for organization and was handy with duct tape and WD-40," Ehlenfeldt said.
The Ehlenfeldts invested their life savings in the restaurant, which they opened after Richard was laid off from his job with a Chicago cable television company
"My dad taught us responsibility, fairness, compassion, integrity, honesty and mercy," she said, echoing the statement she read at Luna's sentencing hearing two years ago. Tearfully, Ehlenfeldt recalled the void her father's absence left when she and her sisters married.
"Each of us had to walk down the aisle at our wedding alone. There was no one who could replace him or give us away," she said. "We were only able to have him in our hearts, but not by our side."
Like Mary Jane Crow, older sister of Michael Castro who read her victim impact statement Thursday, Ehlenfeldt turned angry when she spoke about that fateful night. She wondered why Degorski and Luna didn't wear masks, why they didn't just take the money her parents would have given them to spare their employees and themselves.
"I realize it wasn't about money," she said. "It was about power and fear and terrorizing innocent and good people."
Yet, Degorski could not break her father, Ehlenfeldt said, and "because of his unwavering love for me and my sisters, you did not break us."
Ehlenfeldt insisted she will not allow anger to consume her.
"I do not allow the evilness of your actions to dictate my moral compass," she said.
As he has throughout the trial, Degorski remained impassive during family members' testimony.
"I watched you in court these four weeks, your body language and demeanor. Even now, you still don't seem to grasp the magnitude of this crime," she said. "Your actions are despicable."
Those actions, said Ehlenfeldt, will forever brand Degorski as a convicted killer, just as they have branded her and her sisters as daughters of murder victims. Ultimately, their hearts and those of the family members of the other victims, aren't the only hearts broken, she said. Degorski's family has also suffered. And now his parents and siblings must live with the knowledge that their son and brother is a "coldblooded murderer."
Ehlenfeldt concluded her statement as she did in 2007, with a passage from a letter her father wrote her mother. It read: "You are a beautiful, wonderful woman and I am proud to share this relationship with you. May our love continue to grow; may our lives together continue to share the happiness we have known."
"That's the man you killed," she said, "the man you took from us."
The prosecution rested following Ehlenfeldt's statement. The defense offers its mitigation arguments beginning Monday in Chicago.