Jennifer Peters said she will always love Jim Degorski.
The former Hoffman Estates woman began her testimony Monday afternoon by standing to identify her ex-boyfriend in court and giving the convicted killer a beaming smile and enthusiastic wave.
Peters, 38, then went on to describe the loving, hardworking man she dated on and off for about six years, as well as the sorrow she feels that he was found guilty last Tuesday in the slayings of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant in 1993.
"I'm devastated. It's very unfair what's happened to Jim," Peters said. "It's disgusting the picture they have painted of him. It's not the Jim Degorski most people know."
Monday marked the start of the sixth week of Degorski's capital murder trial and the defense's portion of the sentencing phase. The same jury that convicted him now will decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison - the sentence co-defendant Juan Luna received in 2007.
Peters appeared to fawn over Degorski, 37, whom she met while they attended Fremd High School in Palatine. She was best friends with his sister, but didn't start spending time with Degorski until after she graduated from college in late 1993. Around that time, she remembers witnessing Degorski cuddling on a couch with then-girlfriend Anne Lockett, who became the star prosecution witness as she testified earlier in the trial that Degorski and Luna told her details about the murders.
"To see a young man embrace a girl like that," Peters said, "I thought, I want that."
Peters and Degorski eventually moved into a Wauconda apartment together, but she said he moved out more than once on account of her immature blowups. Peters said she was selfish, impatient and would "let him have it verbally" for no reason. He'd always forgive her, though.
"It doesn't matter if you're in a wheelchair or disfigured or a different color," Peters said. "He will embrace you until you give a reason not to and even with my faults he embraced me."
She urged Degorski to start his own handyman business, Jim of All Trades, and said it flourished. He was an honest businessman, said Peters, who remembered one elderly customer on a fixed income whose payment for projects around the house was lunch. He also followed her to Tucson, Ariz., in 2000, but the pair broke up for good shortly after he moved, she said.
Peters reacted defiantly to Assistant Public Defender Michael Mayfield's reference to earlier testimony that Degorski physically abused Lockett, giving a dramatic eye roll as she shook her head. Peters said she never saw any signs indicating abuse, adding that Degorski also never laid a hand on her.
"Jim Degorski never, ever, ever hit me ever," Peters said.
The prosecution's cross-examination of Peters was limited to just one question.
"One of the things you told us is that you're a theater major," Assistant State's Attorney Tisa Morris said. "Is that correct?"
"That's correct," Peters responded.
While Degorski's relatives - notably absent from court Monday - are expected to take the stand today or Wednesday, both Peters and another of Degorski's friends, Reggie Knoll, referenced family turmoil in their testimony. Peters said she learned years later that Degorski's sister lived in her car for a period while in high school. She also recalled a time when the entire family drove Peters home because they didn't want her to be alone with Degorski's father, who Peters testified hit Degorski.
Knoll, whose parents employed Degorski and his sister at Jake's Pizza in Palatine, also described a cluttered Degorski home with holes in the wall. Knoll said he first went there with a large group of people in 1990 to investigate the sister's fear their dad - who had moved out - was home. Knoll began spending time with Degorski, mostly working on his car.
Knoll said he sometimes saw his close friend on drugs. Degorski was so out of it on one occasion, he laid down on the freezing driveway for 20 minutes wearing only shorts. He also saw an enraged Degorski throw a tool at the garage wall once.
It's a different picture than was painted of Degorski during testimony Monday morning by four Cook County Jail correctional officers, who described him as a model inmate in a brutal environment. His behavior eventually got him transferred to the "old man's deck," a part of the jail typically reserved for inmates at least 40 years old who don't cause problems.
"He's humorous, talkative," Officer Jose Reyes said. "Compared to the other inmates he has never given me a problem."
Department of Corrections Capt. Tyrone Everhart said Degorski was given one disciplinary ticket since his May 2002 booking. He failed to stand for a head count and was found in the fetal position under his bunk, though the captain didn't know why.
The trial resumes today before Judge Vincent M. Gaughan in Chicago.