Jennifer Ehlenfeldt Shilling said she was shocked and bewildered when police long ago revealed the grisly details of how her parents, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, were brutally killed.
On Tuesday, with younger sisters Joy Ehlenfeldt and Dana Sampson by her side, a tearful Shilling let out the long exhalation she's been waiting more than 16 years to release.
"It's a time to heal. We are emotionally spent and exhausted. We want to move on," said Shilling, a state representative in Wisconsin.
Following the news of James Degorski's life sentence, Shilling stood united Tuesday with about 25 other family members of the seven victims murdered on Jan. 8, 1993 at Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine. The victims' families each expressed appreciation for the prosecutors' dedication, the efforts of the victim assistance team and the Palatine police department.
"Without their earnest and dedicated work on this case, following thousands of leads and believing that someday we would know who did this and believing that their day would come, we are grateful for their support as well," Shilling said.
The Ehlenfeldt family has never wavered in its opposition to the death penalty, participating in a candlelight vigil opposing capital punishment following the 2007 trial of Juan Luna, who also was convicted of the murders. But Ann Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeld's sister, said Degorski's sentence has caused her to question her convictions.
"I was angry at the defense team ... I saw a celebration as though this young man just had a huge victory," she said tearfully. "I found myself wanting the death penalty. That is so much against my principles."
The Wisconsin resident added: "If murdering seven people in the horrific way he did is not enough for the death penalty, in my mind, I wonder what is."
Jade Solis also thanked the police and prosecutors for helping to convict brother Rico Solis' killers.
"Justice has been served," she said confidently.
The trial's conclusion proved bittersweet for Mary Jane Crow, sister of Michael Castro, who will miss the connection that developed between the family members of the victims.
"We lost our loved ones, but we gained a bigger family," she said choking back tears, "and I love you so much."
"It's a bond that's unbreakable. We don't have to explain our pain, we know it," said Crow, who was among several family members who participated in a group hug following the news conference held after the verdict announcement.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez praised the prosecution team and expressed respect for the jury's verdict even though it was not the one they wanted.
Still, Degorski has been "held accountable for what he did and in that case justice has been served," she said.
Following Tuesday's verdict, relatives of Marcus Nellsen and Thomas Mennes reflected on their loved ones in life and in death. Mary Nunez said her brother, Marcus Nellsen, loved to joke and cook for family. He was an aspiring chef, which led him to his job at Brown's Chicken. Robert Mennes likes to remember the countless bike rides he shared with his brother, Thomas Mennes.
They also shared their disappointment with the jury's sentence. Diane Clayton, Marcus Nellsen's mother, said she'll have to learn to accept it.
"I really felt like Jim Degorski should have gotten the death penalty. He killed them for no other reason than he wanted to do something big," Clayton said. "I feel he deserved to lose his life, too. It's really hard to accept."
Clayton said the last 16 years have taken a physical toll on her, but that she remains strong for her other children. She refused to miss a single day of the eight-week trial. Palatine police officers drove her to the Chicago courthouse from her Schaumburg home on days sister Mary Nunez didn't attend.
"I had to go for my son," Clayton said. "It would have made me sick had I not made it."
When asked about whether the conclusion of the second trial provided Clayton with any closure, she tearfully shook her head.
"That'd be like closing my son out of my life and I can never do that."