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By Kimberly Pohl and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff - 9/10/2009
Anne England admits she does not have a stellar past. The prosecution's star witness against James Degorski acknowledges a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and agrees that she can't recall everything that happened during her troubled teen years. BACK TO STORY
Anne England admits she does not have a stellar past.
The prosecution's star witness against James Degorski acknowledges a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and agrees that she can't recall everything that happened during her troubled teen years, years that included multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations at a psychiatric facility.
But one conversation will always stay with her, she said Wednesday.
It's the one where her then-boyfriend Degorski and his high school pal Juan Luna confessed to her exactly how they killed seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta on Jan. 8, 1993, she testified. Luna was convicted of the murders in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison. If convicted, Degorski could face the death penalty.
England, whose maiden name was Lockett, provided the most compelling testimony Wednesday. But it was first-time prosecution witness Matt Wzientek who linked Degorski to the gun prosecutors say he and Luna used to commit one of the most gruesome crimes in suburban history.
Wzientek, 33, admitted he stole a stainless steel-colored, .38-caliber, snub-nosed revolver from the Barrington Hills home of friend Scott Spiedel during the summer of 1992. The gun was purchased legitimately in California in 1985 by Spiedel's father, Robert. Robert Spiedel gave the gun to his ex-wife Roberta for her protection after their divorce. Roberta and Scott Spiedel noticed the gun was missing in late 1992 but never reported the theft to the police.
Shortly after stealing the gun, Wzientek and a couple of friends, including Degorski's brother Kevin, ran away to California, Wzientek testified. On the way back to Illinois, Wzientek said Nebraska police stopped him for using his mother's Amoco card without authorization. Assistant Public Defender Kathleen Moriarty suggested police stopped him for using a credit card he stole while in California. Wzientek denied stealing the card, saying he found it in the bushes, "I swear to God," he told the jury, prompting a ripple of subdued laughter in the courtroom.
After returning home, Wzientek ran into James Degorski, who knew about the gun and offered him $50 for it, Wzientek testified.
"I said OK, because I was probably going to get busted with it anyway," Wzientek said. He threw in the bullets for free. Degorski gave him $15 but never paid the balance, Wzientek said.
Prosecutors say that was the same gun England testified she saw in Degorski's bedroom before the murders.
Now 33 and living in southern Illinois, England testified she tried to commit suicide and was admitted to Forest Hospital, a Des Plaines psychiatric facility, on Jan. 7, 1993, one day before the Brown's murders. She said Degorski called her the evening after the murders.
"He said he had done something big and that I should watch the news that night," said England, who recalled going to the ward's TV room after hanging up.
The defense suggested that her extensive drug use and psychological problems may have clouded her memory, but England insists she was sober the night Degorski and Luna confessed to her in late January, 1993, in Degorski's basement bedroom in his Hoffman Estates home.
England said the pair told her they drove Luna's Ford Tempo to Brown's and walked in the snow in "weird ways to obscure their footprints." They put a wedge in the back door so no one could leave, entered the restaurant and ordered a chicken dinner.
She said Degorski, who she called Jim, was upset Luna bought the meal because greasy chicken causes fingerprints. Luna's DNA was found on the nibbled chicken and his partial palm print on a napkin. No physical evidence links Degorski with the crime.
Luna and Degorski described to England the chaos that ensued after they emerged from the bathroom wearing gloves, she testified. They scuffled with one employee, while the wedge prevented another worker from fleeing. Someone who jumped over the counter was the first to get shot, she said they told her. England also said Luna had shot someone, but "Jim had to finish him off."
She said Luna slit owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat because she made him mad. One of the victims vomited, she said the men told her.
Luna spoke animatedly, while Degorski remained reserved during their conversation, England recalled. She also testified they told her they threw their shoes and old clothes in a Dumpster and threw the gun in the Fox River. They said they chose Brown's Chicken because Luna had previously worked there, she testified.
"They did it because Juan wanted to see what it was like to kill somebody and Jim agreed to help," England said. She testified that she kept silent for nine years because Degorski threatened her if she told. "I was very afraid he was going to kill me," she said. "Seven people were already gone. What's one more?"
Prosecutors tried to garner sympathy for England, who started sobbing when Assistant State's Attorney Tom Biesty asked why she attempted suicide in fall, 1992, an attempt which landed her in Forest Hospital for two months.
"I was very unhappy. In high school my dad died. My sister didn't live at home anymore. I was an outcast because I was fat. I would do anything to feel something different from misery," England said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
Despite her troubled youth and early adulthood, England earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Eastern Illinois University in 2003 while working in a home for people with disabilities.
But the defense painted a much darker picture of the prosecution's star witness. Assistant Public Defender Mark Levitt pointed out that in 2004, England was fired from her animal care job for showing up to work drunk. A year later, she was fired from a similar job for stealing drugs meant for the animals. Then in 2006, she admitted to stealing prescription drugs from people's homes while working for Merry Maids, which led to a car wreck and DUI conviction.
England battled addiction from a young age. She said she began drinking at about 10 and began smoking marijuana at 14. She admitted using LSD several times a week during her teens, along with speed, cocaine and PCP, which gave way to prescription drugs later in life.
"It's all sort of a blur back then," Levitt said. "You were high a lot."
Levitt tried to discredit England's testimony by questioning her memory. Under defense cross examination, she admitted she wasn't sure whether Luna or Degorski made certain statements, she couldn't remember doctors' names and didn't recall what drugs she used on what days.
But England was clean during that fateful, late January conversation with Degorski and Luna, she said.
"Will you ever forget the statement the defendant made to you?" Biesty asked.
"Absolutely not. Never," England replied.