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By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff - 9/13/2009
Pictures told the story of the infamous Brown's Chicken murders last week as James Degorski's capital murder trial continued. BACK TO STORY
Pictures told the story of the infamous Brown's Chicken murders last week as James Degorski's capital murder trial continued.
Grim crime scene photographs and a brief but telling videotape showing the removal of several victims of the 1993 murders at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta served as an unforgettable reminder of the tragedy that unfolded at the fast-food restaurant shortly after closing time on Jan. 8, sixteen years ago.
A photo of the restaurant's back door showed the wedge prosecutors say Degorski and high school pal Juan Luna shoved against the door, thereby trapping their victims inside. Images of victims slumped on the floor of the walk-in freezer and cooler elicited slight gasps and sobs from the victims' families. Pictures of a victim with his arms raised to his chest and his mouth in the shape of an 'o,' and another victim whose head was streaked with blood visibly affected several jurors.
A photo of the freezer's blood-soaked floor showed a shoe-print that a Cook County sheriff's officer insisted he made while removing the victims. The defense suggested it evidenced how police mishandled the investigation.
But lead prosecutor Linas Kelecius didn't rely on visuals alone in his attempt to convince the jury that Degorski killed restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis. He called Cmdr. William King, a 26-year-veteran of the Palatine police department, to the stand.
King was among the first officers to speak with Anne England (formerly known as Anne Lockett), Degorski's former girlfriend who told authorities in 2002 that the men confessed to her soon after the murders. She said she kept silent for nine years because Degorski threatened her.
"I was very afraid he was going to kill me," she testified. "Seven people were already gone, what's one more?"
England admitted to a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and acknowledged troubled teen years marked by depression, suicide attempts and hospitalizations at a psychiatric facility. She sobbed when she talked about the unhappiness that prompted her 1992 suicide attempt which led to a two-month stay at Des Plaines' Forest Hospital. Released in November, she was readmitted Jan. 7, 1993 after overdosing on NyQuil.
England insisted she was sober the night Degorski and Luna recalled the crime they committed "because Juan wanted to see what it was like to kill somebody and Jim agreed to help," said England.
She said they described how Degorski got angry at Luna for ordering a chicken dinner because he might leave behind greasy fingerprints. Authorities ultimately linked Luna to the crime by a partial left palm print found on a napkin, and through his DNA which matched DNA from the remains of a chicken dinner recovered at the scene. Luna was convicted in 2007 and is serving life in prison without parole. No physical evidence links Degorski to the crime which his attorneys say prove he wasn't there. Prosecutors have a brief videotaped statement from Degorski in which they claim he confesses, but have not yet played it for the jury. If convicted Degorski could face the death penalty.
England said Degorski and Luna told her they pulled on gloves in the bathroom and they described chaos that ensued after they returned to the dining room. They recounted corralling five victims into the freezer, where one vomited French Fries. They claimed Luna shot a man but didn't kill him, and "Jim had to finish him off," England said. She also testified they told her they ditched their clothes in a Dumpster and tossed the gun into the Fox River.
England's disclosure led police to another Degorski friend, Eileen Bakalla, who testified that the men called her shortly after the murders and confessed they had robbed the restaurant. She said she drove them to her Elgin home where they divided approximately $1,600. Hours later, as Bakalla drove Degorski back to his Hoffman Estates home past the restaurant which was surrounded by police cars and ambulances, Degorski confessed to her that more than a robbery happened that night.
King said he then obtained DNA samples from both men. In May 2002, test results indicated Luna's DNA matched that found on the chicken remains. King testified that he and another officer went to Indianapolis, where Degorski lived at the time, on May 16, 2002. They asked Degorski to return with them to Illinois for questioning and he agreed, King said. Over the course of about nine hours, Degorski confessed his involvement, King said.
"He replied he was sorry for what happened," King said. Later, when they discussed the victims, Degorski stated, "I'm having a hard time discussing who shot the victims," King said.
In the early hours of May 17, 2002, Degorski described how he and Luna watched as a lady "loaded two crippled kids in a van," King said.
During the trial's first week, Deborah Medow a former Little City employee, testified that she brought two developmentally disabled men to the restaurant for dinner and left at about 9 p.m. as the employees were cleaning up.
During cross examination, Degorski's defense team attempted to discredit England and King. England admitted she was in bad shape in 1993. She said she began drinking at about age 10 and smoking marijuana at 14. She admitted lying to medical personnel about fighting and stealing in an effort to "act tough." And testified she was fired from jobs at veterinary hospitals for being drunk and for stealing medication. However, she said she has been alcohol free since 2004, received a bachelor's degree in 2003 and is married with a young son.
As for King, Assistant Public Defender Michael Mayfield questioned why he didn't request the medical examiners take fingernail scrapings from the victims along with blood and hair samples they typically obtain. King replied that it wasn't his place to tell the doctors what to do.
Mayfield also questioned King about the now obsolete practice of officers discarding interview notes after writing their reports.
Meanwhile, admitted thief Matt Wzientek testified that he sold a stolen .38 caliber, Smith and Wesson revolver to Degorski in late, 1992 for $15. Firearms expert Peter Striupaitis testified that the bullet and bullet fragments recovered from the victims and at the scene could have come from a .38 revolver. However, Striupaitis admitted the bullets could have come from another weapon or one manufactured by a company other than Smith & Wesson. Striupaitis also said the bullets could have been fired from more than one gun. The murder weapon has never been found.
Testimony resumes Sept. 14, in Chicago.