Prosecutor: Brown’s Chicken Massacre 'was about the thrill'
Opening statements were made Monday in the trial of James Degorski, the second of two men accused of killing seven employees inside a Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant in Palatine in 1993.
August 31, 2009
BY RUMMANA HUSSAIN Criminal Courts Reporter
The second Brown’s Chicken massacre trial began today with a prosecutor portraying the seven killings as a “thrill” crime and defendant James Degorski’s lawyer telling the jury flatly, “He did not do it.”
“This was never about the money to Degorski,” assistant Cook County state’s attorney Lou Longhitano told jurors in his opening statement. “It was about the thrill. They wanted to do something big, and they made a big splash — the blood of seven people.”
Longhitano said the prosecution will rely on Degorski’s own brief statement to police and on the testimony of a former girlfriend who told authorities — years after the crime — that he’d confessed to her.
The prosecutor told jurors Degorski and his best friend Juan Luna went to the fast-food restaurant in Palatine on Jan. 8, 1993, shot and killed the two owners and five of their employees and left the bodies in a walk-in refrigerator and cooler.
Longhitano’s boss, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, looked on as he outlined the prosecution case.
Degorski, 37, went on trial seven years after he and Luna were charged in the killings and robbery, which netted under $2,000 from the restaurant’s safe, and 16 years after what came to be known as the Brown’s Chicken massacre took place. Luna has been convicted and is serving a life sentence.
In court today, Degorski wore a light-green dress shirt and an olive-green tie.
His lawyer, Mark Levitt, told jurors Degorski is innocent, noting that — unlike with Luna, from whom DNA evidence was found — investigators found no trace evidence or DNA to link his client to the crime. There’s good reason they didn’t, Levitt said.
“He was not there,” Levitt, an assistant public defender, said. “He did not do it. He is not guilty.”
Altogether, the opening statements lasted about an hour.
Afterward, Manny Castro, the father of one of the victims, took the stand as the first prosecution witness.
Castro, 68, testified about how he worried when his 16-year-old son Michael Castro didn’t come home from work the night of the killings.
Michael always came home around 10 p.m., he said. When he hadn’t gotten home by 11 that night, Castro said his wife woke him, and he walked the 500 yards or so from his home to the restaurant, which was dark, with his son’s car in the parking lot.
He said he ended up going there to look for his son a total of seven times that night, the last time with a police officer who got inside, looked around, then told him not to enter.
“He saw something,” Castro said, “and he shoved me back and told me not to come in there.”
As he stood back, Castro said, he saw the officer call for backup, then saw the lights of arriving ambulances and more police cars
He said he was told to the go to the Palatine police station, where an officer would later tell him, “They found seven bodies. I asked if one of them was Michael’s. They said they didn’t know yet.
Castro also testified that he later identified the body of his son, who was a junior in high school. He left the courtroom with a nod to the jury.
Beside Michael Castro, the others killed that night were Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, who owned the Brown's Chicken outlet, and their employees Thomas Mennes, Guadalupe Maldonado, Rico Solis and Marcus Nellsen.
Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan is hearing the case. Gaughan also presided over Luna's trial two years ago.
Grisly details of Brown's killings
The Jan. 8, 1993, massacre at Brown's Chicken in Palatine left seven dead. A witness says she often hung out with Juan Luna and James Degorski (inset), who is on trial.
Witness says Degorski told her he shot two in freezer
September 3, 2009
BY RUMMANA HUSSAIN Criminal Courts Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
They had been "best friends," pot-smoking buddies and co-workers at a pizzeria when he allegedly confided his involvement in the area's most heinous massacre in recent history.
Sixteen years later, Eileen Bakalla said she still considers James Degorski -- the man she fondly remembers as dating "a lot of girls" -- a friend.
But at Degorski's trial Wednesday, Bakalla detailed how her Fremd High School classmate, "Jim," revealed to her how he and convicted killer Juan Luna gunned down seven people at a Palatine Brown's Chicken on Jan. 8, 1993. The revelation, she testified, came just hours after the mass slaughter.
Degorski told her that during the robbery, "Juan went ballistic and started killing people. He told me that Juan had a knife, and that he used that knife to slit the lady owner's throat ear to ear," she said.
"He said they herded the rest of the people to the cooler, where Juan shot four of them. He said that Juan then handed the gun to him and told him to shoot the other people in the freezer. He said he went to the freezer and shot the other two people."
As she had testified in Luna's trial, Bakalla, 36, said she often hung out with Degorski and Luna.
A few days leading up to the murders, Bakalla said, Degorski told her he would do "something big," but she brushed him off because he "was a lot of talk, no show."
After the crime, Bakalla said, Degorski called her at the Hoffman Estates Jake's Pizza where she worked and asked her to pick him and Luna up at a Carpentersville Jewel-Osco. She noticed gloves and a bag in Luna's car. Bakalla said the men told her they robbed the Brown's Chicken and that the three proceeded to Bakalla's Elgin home, where they smoked marijuana and Degorski and Luna split the money.
Bakalla said she later gave Luna a ride back to his car. On the way to Degorski's parents' Hoffman Estates home, Degorski made Bakalla drive past the Brown's Chicken, and as they eyed the sea of squad cars and paramedics at the scene, Degorski came clean, Bakalla testified.
"He started telling me the story of what actually happened that night," she said.
Degorski's attorney, Mark Levitt, insinuated Bakalla may not recollect events with clarity because of the time lapsed since the murders and her extensive drug and alcohol use in her younger days. Bakalla acknowledged she might be a little fuzzy about some details. But asked if she'd ever forget Degorski telling her he killed two people, Bakalla replied firmly: "No."
Fingerprint testimony given in Brown's Chicken massacre trial
Expert says Degorski's prints don't match any from crime scene
Tribune staff report
September 4, 2009
An Illinois State Police fingerprint expert testified Thursday that none of the nearly 200 fingerprints gathered from the 1993 Brown's Chicken massacre matched those of James Degorski, who is on trial in the murders of seven workers at the Palatine restaurant. John Onstwedder III testified that while no prints were linked to Degorski, a partial palm print found on a napkin at the scene matched Juan Luna, Degorski's friend convicted for the crime. Prosecutors said Degorski confessed to the crime to an ex-girlfriend and a female friend.
Ex-girlfriend of Browns Chicken suspect Degorski testifies
September 9, 2009
BY RUMMANA HUSSAIN Criminal Courts Reporter
James Degorski’s former girlfriend Anne Lockett broke out in tears today testifying how she dabbled in drugs and alcohol for much of her life.
She even admitted many events before and after Degorski allegedly confessed his role in the Brown’s Chicken massacre to her in his Hoffman Estates basement bedroom were a “blur.”
But she also said she never forgot the grisly details Juan Luna and Degorski told her in the basement following the Jan. 8, 1993, Palatine murders.
“Absolutely not. Never,” Lockett, the mother of one, responded when Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Tom Biesty asked her whether the detailed confessions — and Degorski’s subsequent threats to kill her if she ever told anybody — ever left her mind.
“They did it because Juan wanted to see how it felt to kill somebody and Jim [Degorski] agreed to help,” said Lockett, who now goes by her married last name of England.
Lockett, who had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt when the murders occurred, said Degorski called her the day after and asked her to turn on the television.
“He said that they had done something big and that I should watch the news that night,” the prosecution’s star witness said during her hour and a half long testimony.
Late January 1993, after Lockett was released from Forest Hospital, an animated Luna and Degorski gave her a play by play of how they killed their seven victims, she said.
They told her how they wore old clothes, wedged the door shut so nobody could escape and how one young victim threw up French fries.
“I also remember Jim had said that Juan had shot somebody and didn’t finish so he [Degorski] finished him off because they had a pocketful of bullets,” said Lockett, also a key witness in Luna’s 2007 trial.
Luna, who was convicted at the end of that trial, is currently serving life in prison for the infamous crime.
The Brown’s Chicken murders remained unsolved until 2002 when Lockett came forward to authorities with her long held secret.
“I was anxious and afraid that he [Degorski] was going to kill me. Seven people were already gone. What’s one more?” Lockett said, explaining why she waited nine years to tell police.
“. . .I could no longer deal with the guilt of knowing who killed them and the family members not knowing.”
During cross examination, Degorski’s attorney Mark Levitt attempted to discredit Lockett by discussing her extensive drug use and how she had lied when she was hospitalized. Lockett, who suffers from depression and still takes medication, admitted she drank or did drugs. And she even came clean to lying to mental health workers about punching people and stealing a stereo to “act tough” and “get attention.”
“I was very unhappy in high school. My dad had died. My sister didn’t live at home anymore. I was an outcast. I was fat. I would do anything to feel something other than misery,” she said.
Lockett said she tried to commit suicide six times. She first tried to kill herself in 6th grade.
On Jan. 7, 1993 — the day before the Brown’s Chicken murders — Lockett was admitted to a mental hospital after a suicide attempt.
“I’m barely ever straight so I’m not really sure how I feel except that I’m unhappy,” Lockett had written in an 11-page document during one of her two hospital stays around the time of the murders.
“You were sort of in bad shape back then, would that be fair?” Levitt asked Lockett. “Yeah,” she responded, her hair tied back in a tight ponytail.
Lockett said she had lost jobs as late as 2006 due to abuse of prescription drugs.
But she also talked about taking responsibility by obtaining a college degree in psychology at Eastern Illinois University and holding jobs as a white water rafting guide and working with disabled adults.
She admits she still struggles with drug addiction but said she has not touched alcohol since 2004.
Brown's Chicken massacre: Ex-girlfriend testifies of defendant's confession to killin
Brown's Chicken massacre: Ex-girlfriend testifies of defendant's confession to killings
7 people slain in 1993 Palatine case
By Matthew Walberg Tribune reporter
September 10, 2009
Testifying in a matter-of-fact tone, the former girlfriend of James Degorski recounted Wednesday how Degorski and his best friend confessed 16 years ago to one of the Chicago-area's most notorious mass murders.
But it was fear, not love, that kept Anne England silent while the Brown's Chicken massacre remained unsolved for more than nine years.
"I was very afraid that he was going to kill me," the key state witness testified in the second week of Degorski's trial on charges he murdered seven workers at the Palatine restaurant in 1993. "Seven people were already gone. What's one more?"
England's account would appear to corroborate the earlier testimony of Eileen Bakalla that Degorski also confessed to her. But jurors will have to weigh England's credibility given her admitted heavy alcohol and drug abuse as well as her history of suicide attempts and hospitalizations at mental facilities for major depression.
Until recent years, England said, she used marijuana daily as well as PCP, amphetamines, cocaine and LSD. She lost a job at a veterinary clinic in 2004 after she came to work drunk. A year later, she was fired from another veterinary clinic for stealing and using drugs intended for animals. She admitted she was high on stolen prescription drugs in 2006 when she wrecked her car in Champaign County and was charged with driving under the influence.
On the stand, England's emotions remained in check until a second round of questioning by prosecutors when she was asked why she had struggled with substance abuse for most of her life. Her face reddened as she began to answer, but she was cut short by an objection from one of Degorski's lawyers.
After a brief discussion out of the jury's presence, the lawyers returned to find England weeping openly.
"I was very unhappy, and in high school, my dad was dying and my sister didn't live at home anymore," said England, her voice heaving with emotion. "I was an outcast. I was fat, and I would do anything to help me not feel something other than misery."
England, who formerly went by her maiden name of Lockett, is now married and lives Downstate with her husband and young son.
There was no visible interaction between England and her former boyfriend during her nearly two hours on the witness stand at the Criminal Courts Building. Degorski sat silently, rocking gently in his chair at the defense table, his face emotionless as she recounted his alleged confession.
England acknowledged that her relationship with Degorski deepened after he confided in her about the murders -- despite his threat to kill her if she told anyone else.
"You started spending the night together, sleeping over at his house?" Assistant Public Defender Mark Levitt asked.
"Oh, yes," England said.
It was just days after she was released from a hospital in late January 1993 following a suicide attempt that England said Degorski and co-defendant Juan Luna confided to her about the murders while at the Hoffman Estates home of Degorski's parents.
Luna was convicted in 2007 and was sentenced to life in prison.
The two told her that on the night of Jan. 8, 1993, they drove to a parking lot near Brown's Chicken, a target they chose because Luna used to work there and knew the workers' routine, England said.
They said they walked "funny" through the snow to disguise their footprints and then blocked the back exit from the outside to block employees' escape, she said.
Luna ordered a meal and ate it, angering Degorski because of fears Luna might leave fingerprints in the grease, England said. DNA later linked Luna to the murder scene.
The shooting began after both men, their pockets full of bullets, put on rubber gloves, she said.
"Basically, they said they did it because Juan wanted to see what it was like to kill somebody and Jim agreed to help him, and if I ever told anybody, they would kill me," she testified.
England said she reached out to police in March 2002. Her information led investigators to Bakalla.
"At that point, I had my life sort of together," England said. "And I could no longer deal with the guilt of knowing the guy who killed all those people, and their family members not knowing."
England admitted that the passage of time and her long substance abuse had blurred her memories of specific dates and conversations, but she was adamant about Degorski's confession.
"Will you ever forget the statement made to you in the basement by the defendant and Juan Luna in January 1993?" Assistant State's Atty. Thomas Biesty asked.
"Absolutely not ever," England replied.
Cook County Jail EMT testifies Brown's Chicken suspect said he killed for 'fun'
Cook County Jail EMT testifies Brown's Chicken suspect said he killed for 'fun'
September 15, 2009
BY RUMMANA HUSSAIN Criminal Courts Reporter
At first, he was a bit evasive and said he couldn't remember much about the brisk January evening.
But as the night turned to day on May 17, 2002, James Degorski slowly opened up about how he and Juan Luna brought a .38-caliber revolver, a knife and gloves to a Palatine Brown's Chicken to carry out what has become the area's bloodiest mass murder in recent history, former Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Michael McHale testified Monday.
In his lengthy confession, Degorski told McHale of the horror he and Luna unleashed inside the restaurant and how they disposed of the two weapons in the Fox River, McHale said. Degorski also allegedly recounted gruesome details of watching the scared skinny boy offer a wad of cash in exchange for his freedom and how the two older men he shot were kneeling in the cooler facing away from him when he fired the bullets.
"He did tell me substantially more information," said McHale -- now a judge -- about the three-hour conversation he had with Degorski, capping off the prosecution's case. "His statement to me was reliable. . . . I believed him."
Just two days after that interrogation, Cook County Jail emergency medical technician Alesia Hines said Degorski shrugged off the murders as something he engaged in for "fun" and expressed amazement at the prominent news surrounding his and Luna's arrests.
" 'Oh, we made the front-page news,' " Hines testified Degorski said.
McHale spent the bulk of his testimony testily responding to questions from Susan Smith, one of Degorski's attorneys. McHale assured Smith he read Degorski his Miranda rights, made sure to ask him if he needed anything to drink or eat and that he wasn't mistreated by Palatine officers.
McHale told jurors he also asked Degorski if he wanted to videotape his confession, but Degorski refused and said cameras would make him "nervous."
During eight days of testimony, prosecutors never presented a four-minute videotaped interview of Degorski by authorities.
The tape shows Degorski admitting his role -- then saying he does not want to be videotaped.
"During the robbery, you shot two people in the cooler, and Juan shot the other five. .. . Is that correct?" McHale asks him.
"Right," Degorski says.
Defense rests in 2nd Brown's Chicken murder trial
Published: 9/22/2009 1:25 PM | Updated: 9/22/2009 3:57 PM
By Kimberly Pohl and Barbara Vitello
The defense in James Degorski's capital murder trial rested on Tuesday.
It did so quietly, with lead defense attorney Mark Levitt presenting to jurors testimony from a forensic specialist who indicated that the DNA found on the remains of a chicken dinner recovered from the scene does not belong to Degorski.
The testimony aimed to support the defense's claim that Degorski was not involved in the 1993 slayings at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta. Unlike with his co-defendant Juan Luna, who was linked to the crime through a partial palm print and his DNA recovered from the chicken remains, no physical evidence links Degorski to the scene.
Luna was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison. If convicted, Degorski could face the death penalty.
The state presents its rebuttal to the defense's case beginning Wednesday. The defense's rebuttal follows with closing statements expected to take place early next week.
The defense spent its final day focusing primarily on a bloody shoe impression found outside the freezer where five of the victims were found. A retired Cook County Sheriff's lieutenant was adamant that bloody shoe impressions were not present when authorities first arrived to the grisly crime scene on Jan. 9, 1993.
Margaret Duffy testified that she didn't see the shoe impressions until several days later, again reinforcing the prosecution's claim they were left by an investigator. She insisted her memory was clear, though she was unable to recall to Assistant Public Defender Brendan Max the exact number of impressions recovered in different areas of the restaurant.
"One thing that struck us that there were seven people murdered and there was no blood around them," Duffy said. "It was a very clean scene."
Max did get Duffy to testify to another police misstep.
While processing the scene, investigators searched for shoe impressions not visible to the naked eye using the chemical Luminol, which causes a print to glow in the dark. But investigators didn't bring the proper film needed to photograph the evidence. They returned with the right film and sprayed the impression a second time, causing it to blur, Duffy said.
"Is this (shoe impression) of any use in forensic comparison," Max asked.
"No sir," Duffy answered.
After the jury was excused for the day, the defense motioned for mistrial based on a statement former Assistant State's Attorney Michael McHale made during cross examination. Assistant Public Defender Susan Smith insisted McHale, now a Cook County Circuit Court judge, inappropriately stated an opinion during his testimony saying he believed the confession Degorski made to him. Judge Vincent M. Gaughan denied the motion.
Tuesday concluded with Gaughan explaining to Degorski his constitutional right to testify or to remain silent. Degorski chose the latter, responding with yes and no answers. It was the first time Degorski spoke in open court since the trial began.
Testimony continues Wednesday in Chicago.
Defense rests in Palatine massacre trial
Attorneys for James Degorski focused on false confessions in the case
By Matthew Walberg Tribune reporter
September 23, 2009
Attorneys for James Degorski rested their case Tuesday after five days of testimony largely focused on how police obtained false confessions from other suspects for the Brown's Chicken massacre.
The testimony would appear to be aimed at raising doubts with jurors about whether Degorski's 2002 confession was coerced as well.
Degorski, 37, could face the death penalty if convicted of the 1993 murders of seven workers at the Palatine restaurant. Co-defendant Juan Luna was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.
In the absence of physical evidence against Degorski, the defense hammered away at the actions of investigators who obtained false confessions from two people years before Degorski's 2002 arrest.
Last week, John Simonek testified that under pressure from police, he cobbled together a half-dozen statements implicating himself and a friend during a series of interviews in 1998 and 1999.
"When I said something wrong, [detectives] would tell me, 'Oh, that's not what happened,' " Simonek said. "I'd kind of change the story until they stopped telling me, 'That's not what happened.' "
Casey Haefs, the high school girlfriend of Simonek's suspected accomplice, also told the jury she was hounded by members of the task force investigating the murders and ultimately made up a story to end the harassment.
"It was terrible," Haefs, 33, said of a 1999 interrogation in which she implicated her former boyfriend. "I was in boot camp in the military -- with drill sergeants -- and it wasn't as bad as this."
Prosecutors countered by trying to show that the head of the task force and one other member were largely responsible for the false confessions. The state contended they were at odds with other investigators who believed the evidence showed Simonek or Haefs' former boyfriend could not have been responsible for the crime.
The defense case also featured testimony from police and expert witnesses about the lack of fingerprint evidence tying Degorski to the murder scene as well shoe prints that were never identified.
Prosecutors alleged that Degorski and Luna wore gloves and mopped the floors before leaving the scene.
Prosecutors are scheduled to present rebuttal witnesses Wednesday. Closing arguments are expected to occur Tuesday.
Testimony ends in Brown's case
Published: 9/24/2009 3:55 PM
The fourth week of James Degorski's capital murder trial concluded with Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan telling jurors to expect to hear closing arguments Tuesday.
Degorski, 37, could face the death penalty if convicted of killing seven workers at the Palatine Brown's Chicken and Pasta in 1993. Co-defendant Juan Luna was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.
The only witness called to the stand Thursday was hydrologist Nani Bhowmik. He testified earlier in the trial that water alone couldn't move a gun thrown into the Fox River near the Carpentersville Dam, the spot where prosecutors say Degorski and Luna abandoned the .38-caliber revolver used in the slayings.
Based on high temperatures in January 1993, Bhowmik said he didn't believe the river would have been frozen. He also said it's possible someone walking on the river bottom might not feel a gun if it was covered in sand and silt.
He was recalled in response to the testimony by a Kane County Forest Preserve District police sergeant who said he's seen large objects go over the dam and that the area is a popular swimming and fishing hole during the summer.
Assistant Public Defender Mark Levitt also presented testimony from a retired Palatine Police Department lieutenant that 14 divers put in 312 man hours more than five days searching the river for the gun, which was never found.
Bhowmik's testimony came during a phase of the trial in which attorneys for Degorski get to respond to the prosecution's rebuttal of the defense's case. Defense attorneys left open the possibility they'd call another witness on Tuesday before closing arguments begin.
Degorski guilty of Brown's Chicken murders
By Christy Gutowski, Kimberly Pohl and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staf
More than 16 years ago, an armed James Degorski walked into a Palatine Brown's Chicken restaurant with a pocket full of bullets in a twisted desire to "do something big."
In an emotional verdict, a Cook County jury found he accomplished his murderous goal.
Jurors convicted Degorski of the infamous Jan. 8, 1993 mass murder of seven innocent people whose families waited longer than the youngest victim lived to hear that one word - "guilty."
As the clerk repeated it seven times, after the name of each of the slain, about three dozen relatives sobbed and clasped hands while huddled together in the courtroom gallery's wooden pews. Across the 4-foot aisle, the defendant's family also was there to bear witness.
Deputies lined the crowded courtroom to discourage emotional outbursts.
The jury of six men and six women next will determine whether Degorski, 37, is eligible for the death penalty based on certain statutory factors. If so, Degorski faces execution or life in prison without parole. His co-defendant, Juan Luna, 35, convicted in 2007, is serving a life term after a lone juror voted to spare him.
The trial proceedings are the final chapter in a bloody crime that brought such profound loss and pain, it reverberates still, despite the passage of time. After hours of deliberations, weeks of graphic testimony, and years of waiting, the families said they got justice - finally.
The jury convicted Degorski of killing restaurant owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, and employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and Rico Solis, 17, all of whom were shot in the head. Lynn Ehlenfeldt's neck also was slashed.
The killings stymied frustrated police for nearly a decade until Degorski's former girlfriend, Anne Lockett England, came forward and said he and Luna long ago admitted what they had done, sharing details that had not been publicly revealed in the case. Another of Degorski's high school friends, Eileen Bakalla, also told a similar story incriminating the two men after police confronted her.
Authorities were able to link Luna to the crime scene after matching his DNA and palm print to a nibbled chicken dinner and a discarded napkin found in an otherwise empty garbage bag inside the crime scene. The Carpentersville man provided a nearly 45-minute videotaped confession.
The prosecution's evidence against Degorski was far more circumstantial. They lacked forensic evidence or a detailed videotaped confession. Still, prosecutors said, all of puzzle pieces when put together fit perfectly.
Besides England and Bakalla, two seasoned law enforcement officials - one of whom is now a judge - testified that Degorski provided a detailed unrecorded confession to them in May 2002 after England's information led to his arrest. They said Degorski admitted killing two victims, cleaning up and disposing of the murder weapon - which was never found even though the defendant showed them where he said he dumped it years earlier. They said Degorski, though, became camera shy when the topic turned to recording the conversation.
In the end, the prosecution's witnesses convinced jurors of Degorski's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."
In the coming days, the prosecution will call witnesses to describe the brutality of the crime and its impact on the grieving families as paramount reasons to support execution. In an effort to save Degorski's life, his attorneys also will call his family members who'll describe a rough childhood and otherwise law-abiding life. They'll likely try to paint Luna as the mastermind and Degorski as a more innocent tagalong.
Either way, James Degorski's past has come back to haunt him.
Degorski eligible for death penalty in Brown's Chicken murders
Published: 9/30/2009 2:05 PM | Updated: 9/30/2009 5:50 PM
The jury that convicted James Degorski of seven counts of first degree murder in the 1993 slayings of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta found him eligible for the death penalty on Wednesday.
The verdict followed a 90-minute deliberation. It marks the beginning of the end for the nearly five-week trial, which moves to the sentencing phase Thursday in Chicago.
The six-man, six-woman jury found Degorski eligible for death on each statutory provision prosecutors presented. Jurors agreed that Degorski was 18 or older at the time of the crimes. Born on Aug. 20, 1972, he was 20 at the time of the murders.
The jury also agreed with each of the following propositions: that he committed two or more murders; that those murders were committed in the course of another felony - in this case armed robbery; and that the murders were carried out in a cold and calculating manner pursuant to a plan or scheme.
Degorski showed no emotion as the court clerk read the verdict. His family sat solemnly, some with eyes downcast, the tension rolling off them in waves.
During the eligibility hearing Wednesday morning, prosecutors drew a vivid portrait of the calculating nature of the crime. They repeated Degorski's admission that he and co-defendant Juan Luna wore gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints and that Degorski mopped up after the killings. They recalled Degorski's statement that they wore old clothes and shoes which they later discarded, and that they chose Brown's because Luna had worked there and knew the layout.
Prosecutors also reminded jurors that the killers showed up armed with a knife, a gun and pockets full of bullets supplied by Degorski, who they say reloaded his gun three times. Prosecutors also recounted testimony from high school friend Eileen Bakalla, who helped the men get away. Lastly, they emphasized that Degorski did not intend to leave any witnesses.
"They had the intent that nobody was going to walk out of there alive," said assistant state's attorney Lou Longhitano.
"This guy's not just cold, he's subzero," Longhitano said.
Assistant Public Defender Michael Mayfield voiced the defense's reactions to Tuesday's guilty verdict and reminded the jury that the law presumes Degorski not eligible for the death penalty.
"We are disheartened but not discouraged," said Mayfield. "As we enter this second phase, we respect your verdict and the way you've comported yourself throughout this trial."
Assistant state's attorney Tisa Morris effectively summarized the prosecution's argument quoting the adage: if you fail to plan you plan to fail.
Degorski's actions confirm "that he did not plan to fail," Morris said.
Prosecutors will present their arguments and testimony supporting death as the appropriate sentence on Thursday. The defense will follow, presenting its arguments supporting a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Victims' families confront convicted killer James Degorski
Published: 10/1/2009 1:50 PM | Updated: 10/1/2009 2:30 PM
As a jury considers the death penalty, the tearful mother of one of the seven Brown's Chicken mass murder victims Thursday confronted James Degorski about the brutal slaying more than 16 years ago.
"You and Juan Luna left the Brown's restaurant after terrorizing and killing my son and six other victims and went on with your lives as if nothing ever happened," said Diane Clayton, whose son, Marcus Nellsen, was among those killed. "How could you live with yourself? You probably convinced yourself you got away with the perfect crime.
"You are now being held responsible for your extreme, cruel and inhumane actions against seven innocent victims."
Her emotional statement came on the first day of Degorski's death penalty sentencing hearing for the Jan. 8, 1993, mass murder at the Palatine restaurant. The Cook County jury convicted him Tuesday of all seven murders, then found him eligible Wednesday for possible execution. They now are hearing evidence before deciding whether to impose it.
If not, Degorski faces life in prison without parole.
Relatives of the slain read their victim impact statements Thursday. Degorski, rocking in his chair at the defense table, remained composed while listening to their words of loss and anger.
On the winter night of Jan. 8, 1993, Degorski and his old high school pal Juan Luna killed their seven victims simply out of a desire to do "something big," the jury determined. At the time, Degorski was 20 and living in his parents' Hoffman Estates home.
More than 16 years later, a 37-year-old Degorski's past has come back to haunt him.
The bodies of the victims - owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and 17-year-old Rico Solis - who picked up a shift that night to make some extra cash - were found in a walk-in freezer and a cooler. All were shot in the head and some through their hands as they tried to shield themselves.
The defense team is fighting to save Degorski's life. His lawyers told jurors it takes only one of them to save Degorski's life. They assured the panel Degorski will never walk a free man again. Defense attorney Susan Smith said they will present evidence after the prosecution is done that will show Degorski suffered severe abuse as a child in a dysfunctional family.
"I bet you never in your life thought you'd come to this day when you have to judge what is the right thing to do in regard to another person's life," Smith said. "The person he is now is not the person he was in 1993. Jim Degorski is not a monster. He is a human being. His life will be in your hands."
But the emotional testimonies of victims' relatives proved the dramatic peak of a tense day.
"Tom was a friend as well as my brother," Robert Mennes testified. "The things I miss most of him are his smile and his sense of humor."
He asked Degorski: "Do you sleep? Do you have nightmares? I still see Tom in my sleep as he looked when he died, before he was made presentable and laid to rest. I hope you are separated from everyone who loves you and are (prohibited) from doing things you enjoy since that's what you did to Tom."
As the oldest son, Juan Maldonado told riveted jurors about the pain of watching his mother and little brothers cope with the loss of their family's rock - his "papa."
"We will never forget and through I believe the grace of God, we have come through this practicing my father's example and following his advice," he said.
Degorski's former high school girlfriend, Kristin Smith, also described how Degorski as a teenager often abused her during their one-year relationship. She described a particularly harrowing encounter May 11, 1992, after they broke up, in which he threatened to kill her and duct taped her hands and feet and made her get in her trunk. Some five hours later, he released her but not before she was brutally beaten.
"He told me one time he was going to make himself famous," Smith testified, "and it wouldn't be the way I expected."
Smith pursued criminal charges, for which Degorski received one-year court supervision.
The sentencing hearing, before Cook Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan, continues this afternoon.
Ehlenfeldt daughter: Brown's killing 'small and cowardly'
Published: 10/2/2009 2:46 PM
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.
Victim's kin confronts Degorski: 'What you did was cowardly'
Joy Ehlenfeldt told James Degorski about the agonizing heartache he had caused her in court on Friday.
PALATINE MURDERS | Last sentencing hearing witness mourns her dad
October 3, 2009
BY RUMMANA HUSSAIN Criminal Courts Reporter email@example.com
She was the last to face him.
To tell him of the agonizing, endless heartache he caused. To let him know the kneeling man he coldly shot in the head was a devoted husband, proud father and restaurateur who donated food to the Little Sisters of the Poor.
"You said you wanted to do something big. You claimed you did something big. But what you did on Jan. 8, 1993, was small. It was small and it was cowardly. Someone who did something big was my dad," Joy Ehlenfeldt told James Degorski on Friday.
Degorski, 37, was convicted this week of killing Ehlenfeldt's parents, Lynn and Richard, and five of the couple's employees in the infamous massacre at a Palatine Brown's Chicken. Jurors will either sentence Degorski to death or life in prison without parole.
Ehlenfeldt, Cook County prosecutors' final witness in Degorski's sentencing hearing, devoted her lengthy statement to talking about her Methodist deacon dad's peaceful nature and his weakness for plaid shirts, a good bargain and fixing up the family's cabin in Wisconsin.
The couple's youngest daughter said her father called her his "little helper." He was a "minority" in a houseful of women and looked forward to the day he would have sons-in-law. He also started collecting Dr. Seuss books and Disney movies for his future grandchildren, who now only know him and his wife as Grandpa and Grandma Angel, Ehlenfeldt said.
Staring at Degorski, Ehlenfeldt said: "You will now be branded as a convicted killer. How does that sound to you? James Degorski, convicted killer. You may not want that title, but you deserve that horrible label."
Defense attorneys are expected to begin presenting evidence Monday, urging the jury to sentence Degorski to life in prison.
Jail officials say James Degorski is 'model' inmate
Published: 10/5/2009 1:23 PM
Cook County jail inmates often assault staff and each other, flood their cells and set fires, sometimes on a daily basis, but that's not the case with James Degorski, who correctional officers from the jail described as a model inmate thriving in a brutal environment.
The sixth week of Degorski's capital murder trial opened today with four character witnesses, all Cook County correctional officers, testifying on the convicted killer's behalf.
Last Tuesday, a jury of six men and six women found Degorski guilty of murder in the deaths of seven people at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant. The panel next will decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison. In 2007, Degorski's accomplice Juan Luna was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the killings.
Degorski has been held at the county jail since his arrest in May 2002. Department of Corrections Capt. Tyrone Everhart told the jury today that in that time Degorski was cited with only one disciplinary ticket -- he failed to stand for a head count and was found lying in the fetal position underneath his bunk. The captain did not know why Degorski was found in that condition.
Officer Jose Reyes said Degorski served as a volunteer worker for him and is allowed to be outside his cell unshackled so he can help clean up trays in the maximum security tier. Being in a common area for more than one designated hour each day is a privilege not afforded most of the other prisoners, Reyes said..
"He's humorous, talkative," Reyes said. "Compared to the other inmates, he has never given me a problem."
Reyes went on to testify that Degorski did not "act out" upon returning to his cell following his guilty verdict whereas many inmates become aggressive in that circumstance.
Degorski's behavior eventually got him transferred to the "old man's deck," a part of the jail typically reserved for inmates 40 years old and older who don't cause problems. Degorski is 37.
The prosecution kept its cross examination brief, having witnesses point out that many pretrial prisoners exhibit good behavior. The trial resumes this afternoon before Judge Vincent M. Gaughan in Chicago.
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