Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois on May 19, 2002 · 14
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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois · 14

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Sunday, May 19, 2002
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IMIIAIjU IKIdUNb bbCHUN I i nvsivi r aa vj i uiu bUNUAY MAT !, Mill catches npwtth-lBrowii's case MA technology Saved meal proves crucial years later By Jeremy Manier and Flynn McRoberts Tribune staff reporters The revelation of a long-kept secret pointed investigators to the two men now accused of murdering seven people at a Palatine fast-food restaurant. But authorities made clear Saturday that it was an advancement in DNA science that gave them their biggest break. When Palatine police found a partially eaten chicken at the Brown's Chicken & Pasta crime scene on Jan. 9, 1993, the technology for identifying who ate the meal was still poorly developed. But investigators held tight to the potential evidence and stored the chicken in a freezer. On May 9, scientists at the Illi CHARGED: Investigators not certain on the motive CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1 of fear that he would kill her as well. The story she finally told laid out in brutal detail how the two former Fremd High School classmates allegedly carried out one of the worst mass killings in Illinois history. The announcement of the charges afforded a measure of vindication for investigators who have faced years of criticism that they mishandled the hunt for the killers of store owners Richard and Lynn Ehlen-feldt and five of their employees. "To the people now charged, you wanted to do something big. I hope you are placed in a cage that you have built through your own inhumanity towards the innocent," said Palatine Police Chief John Koziol. "May those seven people, whose faces will forever be etched in our memory, now rest in peace." The charges also offered an emotional salve to Palatine residents, some of whom remain haunted by the murders even after the restaurant was demolished a year ago. Most of all it provided answers, however painful, to the families of those slain. While investigators say they are certain the pair meant to commit murder, they don't know why. "I cannot explain their motivation for doing this killing," Koziol said. "We still cannot give that answer to the families. They never really gave us one. They just did it to do something big. "They are people without a soul, and that's all we know about them." Cook County State's Atty Richard Devine said further evidence regarding that question would come out at trial. But he added: "The general belief is that while there was a robbery involved, that the basic motivation was to go in and to kill other human beings." Luna and Degorski were brought in separate squad cars from Palatine's police lockup to the Cook County Criminal Courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue for a bond hearing Saturday morning. At the hearing, Linas J. Ke-lecius, an assistant Cook County state's attorney with its cold case unit, told Judge Mary Margaret Brosnahan that the two had "been talking about pulling something like this for quite some time." "That particular Friday, they decided to actually do it," Kele-cius said. The prosecutor told the judge that Luna and Degorski told his former girlfriend just days after the murders how they carried out the crime. "Degorski asked her if she wanted to know what happened at Brown's. She said yes," Kele-cius said of the woman, later identified by sources as Anne Lockett. "They ran it down in great detail. They talked a long time." When he was done, "Degorski said, 'If you ever tell anyone, we will kill you.' " Lockett told investigators that Degorski described how he and Luna exchanged his .38-caliber handgun, and how he finished off one of the victims after Luna's initial shots failed to kill him. Luna then re-enacted how he held Lynn Ehlenfeldt around her neck and slashed her throat with a knife, according to Lockett, now a 26-year-old college student. Prosecutors said Lockett kpt quiet until recently be- nois State Police crime lab used DNA analysis to match saliva taken from a chicken bone to the DNA profile of Juan Luna, one of the two suspects now charged with murder. Forensic experts said it was fortunate that authorities in the Brown's case had the presence of mind to freeze the chicken samples for tests that were still on the drawing board. "It shows they were pretty forward-thinking, whoever decided to save it," said David Coff-man, supervisor of Florida's DNA database. "Ten or even seven years ago, we would never have thought to test a piece of food that was half-eaten. We wouldn't have had the technology to get a result." Palatine Police Chief John Koziol underscored that point at a Saturday news conference announcing the charges. "Frankly, the technology was not there," he said. But in late 1999, "we had them take another look at the 7 7 - ."I J -Y I :-!iih ty,y ' y f 'i - ;7Um ?iUK ' " ySi V'. L C , ' i'V '"'V . 14 f 0 1 r " ;- v.. 77;. V ,;7'".;- yt. ....... , Tribune photo by Scott Strazzante Mary Jane Crow, with her husband, Steve, sheds a tear as she hears how her brother, Michael Castro, and six others were slain at a Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant in Palatine in January 1993. cause Degorski vowed to kill her if she ever revealed the secret. Last fall, she finally told someone, her new boyfriend. They were so fearful of Degor-ski's threats that they and another roommate obtained Firearm Owner's Identification cards but did not contact police. Then in March, another friend of Lockett's overheard her talking about the case; that woman called police and told them they needed to talk to Lockett about the Brown's case. Lockett "spoke with a friend of hers who had a stronger moral compass than she did," Koziol said. And on March 25, when police contacted Lockett, she was ready to talk. It wasn't the first time Lockett had gone to police. Not long after the murders, she said, Degorski had her accompany Luna when the Palatine task force called him in to discuss the case. She sat outside as Luna-dressed nicely at Degorski's urging, in black pants and a trench coat spoke to investigators. Luna, who had worked for the store's previous owners, was one of about 300 current or former Brown's workers police interviewed. Luna suggested that investigators call a second woman who could vouch for his whereabouts the night of the slay ings. They did, and were satisfied. "These guys were very calculating," Koziol said at the news conference. "There were many employees who had no alibi." Lockett led them to the second woman, who told police she got a call from Degorski the night of the killings, saying he and Luna had done "something big." She picked up Luna and Degorski at a Jewel parking lot not far from chicken." The basic techniques for amplifying tiny amounts of DNA evidence called PCR had been around since 1985. The techniques for reliably coding and analyzing genetic evidence were first proposed in 1992, then the crucial technology was gradually refmed and gained acceptance in the years after the Brown's Chicken murders. But by 1993, when the murders were committed, it already was clear to some in law enforcement that DNA fingerprinting would soon become a powerful crime-solving tool. Koziol, in fact, said Saturday that his department had been "somewhat familiar with DNA profiling" because of an earlier case of a newborn baby found drowned in Salt Creek. "That's why we saved" the chicken, Koziol said. Before PCR became widely available, tests of saliva or blood typically required a stain at 10 I , ..7.- " i ' if,' .1 AP photo "May those seven people . . . now rest in peace," Palatine Police Chief John Koziol said at a Saturday news conference. Brown's. They went back to a friend's home in Elgin and got stoned. Degorski allegedly told investigators that he wrapped the gun in a canvas bag and threw it in the Fox River hours after the murders. Hours later, she drove them back to their car. Passing Brown's on the way, they saw the place wrapped in police tape and officers everywhere, and they told her what had happened, according to prosecutors. The next day, the woman helped Degorski clean up the car, and he gave her $50 from the stolen money. The two went shopping, and she spent it on shoes. Degorski, Luna and the two women kept the secret for years. What they didn't count on, however, was a breakthrough in DNA science that allowed investigators to connect Luna to the crime scene through saliva he apparent! left on a chicken least the size of a dime, experts said. But PCR can make almost unlimited copies from minute traces of DNA, allowing police to work with samples the size of a pinhead. "New DNA tests allowed us to look at much smaller evidence," said Jim Kearney, head of the Illinois State Police crime lab in Chicago, during Saturday's news conference in Palatine. "We were able to extract from those chicken bones a solid DNA profile." In mid-April, police took DNA samples from Luna and the other man charged, Jim Degorski. On May 9, Kearney said, "we were able to match the profile from Juan Luna with the profile from the chicken bone." The technique for making such a match dates to about 1995, when Canadian forensic experts were perfecting the first reliable DNA identification using STRs or short tandem repeats. Those repeats are stretch PALuni: -police m IP v: bone. Degorski apparently had the sense that the chicken dinner could be their undoing, according to one of the women informants. She said Degorski had chastised Luna for getting his hands on the greasy meal, fearing it could leave fingerprints. Police never isolated such prints, but they did preserve the remains of a chicken dinner tossed into a garbage can in the restaurant. At the time of the slayings, scientists could not extract enough DNA from a trace amount such as saliva. Since then, however, refined techniques allowed Illinois State Police crime lab experts to do so. On May 9, authorities were able to corroborate one of the witnesses disclosures by matching DNA from the chicken bone to a saliva swab taken from Luna's mouth in mid-April. Kclcclus praised Lockett as a hero. Not only did she have the courage to come foiAvard de es of DNA that vary from person to person. In 1998, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released national standards that use 13 different STR markers to match genetic material with suspects. Using so many markers makes it unlikely that a match using such methods is due to chance. Also in 1998, the FBI launched a nationwide criminal DNA database, increasing the incentive for states to use the technology. Obtaining samples such as those used in the Brown's case involves freezing the food, then taking a swab with, a Q-tip dampened with distilled water. "Freezing the food makes it firmer, so it's easier to swab," said Jean Roney, head of the biology section for the Saskatchewan office of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. "If it's mushy, the food particles tend to come off more." So long as the samples have been stored in a cold place, the spite a threat on her life, he said, but she also called Degorski in Indiana, allowing investigators to tap the conversation on Wednesday nightShe told Degorski investigators wanted to talk to her, and the two spoke for 45 minutes. The only thing discussed was the "cover story" she was to give police, prosecutors said. During the conversation, Degorski made "absolutely no denial" that he was involved, Kelecius said. Not everyone shared the view that the informants acted heroically. Joyce Sojoodi, the Ehlen-feldts youngest daughter, said she was in shock when she finally got the phone call telling her that suspects were in custody. But that feeling turned to revulsion when she learned that two people had known about the crime for years, yet had said nothing to police. "It's repulsive to me, and it's unconscionable to me to not have done that nine years ago," she said. Asked if either of the women could be prosecuted for failing to come forward earlier, Koziol said: "We need all the witnesses we can get in this case. I think there also may be a statute-of-limitations problem." Investigators said they also had two other witnesses who could corroborate the women's story Reached by phone at her home in Oregon on Saturday, Lockett's mother confirmed that her daughter had been "one of the people" to go to police about Luna and Degorski. Lockett, who attended Fremd High School at the same time as the accused, was reached by phone later Saturday but declined to comment. She knew that prosecutors and police had described her as a hero, but she would not elaborate on her role in solving the murders. At the midday bond hearing, Kelecius told the judge that the pair chose the restaurant as the scene of the crime because Luna was familiar with the building as a former employee. He knew it had no alarm. Each man has been charged with seven counts of first-degree murder while committing a robbery, and Kelecius said the matter is being handled as a capital case because the crimes were carried out during the commission of a felony A spokeswoman for the Cook County state's attorney's office said no decision has been made on whether the death penalty actually will be sought. They have 120 days to decide. Brosnahan said the pair would be held without bond. Degorski was represented by Kelly Seago of the Cook County public defender's office, Luna by attorney Clarence Burch of Chicago. Both requested that all audio and videotaped evidence be preserved and requested that no authorities contact their clients. ' Reached by phone after Saturday's court appearance, Burch said Luna maintains his innocence. "We hope the evidence will speak for itself, and we in- tend to let the judicial process work." He said he had received no information in the case beyond what was laid out in court. He said he spoke briefly with Luna after the hearing, describing him as sad for his wife and child. "He is very despondent that he brought his family into the spotlight in this manner," Burch said. "He is very depressed." Seago did not return phone calls Saturday. After following countless false leads for nine years, investigators became convinced that Lockett was different when she provided a detail of the killings that had never been revealed to the public. During the brutal slayings, she told them, one of the Victims DNA can persist intact for decades or longer, experts said. Genetic material from the chicken would not contaminate the test, Roney said, because the DNA tests that most labs use are capable of analyzing only human DNA. Just last week, such DNA techniques were the center of debate in the Illinois House over a bill to expand the state's DNA database to include convicted felons. The bill, which passed easily and now goes to the Senate, would require all convicted felons to submit genetic material to the Illinois State Police. "If we didn't have these DNA samples, if they hadn't saved that meal, we certainly wouldn't be able to match it with the DNA of the people who are the supposed suspects," said state Rep. Susana Mendoza (D-Chicago). Tribune staff reporter Eric Fer-kenhoff contributed to this report. vomited. That unsettling detail put investigators onto the trail of Luna and Degorski, who were arrested Thursday Palatine's leaders said the crime has left a shadow over the community "I don't think the uneasiness has ever really left the community," Mullins said. "We, the village of Palatine and the Palatine Police Department, want more than anyone to tell the world that we have a conclusion to this horrible, tragic incident." Despite criticism of many aspects of the investigation, forensic experts credited authorities with having the presence of mind to save and freeze the chicken samples for tests that were still on the drawing board. "It shows they were pretty forward-thinking, whoever decided to save it," said David Coff-man, supervisor of the State of Florida's DNA database. "Ten or even seven years ago, we would never have thought to test a piece of food that was half-eaten. We wouldn't have had the technology to get a result." Many critics of the investigation were less confident over the years. The Better Government Association, a civic watchdog group, issued a report that accused Palatine police of letting people traipse over the crime scene. Three years later, a team of lawyers and police appointed by the Illinois State Crime Commission defended the investigation. But the history of the case made those involved hesitant to declare it solved. "I have my fingers crossed," said Brown's owner Frank Por-tillo. "They're being really cautious. If they come out with another Martin Blake, you guys will beat them to death." Blake was arrested within hours of the slayings, setting up one of the most glaring embarrassments of the case. Blake was held for two days before being released with no charges; he later sued for false arrest, and the village settled in 1997 for less than $100,000. Other suspects also emerged over the years, including Paul Modrowski and Robert Faraci, two men arrested in the beheading of a Barrington man. Modrowski was convicted in that case; the charges were dropped against Faraci, but he was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison in a check-writing scam. At its peak, the investigation into the Brown's murders consumed almost half the Palatine police force. Private citizens flocked to form and attend neighborhood watch groups. More than nine years later, several people a month still ask Councilman Daniel A. Varro-ney if there are any breaks in the case. "I think people were frightened," Varroney said. "I think they were scared, and I think that they were horrified with the loss of life in our community Everybody thinks it can't happen in their community." At Saturday's news conference, numerous family members of the victims joined law enforcement officials. They included Mary Jane Crow, a sister of victim Michael Castro. "These people came from Palatine," said Crow, 32, of Lake Zurich. "These people came from Fremd. I'm completely baffled. To think these people are that evil, I'm baffled." But Mullins, Palatine's mayor, held out the hope that the darkness that settled over the village after the killings might finally recede. "The sun was shining today," she said. "I think everyone has a sense of the clouds lifting, and a sense of relief." Tribune staff reporters John Keilman, Lynette Kalsnes, Shia Kapos and Nancy Ryan contributed to this report.

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