Thirteen years after the Brown’s Chicken massacre, a small Illinois town awaits a trial that might finally put its painful memories to rest.
The residents of Palatine, Illinois, have grown used to it: Every January 8, the suburban Chicago winter chill seems a little bit harsher as memories turn back to a horrific night in 1993 that splashed the town’s name across newspapers and newscasts nationwide. Frank Portillo, the founder of the Brown’s Chicken & Pasta chain, has grown to expect the calls from reporters preparing their anniversary stories about the massacre that took place at the Palatine branch. Back when the building still stood, before it was razed to make way for a parking lot, somebody usually laid a wreath in memory of the victims.
But this January, the anniversary will be different. Because the two men who were charged in 2002 with the crimes are finally going to trial. Juan Luna and James Degorski, who were just out of high school at the time of the killings, face the death penalty if convicted. Luna’s trial could begin as early as this spring, followed by a separate trial for Degorski.
And Palatine will again relive the grim winter days that followed the discovery of seven bodies in two walk-in refrigerators at Brown’s.
Though prosecutors have a strong case, including DNA evidence and what they say are confessions from both men, the pretrial maneuverings have been strikingly contentious, even for a capital case. Luna and Degorski clearly plan on mounting a vigorous defense. They will use the 11-year investigation by the police task force to their advantage, exploring the multitude of false leads and alternate theories of the crime that investigators pursued over the years. And they will revisit the accusations of misconduct and corruption that have dogged the Brown’s investigation practically from day one.
In the end, though, the resolution to a hapless search—fruitless for more than a decade—for the killers may come down, appropriately enough, to human DNA found on a few gnawed-on chicken bones. Bones that spent the last 13 years inside a freezer at an Illinois State Police laboratory.
Not that the trial will undo any of the damage.
“I’ve been avoiding it, to be honest with you,” says Portillo, whose personal and financial life was upended by the murders. “I wish it would go away.”
Will he follow the trial, or attend it? “No. How would you like to be poked in the eye with bad memories all the time?”
Shortly after 9 p.m. on January 8, 1993, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt were busy closing up shop at their Brown’s Chicken & Pasta franchise on Northwest Highway in Palatine, a suburb of 42,000, most notable for its proximity to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Brown’s, then a 115-restaurant chain founded in 1958 by Portillo, was a tiny regional player in the fried-chicken business. Portillo had just recently added family-style pasta to the menu in a last-ditch bid to combat the cut-rate pricing tactics employed by Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Ehlenfeldts—Richard was a retired political consultant and former assistant secretary of state for Wisconsin; Lynn was a child-rights advocate and stay-at-home mom—had poured their life savings into the franchise just the year before. With them that night were five employees: local high school students Michael Castro and Rico Solis; Marcus Nellsen, a Navy veteran who hoped to be promoted to manager; Thomas Mennes, a high school drop-out who had bounced around several foodservice jobs; and Guadalupe Maldonado, a Mexican national with a wife and two children.
The trash bins were empty and the floor was mopped clean when, according to news accounts and documents filed by prosecutors at the Cook County Circuit Court, the Ehlenfeldts let in the final customers of the night.
Juan Luna was 18. He’d worked at the restaurant before the Ehlenfeldts bought it. He knew the layout. James Degorski was 20. Together, according to court documents, the two liked to get high, listen to heavy metal music and “abused and tortured animals.” On this night, prosecutors say, the two teens had decided they were going to “do something big.”
Luna ordered a four-piece chicken meal. He and Degorski sat down, and Degorski quietly berated Luna for deciding to eat. Luna threw the chicken bones into the empty trash bin. Degorski stood as well. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Over the next 40 minutes, prosecutors say, the two cut Lynn Ehlenfeldt’s throat, stabbed Michael Castro, herded everyone into the restaurant’s two coolers and fired 20 rounds from a .38 caliber pistol into them. Afterward, Degorski picked up the spent shell casings and mopped up some of the blood; Luna threw the circuit-breaker to turn off the lights. They walked away from the restaurant—with $1,800 from the safe—stepping in the same snowprints they’d made on the way in.
The bodies were discovered shortly after 3 a.m., and as the gruesome nature of the crime became evident, the town suddenly found itself in the national spotlight. Within three days Palatine police chief Jerry Bratcher had organized a 75-person task force of local and state police and FBI investigators.
And then: Nothing.
The Palatine police force wasn’t up to the task, critics charged. The crime lab was slow. Tipsters said they were ignored. A Chicago Tribune editorial accused the Palatine police of being “baffled about basic investigative procedure.”
In 1997, after four years of fizzled leads and no progress, public dissatisfaction with the investigation came to a head. The Better Government Association (BGA), a Chicago-based watchdog group, issued a blistering 38,000-word report on the conduct of the task force and the Palatine police department. Based in large part on anonymous interviews with task force members, the report contended that the Brown’s crime scene was terribly compromised, the police crime lab was a “disaster” and that Bratcher himself was self serving. Most damaging, it accused him of blindly ignoring what had become known as “Lead 80,” a tip from a jailhouse informant linking the crime to a Puerto Rican gang. Two task-force detectives were convinced Lead 80 was valid and that Jose Cruz, a chieftain in the Chicago street gang the PR Stones, was one of the gunmen.
Portillo, frustrated with the cops, endorsed the BGA’s findings. Though events now would seem to partially contradict the report, Portillo says he has no regrets, even if the report may help the defense attorneys cast doubt on the credibility of the police.
Portillo’s voice grows weary and weak as he revisits the painful events—something he is reluctant to do. While he is at pains to make clear that the suffering of the six families of the victims is the most important consideration, Portillo, now 73, can’t help but point out that the publicity surrounding the killings devastated the business he and others worked so hard to build. “We had 12 of the most miserable years of my life,” he says. In January of 1993, there were 115 Brown’s in the Chicagoland area. Today there are just 50.
“We lost over two-thirds of our business and personal assets,” he says. “Our gross sales dropped 30 percent immediately and stayed there for two or three years. People would come up to me and say, ‘I feel bad, but I haven’t been to one of your restaurants since the murder.’”
At the time of the killings, Portillo had just been through a bruising battle with Kentucky Fried Chicken, which, he says, had poured more than $20 million in advertising and $70 million in half-price food into its Chicago stores in an effort to kill off the regional competition. “When Pepsi bought KFC in 1986, they came after us,” he says. “They gave me a black eye, a bloody nose and a broken leg. That was nothing compared to Palatine.”
For a time after the killings, Portillo became something of a victims’ rights advocate, chiding the Palatine police in public and hosting a radio talk show. But he eventually grew weary and tried to focus on rebuilding his business. The only time he had to contend with the memories was on the days leading up to January 8 each year, when the reporters started calling. He and his wife, Joan, took to planning their Florida vacations around the time of the anniversary to avoid the attention. “One guy followed us to the airport with a camera crew,” he says.
Ann Lockett would eventually put an end to it all. In March of 2002, she was a 26-year-old student at Eastern Illinois University. Her old high-school boyfriend, James Degorski, had recently called her mother looking for her. Lockett told her mother not to give Degorski her number. He was bad news. He used to beat her viciously, she said. Lockett had been a misfit in high school, hanging out with Degorski and Luna, drinking and getting high. She tried to kill herself five times, according to court documents. But now she had gotten her life relatively straight, and Degorski’s call got to her.
She contacted detectives and told her story: On January 8, 1993, she was at Forest Hospital following a suicide attempt. Degorski called her at the psych ward and told her to watch the evening news. “Watch the news,” he told her. “I did something.” Later, Luna and Degorski told her that Luna had wanted to kill someone, so they had gone to Brown’s and killed everyone there. Degorski told her that if she ever told anybody he’d kill her, too.
Palatine police officers pursued the lead methodically, eventually getting a DNA match from the old chicken bones found in the trashcan and a DNA sample Luna agreed to supply. Police arrested Luna and Degorski separately on May 16, 2002.
“I was the happiest guy in the world,” Portillo recalls. “I don’t get up and cry in the middle of the night anymore.”
Both men have pleaded not guilty, yet the case against them appears to be quite strong. The DNA evidence against Luna alone will be daunting to overcome in court, but prosecutors also have a videotaped confession that Luna made during his interrogation. In addition, prosecutors have a napkin that was discarded with the chicken bones that they say includes a partial palm print that matches Luna’s.
Degorski also allegedly confessed, according to prosecutors. But when they attempted to get him to repeat his statement for a video camera, they say he balked. The prosecutors have no hard physical evidence linking Degorski to the crime—there is one shoe print that they will likely allege was made by Degorski, according to court documents—and will be relying heavily on Ann Lockett’s testimony, as well as that of Eileen Bakalla, another high school friend that the pair allegedly confessed the crime to.
According to court documents, a medical technician at Cook County Jail that was treating Degorski after he was beaten by a prison guard shortly after his arrest says she asked him how he could kill seven people. “Just for fun,” he allegedly replied. When she asked if he was high, he allegedly replied, “No, we did it just for fun.”
Kevin Byrne, one of the Cook County assistant state’s attorneys prosecuting the case, says he is eager to go before a jury. “We’ve been pushing for as soon as possible. Early 2006 is when we want it to go.” The men will be tried separately before the same judge. As for what he intends to bring up at trial, Byrne says: “I can’t really comment on the evidence. We try the case in the courtroom.”
The defense appears to face an uphill battle. Luna and Degorski’s attorneys have already filed several hail-mary motions, attempting to bar media coverage of the trial and subpoenaing all 102 district attorneys in Illinois for all death penalty records in an effort to argue that the death penalty is meted out unfairly—this is the highest profile capital case in Illinois since former Gov. George Ryan instituted a moratorium on executions in 2000. (Though the moratorium remains in effect, prosecuters continue to seek the death penalty in anticipation of resumed executions.) Most telling, Luna and Degorski’s attorneys attempted to subpoena all notes and the identities of all the sources for the BGA report. All these motions failed. But the effort to uncover the information behind the BGA report makes clear how helpful it could be to the defense’s case on two fronts.
Luna’s attorneys will have to attack the DNA evidence linking him to the chicken bones, and one way to do that will be to attack the laboratory that produced it—something the BGA report has already done in spades. The report calls the lab “understaffed, underqualified, and unprepared” and details “horrendous mistakes in securing the crime scene and evidence gathering process.” As for the partial palm print on the napkin, Luna’s attorneys have already pointed out in court filings that Luna was printed as a Brown’s employee early on in the investigation—including his palm—and the crime lab failed to match him to the napkin print back then.
The defense also plans to raise alternate theories of the crime, something that the BGA report, again, has already done for it. To judge by an early witness list submitted by Luna’s attorney, the defense will raise the specter of Lead 80 once again: Jose Cruz is on the list, as is the tipster who accused Cruz and the two detectives who advanced the Cruz theory only to be overruled by Bratcher. Also on the list is Michael Lyons, the chief investigator behind the BGA report.
The defense will also attack the credibility of Ann Lockett. “Mr. Degorski has pleaded not guilty and he was not responsible for this crime,” says Michael Mayfield, one of Degorski’s public defenders. “At the trial, we will be able to show Miss Lockett’s statements to be false.” The defense has succeeded in obtaining Lockett’s medical records, including her psychiatric dossier from her stay at Forest Hospital, which includes diagnoses of “behavioral problems” including “poor memory/often forgets” and “significant dishonesty/lying.”
Juan Luna’s attorney did not return phone calls.
Luna’s trial will attract enormous attention, as one of the highest-profile crimes in Illinois history finally goes before a jury. It could also end a sorry chapter in Chicago history, putting to rest all of the infighting and incompetence that dogged the Brown’s case from the beginning. And the families of the seven who died at Brown’s that night will finally, after 13 years of uncertainty, be able to look the accused murderers in the eye in open court. All eyes in Chicago will be riveted.
Except for Frank Portillo’s. “I hope justice is done,” he says.
“But I just want to get that out of my mind.”