My last blog post covered the assassination of America’s twenty-fifth president, William McKinley, in 1901. This week’s post presents a horrific crime from 1993 when two men massacred seven people at a Brown’s Chicken and Pasta restaurant in suburban Chicago.
Brown’s Chicken is a fast-food restaurant chain specializing in fried chicken. The first restaurant opened in 1947 by John and Belva Brown in Bridgeview, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago. In the 1980s, the restaurant added pasta to its menu and officially changed its name to Brown’s Chicken and Pasta. Although the chain had at one point expanded to several locations throughout the United States, after 2005, it contracted and focused exclusively on the Chicagoland area.
The Brown’s Chicken Massacre
It was Friday, January 8, 1993. Snow was on the ground, with more coming down. The Brown’s Chicken and Pasta restaurant at 168 West Northwest Highway in Palatine, Illinois, closed at 9:00 p.m. By 11:00, police had received calls from family members of two employees who had not returned home as expected.
Palatine police responded at about 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 9. When officers arrived, they found the restaurant’s back door open. Inside, they found the bodies of the two owners, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, and five employees. Michael C. Castro and Rico L. Solis were Palatine High School students working part-time. The other three victims were Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, and Marcus Nellsen.
Some bodies were face up while others were face down. All were in a cooler and walk-in refrigerator. The killers took between $1,800 and $1,900 from the restaurant when they left.
Detectives investigating the case had a few clues to work with. They found a receipt timestamped at 9:08 p.m. for a four-piece chicken meal with fries, coleslaw, and a small drink. The remnants of that meal were in an otherwise empty trash can outside the restaurant.
More than sixty detectives initially worked the case, pursuing more than 1,100 leads. Six different men were arrested and cleared between January 1993 and April 1994.
The Brown’s Chicken Killers Caught
The Brown’s Chicken murders went unsolved for more than nine years before investigators got a break. Then, in March 2002, Anne Lockett contacted police and implicated her former boyfriend, James Degorski, and his associate, Juan Luna. According to the story Degorski told her, Luna was the mastermind, although he, Degorski, shot two of the victims. He said he dumped the gun in the Fox River. Lockett said she didn’t come forward sooner because she feared for her life.
In April 2002, Palatine police used DNA to match saliva taken from a partially eaten piece of chicken collected at the crime scene in 1993 to Juan Luna. This was not possible using DNA testing techniques available at the time of the crime.
Police arrested both Luna and Degorski on May 16, 2002. Luna confessed during interrogation, although, as is often the case, his lawyers claimed the confession was coerced. Luna, then 18, had worked at the restaurant where the massacre occurred and had been fired. However, he knew the location of the safe. He also knew there were no panic alarms in the store, and the owners did not keep any weapons on site.
Trials and Convictions
Despite his confession, Juan Luna pleaded not guilty. On May 10, 2007, a jury found him guilty of all seven counts of murder. On May 17, he was sentenced to life without parole, having missed the death penalty by a single vote.
James Degorski was also found guilty of seven counts of murder on September 29, 2009. His conviction largely rested on the testimony of Anne Lockett, the former girlfriend, and Eileen Bakalla. Both women testified that Degorski had confessed to them. Degorski, too, received life without parole after his jury voted 10-2 for the death penalty (the law required a unanimous vote).
The Brown’s Chicken massacre caused overall sales to drop by thirty-five percent, forcing the company to close nearly 280 franchise locations, including 100 in the Chicago area.
The Palatine location where the massacre occurred never reopened. The building subsequently housed a dry cleaning service and an Italian restaurant, but neither business survived. On April 28, 2001, the building was demolished and paved over as a parking lot. Today, a Chase Bank branch office stands on the site.
The Brown’s Chicken Massacre is one of the cases included in Shocking Cases from Dr. Henry Lee’s Forensic Files.
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