Lane Bryant: Old Murder Case Needs a Breakthrough

My blog post this week concerns an unsolved crime from sixteen years ago. In 2008, a man shot six women inside a Lane Bryant clothing store in a Chicago suburb, killing five of them. The crime remains unsolved today.

Intruder at Lane Bryant

It was a little after 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 2, 2008. A tall man, six-foot to six-foot-two, entered the Lane Bryant store in the Brookside Marketplace shopping center in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park. He claimed to be a deliveryman. Soon, however, he dropped the pretense. Pulling a .40-caliber Glock handgun, he herded the two employees and two women customers to a back room. He then bound them with duct tape and ordered them to lie face down on the floor.

The scene at the Brookside Marketplace Lane Bryant on February 2, 2006 (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)
The scene at the Brookside Marketplace Lane Bryant on February 2, 2006 (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

Two other women, potential customers, came into the store and were also herded to the back and bound.

The Lane Bryant Murders

According to police, the intruder was in the store for 40 minutes. During that time, he sexually assaulted at least one woman before shooting all six, killing five. One victim, a part-time Lane Bryant employee, survived but declined to be identified.

The Tinley Park police department released a new 3-D image of the Lane Bryant suspect on February 1, 2018 (Tinley Park Police)
The Tinley Park police department released a new 3-D image of the suspect on February 1, 2018 (Tinley Park Police)

During the attack, Lane Bryant store manager Rhonda McFarland managed to call 911 from her cellphone, pleading with the operator to “hurry.” A Tinley Park police officer was on a call in Brookside Marketplace a few hundred yards away. He was on the scene within a minute, but the gunman had already escaped.

  • Store manager Rhoda McFarland (Family photo)
    Store manager Rhoda McFarland (Family photo)

The dead women were store manager Rhoda McFarland, 42, of Joliet; Jennifer Bishop, 34, of South Bend, Indiana; Sarah Szafranski, 22, of Oak Forest; Connie Woolfolk, 37, of Flossmoor; and Carrie Hudek Chiuso, 33, of Frankfort.

Epilogue

The Lane Bryant murders remain unsolved today (2024), sixteen years later. Tinley Park police still have a detective assigned full-time to the case.

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Bowling Alley: Astonishing Mass Murder Case Never Solved

My blog last week presented the case of Gerald Robinson, a Catholic priest and sexual predator who murdered a nun in 1980. This week’s blog deals with a 1990 mass murder at a Las Cruces, New Mexico bowling alley. Despite the passage of more than three decades, the murders remain unsolved.

The Bowling Alley

It was Saturday morning, February 10, 1990. Stephanie C. Senac, 34, the manager of Las Cruces Bowl at 1201 East Amador Avenue, went about the routine tasks of opening the business. Stephanie had her twelve-year-old daughter, Melissa Repass, with her. Melissa and her friend, Amy Houser, 13, planned to supervise the bowling alley’s daycare.

Victims of the Las Cruces bowling alley murders. Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Senac, Steve Teran, Melissa Repass, Paula Holguin and Valerie Teran, Ida Holguin, and Amy Houser.
Victims of the Las Cruces bowling alley massacre. Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Senac, Steve Teran, Melissa Repass, Paula Holguin and Valerie Teran, Ida Holguin, and Amy Houser.

In the kitchen, cook Ida Holguin, 33, prepared to start her day. As she did, a man who had entered through the unlocked front door pointed a .22 caliber pistol at her and ordered her into the office. There, she saw another man holding Senac and the two girls at gunpoint. The gunmen ordered the women and girls to lie down while they removed between $4,000 and $5,000 (approximately $9,400 and $11,800 in 2023) from the bowling alley’s safe.

Murder in the Bowling Alley

While the intruders plundered the safe, Steve Teran, the bowling alley’s mechanic, arrived for work. Unable to find a babysitter, he brought his two daughters, Valerie Teran, 2, and Paula Holguin (no relation to Ida), 6, with him. He intended to drop them off at the alley’s daycare. Since they didn’t see anyone in the main part of the building, Teran and his two girls went to the office. There, they stumbled onto the robbery in progress.

Las Cruces police on the scene of the bowling alley murders (Las Cruces Police Department)
Las Cruces police on the scene of the bowling alley murders (Las Cruces Police Department)

Most likely panicking, the two robbers shot all seven people multiple times. Attempting to cover their crime, they set fire to some papers on Senac’s desk.

The scene in the bowling alley office (Las Cruces Police Department)
The scene in the bowling alley office (Las Cruces Police Department)

The report of the robbery and shootings came in at 8:33 a.m. Despite being shot five times, Melissa Repass used the office phone to call 9‑1‑1. Responding officers discovered Amy Houser, Paula Holguin, and Steven Teran dead at the scene. Valerie Teran was rushed to a hospital but was dead on arrival.

Melissa’s call and fast response by emergency personnel likely saved her life and those of her mother and Ida Holguin. However, Stephanie Senac died in 1999 from complications from her wounds.

Investigating the Bowling Alley Murders

Police set up ten roadblocks surrounding Las Cruces within an hour of the shooting and carefully screened anyone leaving the city. The U.S. Customs Service, the Army, and Border Patrol searched the area with planes and helicopters. No suspects were found, and no arrests were made.

Ida Holguin, who was shot three times in the head in the Las Cruces bowling alley massacre, discusses in 2010 what she remembers that day (Robin Zielinski/Las Cruces Sun-News)
Ida Holguin, who was shot three times in the head in the Las Cruces bowling alley massacre, discusses in 2010 what she remembers that day (Robin Zielinski/Las Cruces Sun-News)

Shortly after the murders, rumors began circulating that Ronald Senac, the owner of Las Cruces Bowl (and father of Stephanie), was involved in shady business dealings. Police investigation of Senac led to nothing but dead ends. According to Detective Mark Meyers, “We put Ronald Senac under a microscope, and we couldn’t find anything.”

Police artist sketches of two possible suspects. The sketches on the left were produced at the time of the massacre. The images on the right estimated how the two would look in 2005 (Las Cruces Police Department)
Police artist sketches of two possible suspects. The sketches on the left were produced at the time of the massacre. The images on the right estimated how the two would look in 2005 (Las Cruces Police Department)

Like the Austin, Texas, yogurt shop murders I profiled recently, the fire and efforts to extinguish it destroyed much evidence. As forensic technology improves, detectives hope that some of the evidence recovered from the scene at the time will lead them to the killers.

Epilogue

At one point, Las Cruces Bowl underwent a name change and became 10 Pin Alley. Today, the building sits abandoned.

The former site of the Las Cruces Bowl now sits abandoned (Google Maps)
The former site of the Las Cruces Bowl now sits abandoned (Google Maps)

No one has ever been charged in the Las Cruces bowling alley murders. Thirty-three years later, Las Cruces police still receive tips about the case. So far, none of them have led to a suspect or an arrest.

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Brown’s Chicken: Astonishing Murder of Seven People

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

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.

A Palatine police cruiser sits outside the Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant the day after seven people were murdered (Daily Herald via AP File)
A Palatine police cruiser sits outside the Brown’s Chicken and Pasta restaurant the day after seven people were murdered (Daily Herald via AP File)

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.

Franchise owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt were two of the seven murdered victims (inquirer.net)
Franchise owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt were two of the seven murdered victims (inquirer.net)

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.

The other five victims of the Brown's Chicken Massacre (L-R) were Guadalupe Maldonado, Rico L. Solis, Michael A. Casto, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen (PINOY)
The other five victims of the Brown’s Chicken Massacre (L-R) were Guadalupe Maldonado, Rico L. Solis, Michael A. Casto, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen (PINOY)

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.

Aerial view of the Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant the day after the massacre (Daily Herald via AP File)
Aerial view of the Brown’s Chicken and Pasta restaurant the day after the massacre (Daily Herald via AP File)

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.

Mugshots of Juan Luna (L) and James Degorski (R) after their arrest in 2002 (Palatine Police Department)
Mugshots of Juan Luna (L) and James Degorski (R) after their arrest in 2002 (Palatine Police Department)

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).

Epilogue

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.

This Chase Bank branch stands on the site of the Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant where the massacre occurred (Mysterymanblue/Wikipedia)
This Chase Bank branch stands on the site of the Brown’s Chicken and Pasta restaurant where the massacre occurred (Mysterymanblue/Wikipedia)

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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Yogurt Shop: Old Murder Case Not Easily Forgotten

This summer has challenged my ability to produce a blog each week. But even though I missed last week, I have not abandoned my readers. My previous blog explored the case of Lindsay Buziak, a young real estate agent murdered in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2008. Her killer has never been identified. Neither have police solved this week’s case, the murder of four teenage girls in an Austin, Texas, yogurt shop in 1991.

The Yogurt Shop Girls

It was December 6, 1991, not quite three weeks before Christmas. Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas, both 17, worked their shifts at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! store located at 2945 West Anderson Lane in Austin, Texas. As the 11:00 p.m. closing time approached, Jennifer’s sister, Sarah, 15, and her friend Amy Ayers, 13, joined Jennifer and Eliza. The two younger girls planned to get a ride home with Jennifer after the store closed.

The murdered girls, clockwise from top left: Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, Sarah Harbison, and Jennifer Harbison (AP)
The murdered girls, clockwise from top left: Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, Sarah Harbison, and Jennifer Harbison (AP)

Minutes before midnight, a police officer on patrol reported a fire in the shop. Responding firefighters put out the fire but found a grisly scene inside. The nude bodies of all four girls lay on the floor, each shot in the back of the head by a .22-caliber firearm. A pair of panties bound Sarah’s hands behind her. She had also been gagged and sexually assaulted. Eliza had also been gagged and had her hands tied behind her back. Amy’s body, found in a different part of the store, had a “sock-like cloth” around her neck. She had suffered two gunshot wounds.

The Yogurt Shop Investigation

From the start, the effects of the fire hampered investigators. Jennifer’s, Eliza’s, and Sarah’s bodies suffered severe burns. Amy’s body, found in another part of the yogurt shop, suffered less severe burns, but damage to the shop itself from the fire and efforts to extinguish it compromised the crime scene.

The scene outside the yogurt shop after the discovery of the fire and bodies (CBS News)
The chaotic scene outside the yogurt shop after the discovery of the fire and bodies (CBS News)

One early person of interest was a 15-year-old caught with a .22 weapon inside an area mall just days after the killings. He seemed like a promising suspect. But his gun could not be identified as the weapon used in the killings, and detectives decided he was trying to wrangle his way out of a gun charge. They eliminated him and three friends he implicated. All four boys were younger than eighteen at the time.

Damage caused by the intense heat of the fire in the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! store (Austin Police Department)
Damage caused by the intense heat of the fire in the yogurt shop (Austin Police Department)

Eight years later, in 1999, a new detective assigned to the case decided that the four were, in fact, viable suspects. Now in their twenties, several detectives sat the four down for relentless interrogations. Two of the four, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, confessed to participating in the yogurt shop murders. Both later recanted, saying detectives coerced the confessions.

The Yogurt Shop Murder Trials

In 2001, Robert Springsteen went on trial for capital murder. Although the trial lasted three weeks, Scott’s confession was the only substantial evidence against him. Scott refused to testify in court, so the prosecutor read parts of his (Scott’s) confession to the jury. After thirteen hours of deliberation, they returned a guilty verdict, and Springsteen went to death row.

The initial suspects in the yogurt shop murders, clockwise from top left: Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn, Robert Springsteen, and Michael Scott. Scott and Springsteen were both convicted of murder but had their convictions overturned on appeal (AP Photos)
The initial suspects in the yogurt shop murders, clockwise from top left: Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn, Robert Springsteen, and Michael Scott. Scott and Springsteen were both convicted of murder but had their convictions overturned on appeal (AP Photos)

Prosecutors used the same playbook when it came time for Scott’s trial a year later in 2002. They used Springsteen’s confession as evidence against Scott. Springsteen himself did not testify. This jury also returned a guilty verdict, although Scott was spared the death sentence because he was a minor at the time of the crime.

In 2006, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Springsteen’s conviction, ruling that the prosecution had improperly used Scott’s confession against him, violating his Sixth Amendment rights. A year later, in 2007, the same court overturned Scott’s conviction on identical grounds.

DNA Testing Provides No Answers

Texas prosecutors vowed to retry the cases. As they prepared for the new trials, defense lawyers requested that the state resubmit evidence for DNA testing. Prosecutors agreed since the capabilities of DNA testing had grown significantly in the seventeen years since the murders.

A sign on an Austin taxicab keeps the yogurt shop murders in the public mind (CBS News)
A sign on an Austin taxicab asks for tips in the yogurt shop murders in February 1992 (CBS News)

The tests revealed the DNA profile of a man on biological evidence taken from two of the victims, Amy Ayers and Jennifer Harbison. The DNA of another man was found on clothing used to bind the wrists of a third victim, Eliza Thomas. A partial DNA profile of a third person was also found on Jennifer Harbison. None of these profiles matched Scott or Springsteen. Nor did they match the other two original suspects, Maurice Pierce and Forrest Welborn.

Authorities released Scott and Springsteen on bond on June 24, 2009, finally dismissing the charges against them on October 28.

Epilogue

Almost thirty-two years have passed since Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, Eliza Thomas, and Amy Ayers died that horrible December evening. No credible suspects have emerged after the appeals court overturned Scott’s and Springsteen’s convictions.

In February 2022, it was announced that advanced DNA technology was bringing investigators closer than ever to solving the case. However, the announcement provided no details. No suspect has been identified or arrested since.

On December 23, 2010, Austin police officers Frank Wilson and Bradley Smith made a routine traffic stop on a car driven by former suspect Maurice Pierce. Pierce fled, and a foot chase ensued. When Pierce pulled a knife and stabbed Wilson in the neck, Wilson shot Pierce dead (Officer Wilson survived).

You can read more about the yogurt shop murders in Beverly Lowery’s Who Killed These Girls? and Corey Mitchell’s Murdered Innocents.

Today, the site of the former yogurt shop is home to an oriental rug gallery. A memorial plaque to the four slain girls is across the street.

More than three decades later, the yogurt shop murders still resonate with Austin residents (KEYE-TV)
More than three decades later, the yogurt shop murders still resonate with Austin residents (KEYE-TV)

The case is still open. If you have any information about the yogurt shop murders, call 512-472-TIPS [8477].

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