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Juan A. LUNA Jr.

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


A.K.A.: "The Brown's Chicken Murderer"
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 7
Date of murders: January 8, 1993
Date of arrest: May 16, 2002 (9 years after)
Date of birth: February 16, 1974
Victims profile: Michael Castro, 16; Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50; Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49; Guadalupe Maldonado, 47; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and Rico Solis, 17 (two owners and five employees)
Method of murder: Six shot to death and one whose throat was cut
Location: Palatine, Illinois, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison without parole on May 18, 2007
 
 
 
 

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Who's who in the Brown's murders

 
 

44 minutes in January - Daily Herald

 
 

Juan Luna is a convicted United States mass murderer, who was found guilty of killing seven people in the Brown's Chicken massacre in Palatine, Illinois on January 8, 1993.

Luna killed the two owners and five employees, then left their bodies in the store's freezer. After no arrests had been made in the case for nine years, Luna and James Degorski, his charged accomplice, were implicated by Degorski's former girlfriend.

Luna went to trial in Cook County Criminal Court in late April 2007, with most of the case against him resting on evidence from DNA found on partially-eaten pieces of chicken found at the crime scene (some of which could not be linked to Luna through DNA technology at the time of the crime, but can with more sophisticated means now) and a videotaped confession by Luna.

On May 10, 2007, Luna was found guilty on all seven counts. On May 18, 2007, a jury decided against the death penalty for Luna. This means Luna will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Eleven of the jurors who convicted Juan Luna of the 1993 Brown’s Chicken massacre voted to sentence him to death Thursday, but his life was spared because of a lone holdout.

The 12-member jury spent just two hours deliberating, then voted overwhelmingly for the death penalty, according to Cook County prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors who spoke to reporters after the sentencing.

Jurors said the holdout was the same woman who initially balked before the panel voted unanimously last week to convict Luna of murdering seven workers at the Palatine fast-food restaurant during a robbery. They declined to identify her.

“We didn’t gang up on her because that’s not right,” said juror Tim Beltran, 22, of Westchester. “You don’t want to force her into anything.”

Under Illinois law, a death sentence can be imposed only by a unanimous jury vote. The split vote left the jury to recommend a life sentence for Luna, 33.

 
 

Luna gets life in prison

By Todd Shields - Palatine-Countryside.com

May 17, 2007

Convicted mass murderer Juan Luna will serve life in prison without parole for killing seven workers at the Palatine Brown's Chicken, a jury decided Thursday.

One person decided Luna's fate when she would not vote with 11 other jurors in favor of the death penalty. The jury deliberated for two hours before reaching its decision at 4:20 p.m.

As the decision was read to a packed courtroom, the reception was silent. Eight Cook County sheriff's deputies lined the aisles, ensuring decorum and security.

Once the words appeared to sink in, Juan Luna turned to defense attorney Stephen Richards, and the emotionally spent men bear-hugged one another for several seconds. Richards defended his client through long, crucial parts of the trial.

Lead defense attorney Clarence Burch bowed his head and whispered an apparent prayer.

The decision pleased both Luna's family and several victims' family members who opposed the death penalty.

"I don't think anyone should ever die including my brother," said Jorge Luna as he was leaving courtroom No. 500.

Other victims' family members felt strongly opposite.

Diane Clayton, mother of victim Marcus Nellsen, said the life sentence was unjust.

"Not when seven people were brutally killed. This cannot be justice. My son deserved better than this. The other six victims deserved better than this," she said through tears as she sat in her wheelchair and spoke to reporters in the lobby of the Criminal Courts Building.

Luna, 33, was convicted May 10 of the 1993 murders of Michael Castro, 16; Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50; Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49; Guadalupe Maldonado, 47; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and Rico Solis, 17. The Ehlenfeldts of Arlington Heights owned the Brown's Chicken restaurant.

Clayton, a Schaumburg resident, said she will continue to honor her son's memory by thinking about him every day.

"You have to go on, but you never forget," Clayton said. "I realize the death penalty would never bring my son back."

Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt's three daughters received the jury's decision with blank expressions.

Outside the courtroom, Jennifer Ehlenfeldt Shilling said she respected the jury's decision, but added that Luna's friends and relatives should stop insisting he should be freed.

"It's an insult to us that he and his family proclaimed his innocence," she said. "Until they admit Juan Luna's guilt, their prayers are of little comfort."

"We hope both Juan Luna and his family will accept his guilt and his role in these horrible crimes and that they accept responsibility for his actions," she said.

Shilling, of La Crosse, Wis., who is a Democratic state representative, said she and her family were relieved that the trial had ended so they can get back to living normal lives.

"We're exhausted, we're spent," she said.

 
 

Jury couldn't force a death sentence

By Kimberly Fornek - Palatine-Countryside.com

May 17, 2007

The jury who convicted Juan Luna of murder was a close, cohesive group, according to one juror who spoke to the press Thursday after sentencing Luna to life in prison without parole.

But that sentence was not the one they wanted to impose. In fact, all but one juror of the 12-person jury voted to sentence Luna to death. Without a unanimous vote, however, the death penalty could not be imposed.

"Everybody has a decision and you can't force anybody," juror John Polishak said. "They have to live with that decision for the rest of their lives." He acknowledged "it was a little frustrating" that the sentence reflected only one person's opinion, but the majority did not push anyone to change their vote, he said.

"We discussed the pros and cons," said Polishak, a Chicago plumber. "We took a few (votes)," he said, but the jurors did not bother with secret ballots. "We were such a close group, everything was discussed, everything was in the open. We never pressured anybody."

Polishak said the jurors "weren't surprised" that one juror opposed the death sentence for Luna, because of "prior deliberations."

The jury voted unanimously last week to convict Luna on seven counts of first-degree murder in the Jan. 8, 1993, slayings at the Palatine Brown's Chicken.

"We came by that decision by the facts and the evidence and the law," Polishak said. "It wasn't easy."

The DNA found on pieces of a chicken dinner that was left in the trash the night of the murders and a palm print that experts said matched Luna's, as well as Luna's videotaped confession from 2002, were "for me and most of the jurors major" evidence that caused them to convict Luna. "The DNA was key. That placed Juan Luna at Brown's Chicken that night."

Despite criticism of the way key pieces of evidence were handled, specifically portions of a chicken dinner the prosecution claimed Luna ate before the murder spree began, Polishak said the jury viewed the evidence as "solid."

The jurors did not consider testimony from star witnesses Anne Lockett and Eileen Bakalla as important as the DNA evidence, because the jury questioned their accuracy. "(They were) doing too many drugs," Polishak said.

He said the jurors started the trial with the premise "Juan Luna was innocent and the state had to prove him guilty." They put themselves in Luna's place and knew they would want a jury who would be fair and open-minded.

"None of us wanted to be on this jury, but we did get picked," Polishak said. Over the weeks of the trial, the jurors "became like a family." Before leaving the courthouse for the last time, Polishak said, "We exchanged e-mails, the people that wanted to. We never forced anything on anybody."

Polishak started his post-sentencing press conference by apologizing for being emotional.

"It has been hard. ... I haven't slept for the past two days. None of us have been sleeping for weeks. We took a lot of time being here."

Jurors with families have missed their spouses and children, he said.

Still, he acknowledged, "It was a great learning experience. It taught me a lot of patience, which I don't have a lot of." But he said, "I would never want to do it again."

Polishak expects he and the other jurors "are definitely going to be following (alleged accomplice James) Degorski's trial."

 
 

Taped confession reveals chilling details

By Todd Shields - Palatine-Countryside.com

April 25, 2007

Similar to a movie script, the violence at a Palatine restaurant on a cold January night in 1993 commenced with an armed stickup-man yelling, "Everybody down on the floor. This is a holdup!"

But this was no scripted movie.

Approximately 45 minutes later, the lights were cut, the safe robbed, two men were headed for the getaway car on foot through snow and seven employees of Brown's Chicken & Pasta were dead — six shot to death and one whose throat was cut.

Twelve jurors heard those chilling details Wednesday on the taped confession of accused killer and armed robber Juan Luna, 33, in the alleged Jan. 8, 1993 crime.

He and Fremd High School friend James Degorski, 34, are the accused, charged with first degree murder and armed robbery upon their May 2002 arrests. Luna's trial started April 13 and Degorski's is unscheduled. Both men, former Hoffman Estates residents, have pleaded not guilty and face the death penalty if found guilty.

During Luna's 43 minute confession, taped May 17, 2002 at the Hoffman Estates Police Department, he told two detectives and a felony supervisor for the Cook County State's Attorney that he and Degorski entered the restaurant at Northwest Highway and Smith minutes after the 9 p.m. closing. Luna then ordered a four-piece chicken dinner.

"I had worked there and knew there were no alarms," Luna said, further explaining he knew about the backroom safe, when more money might in the safe, no guards and when less customers would be present.

Luna also explained he opened the entrance door with a sweater draped over his hand to avoid leaving fingerprints.

Inside, both men donned latex gloves under the table booth and upon Degorski's order — Let's do it" — walked to the front counter and cash registers where Degorski announced the crime.

Walking to the back of the restaurant with a coerced employee, Luna said he saw another worker, later identified as Tom Mennes, 32, jump over the counter trying to escape when Degorski shot him in the back.

Luna said Mennes shouted, "Ow, I've been shot," and Degorski dragged him into a westside walk-in freezer in the building.

He then heard Degorski telling another person to "Get up." More shots were fired, and Degorski pulled owner Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, alongside Mennes, still dressed in a white kitchen apron, sprawled on the floor next to a storage shelf, Luna said. Visual information was shown to jurors early in the trial, filmed by Palatine police the day after the incident.

At the restaurant's east end, Luna was watching over four workers and Ehlenfeldt's wife, Lynn, 49, all facing downward on the floor near another walk-in cooler.

"My job was to make sure no one ran," Luna said on the tape, earlier saying Degorski was the designated "aggressor" in the holdup.

Degorski reloaded the silver .38-caliber revolver and ordered three people into the freezer.

Suddenly, Luna recalled, employee Marcus Nellsen ran for a rear door behind Luna, who demonstrated for investigators how he took a karate stance and pushed Nellsen back toward Degorski.

"Jim hit him in the head with the gun in his hand. (Nellsen) was drowsy and his feet were wobbly. We put him in the freezer," Luna said.

At that point, he described the scene as getting "all wild and crazy." Armed with a knife, Luna told Lynn Ehlenfeldt to open the two-door safe.

"She was very scared. Hands trembling. She stuck the key in the safe and opened it. I said to turn around and I cut her throat," Luna said, again re-enacting the scene by drawing a pen across his throat for the investigators.

"I guess I just got caught up in it and cut her throat," he said.

"She was laying on the floor. She started gargling and ran out of breath," he said, at which point Luna, up to then usually poised and spontaneous, bowed his head in the white-cinder block room, breathed in heavily and ran his hand up through his hair several times.

Degorski dragged Ehlenfeldt into the east freezer and herded the four remaining employees in and told Luna to fire a warning shot into the room.

"They were yelling, 'Don't shoot us. Please, don't shoot us.' Their hands were shaking," Luna said.

After mopping up the floor for blood, Degorski returned to the freezer, Luna explained, and his friend opened the freezer door.

"I heard rapid shots. A pause, then bam, bam, bam again," Luna said, adding Degorski kicked the bodies to make sure they were dead.

He then shut off the circuit breaker lights, locked the doors and he and Degorski left.

"I was so shook up and scared. (Degorski) drove my car to Carpentersville," he said.

At the tape's conclusion, assistant Cook County State's Attorney Darren O'Brien asked Luna how he felt. "Well, I know I can't change time no more, and I can't bring people back. I feel so sad, and I'm so sorry," Luna said, his voice cracking.

 
 

'I owed it to the families'

By Todd Shields - Palatine-Countryside.com

April 24, 2007

The former girlfriend of accused killer James Degorski said he telephoned while she was under suicide watch in a psychiatric hospital in 1993 and told her to view the television news that night.

"I saw the Brown's Chicken murders on TV. Later, my Mom brought me news articles to the hospital about the murders. I read them and later threw them out," Anne Lockett said Tuesday, eight days into the murder trial of Degorski, 34, and Juan Luna, 33, in Chicago.

By late 2001, Lockett, then a college student at Eastern Illinois University, decided to tell three friends what she knew that led to the men's arrest in May 2002.

Luna and Degorski are accused of killing seven employees of a Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993, setting Palatine police and other law agencies on a nine-year national manhunt.

"I began to feel bad, but I also had a fear of being killed," said Lockett, referring to possible retribution from her former Fremd High School classmates Degorski and Luna.

"The guilt I had in knowing who had done these things outweighed my fear, but I owed it to the families," Lockett said.

Lockett testified that Jan. 7, a day before the murders, she entered the mental hospital for trying to kill herself with an overdose of NyQuil, a cold medication.

She said she was released on Jan. 25, and days later, she met Luna and Degorski in Degorski's basement bedroom in Hoffman Estates. There, they told Lockett, then 17 years old, of wearing old clothes and shoes they later threw out, of filling their pockets with bullets for a silver .38-caliber revolver and wedging the restaurant door shut with an object to prevent employees from escaping.

Covering tracks

The men also "walked funny" to the restaurant through the snow to avoid footprint identification, she said, and they put on rubber latex gloves in the bathroom.

Lockett also said Degorski grew angry with his friend for ordering chicken that may have left greasy fingerprints.

A dime-size print below the little finger lifted from a Brown's napkin at the crime scene was Luna's, forensic expert John Onstwedder III testified April 19.

The men told her they both shot the victims, Lockett testified, and Luna described how he slit the throat of Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49, of Arlington Heights.

Ehlenfeldt owned the eatery at Northwest Highway and Smith Street with her husband, Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, who was found with three gunshot wounds to the head and face.

In retelling their alleged robbery and murder, Lockett said, "Juan was physically into it -- animated. Jim just sat on his bed, telling me the story."

Lockett also said the pair later threw the revolver into the Fox River either in Carpentersville or Algonquin.

"Jim also said, 'If you tell anyone, I will kill you,'" she told the court.

In cross-examining Lockett, 31, defense attorney Clarence Burch asked her about their relationship before the alleged crime.

"He was very abusive, but he never threatened to kill me before Brown's Chicken (murders)," she said.

An admitted drug and alcohol user since her teens, Lockett said she often smoked marijuana and drank alcohol with Degorski and Luna.

The friends' drug abuse grew to cocaine, PCP and LSD, she said, adding she dated Degorski from 1992 to 1994 after they met while students at Fremd High School in Palatine.

Burch questioned Lockett on memory loss due to her drug and alcohol abuse. She said complete loss occurred occasionally during "blackouts" from drinking alcohol.

Repeatedly, she told Burch she never planned on telling anyone of the crimes.

"I had my life threatened," she said. "He killed seven, why not eight?"

Other female friend

In testimony for the prosecution April 17, Eileen Bakalla, another friend of Degorski and Luna, said on the night of the murders she punched out from her job at Jake's Pizza in Streamwood and drove to Carpentersville to meet both men at a Jewel parking lot. They then drove in Bakalla's vehicle to her town house where they smoked marijuana, she said.

Bakalla testified that Luna and Degorski told her they had robbed Brown's Chicken, and she saw a canvas bag containing about $1,000.

 
 

Murder Trial to Begin in Illinois, 14 Years After 7 Died

By Libby Sanders - The New York Times

April 13, 2007

For years after the 1993 robbery and killing of seven people at a fast-food restaurant about 30 miles northwest of here, thousands of leads failed to bring investigators the break needed to solve one of the most gruesome crimes in Illinois history.

It was not until 2002 that the authorities announced they had arrested two men in the infamous Brown’s Chicken Massacre, so called because the victims were shot or stabbed and left inside two walk-in refrigerators at Brown’s Chicken and Pasta restaurant in the quiet, middle-class village of Palatine.

On Friday, more than 14 years after the killings, opening statements are expected at the trial of one of the accused, Juan A. Luna Jr., in Cook County Criminal Court here.

Those 14 years have tested the patience of the victims’ families, of investigators and of Palatine’s residents.

“Everybody feels like they want it to be over,” said Mayor Rita Mullins, who was finishing her first term when the slayings occurred. “They probably will never find the answer to ‘why’ — why did this happen, why did it happen in Palatine — but the answer will be as to ‘who.’”

During all the years the case was unsolved, Ms. Mullins said, “people did look from side to side, wondering who could have done this. It was the fear of the unknown.”

Mr. Luna was 18 on Jan. 8, 1993, when, prosecutors say, he and 20-year-old James Degorski walked into Brown’s around 9 p.m., intending to rob it after it closed. The two shared a chicken dinner, then slipped on latex gloves and herded the couple who owned Brown’s and five employees to the rear of the restaurant, then into the two refrigeration units, the authorities say. Less than $2,000 was taken, they say.

Relatives notified the police when employees failed to arrive home on time. Five victims were found in one walk-in cooler at the restaurant; two were in another. Some had been shot several times; the throat of one was slit.

Mr. Luna, who had worked at the restaurant until a few months before the slayings, was one of 300 current and former employees interviewed and cleared not long after the killings.

But in 2002, a former girlfriend of Mr. Degorski came forward with details of the crime that investigators have said only someone linked directly to it could have known. The woman told investigators she waited nine years because Mr. Degorski had threatened to kill her if she revealed what he told her about that night.

Mr. Degorski and Mr. Luna were arrested in May 2002. Both pleaded not guilty; if convicted, however, they could face the death penalty. Both have been held without bail in Cook County Jail. Mr. Degorski will be tried after Mr. Luna.

Among the evidence prosecutors are expected to present at Mr. Luna’s trial is a videotaped confession he gave shortly after his arrest, a confession that he has since claimed was coerced. They are also likely to present DNA tests that they say link the remains of the suspects’ partly eaten chicken dinner, retrieved from a trash can, to saliva samples gotten from the men a few weeks before their arrests.

Defense lawyers have indicated they may try to discredit the DNA analysis by arguing that the test results were not conclusive and that the chicken dinner was mishandled.

Judge Vincent M. Gaughan has barred lawyers from speaking to the news media outside the courtroom. Neither Mr. Luna’s lead lawyer, Clarence L. Burch, nor the Cook County state’s attorney, Richard A. Devine, who is prosecuting the case himself, would grant an interview for this article.

A confession and forensic evidence often help prosecutors in cases in which the crime occurred many years earlier, said Leonard L. Cavise, a professor of criminal law at DePaul University College of Law, so Mr. Luna’s statement and the DNA test results could present major hurdles for his legal team.

The Brown’s Chicken franchise never reopened, and the building was torn down in 2001. There was talk for a time of erecting a memorial to the victims, but the idea faded, and now the corner is a parking lot for a Eurofresh Market.

Some victims’ families have said they are grateful that the case is nearing completion, however painful it is to recall the details after so many years. Many have requested privacy as the trial begins, declining to speak to reporters.

Jennifer Shilling, a daughter of the restaurant’s owners, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, said she and her two sisters planned to attend the trial.

“My sisters and I, as well as the families of our mother and father, have patiently waited for this trial and justice for more than 14 years,” Ms. Shilling, a Wisconsin state representative from La Crosse, said in a statement. “All of us expect that it will be an emotional and painful experience as we again relive the grief and anguish all of us have experienced.”

 

 
 
 
 
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