Marking 20-year anniversary of Brown's Chicken massacre

January 8, 2013 4:23:30 PM PST
Tuesday is the anniversary of one of the most infamous crimes in the history of Illinois when 20 years ago two robbers walked into the Brown's Chicken and Pasta in suburban Palatine and shot seven people to death, including the owners.

The restaurant is gone, replaced by a bank, but there's no erasing the memories of that horrible crime.

"I have not walked in there," said bank customer Cathy Leach. "I've just gone through the drive-thru. I won't walk in the building. So, to me, it's a sacred place where people lost their lives."

It was incomprehensible. Seven people gunned down on a cold January night, their bodies piled in a freezer at this Brown's Chicken in Palatine.

All the victims worked at the restaurant, including owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt.

"It is really hard to not have your mom and dad to lean on or just ask silly little questions to, just to go to for advice," said Joy Ehlenfeldt, daughter of the victims.

The killers would be identified as Juan Luna and James Degorski.

Police say they waited until the restaurant was minutes from closing before committing the deadly robbery of less than $2,000.

Former Chicago Tribune reporter Maurice Possley wrote a book about the murders.

"Not everyone died at once," said Possley, author of The Browns Chicken Massacre. "Some people knew what was happening.

"The number of shots that were fired, more than two dozen, they had to empty their weapons and reload and fire again, a couple of times."

The men would remain free for years after the murders as a task force of multiple police agencies hunted down thousands of leads.

"To help myself move on, just decided that it probably wasn't going to be solved ever, and that was okay," Joy Ehlenfeldt said.

Finally in 2002, nine years after the murders, a former girlfriend of Degorski's finally came forward.

Police connected Luna through DNA evidence, a saliva sample from a chicken wing collected by a technician.

At the time of the murders, DNA tracking was in its infancy.

"She envisioned a day when DNA could be used to test saliva," Prossley said.

Two decades later, Joy Ehlenfeldt is still finding peace.

"It took me awhile to not feel guilty about it when those days come up. And I would go to bed at night and go, 'Oh god I didn't think about them today. I didn't cry today.' But it's been 20 years, so your life moves on."

Luna and Degorski are both serving life sentences. Though it took nine long years to bring them to justice, some say that allowed enough time for DNA evidence to advance to the point where they could be connected to the crime definitively.

Had they been arrested and tried earlier, it may have been harder to convict.