Brown's Chicken massacre: 30 years later, investigator reflects on tech advances that solved case

Mark Rivera Image
Monday, January 9, 2023
Brown's Chicken massacre: 30 years later, investigator reflects on tech advances that solved case
A Brown's Chicken murders investigator reflected on DNA test technology that solved the cold case. The Palatine, IL shooting killed seven people.

PALATINE, Ill. (WLS) -- It happened three decades ago Sunday, and is one of the most shocking massacres in Illinois history.

Now, investigators and state police are speaking about the progress made since tracking down the killers who brought seven lives to a cruel and callous end at a Brown's Chicken restaurant in northwest suburban Palatine.

For nine years, it was one of the most mystifying murders in Chicagoland. Seven people brutally killed on a cold January night, executed and piled up in a freezer just minutes before closing time at Brown's Chicken restaurant in Palatine 30 years ago.

It was an act of wanton disregard for human life sparking fear, pain and a purpose for police departments across the state to collaborate to catch the killers responsible.

"It was a lot of work and a lot of grief for a lot of people," said retired Palatine Police Officer Bryan Opitz.

Opitz was one of the investigators called in that frigid night three decades ago to a crime more heinous than ever seen before in the northwest suburb. And, it was one that required more resources, including the birth of a new system of cooperation.

"This was to be honest with you the start of task force," Opitz said. "Most every agency belongs not to some sort of task force, so that when something like this in the future happens, you get conference from all different agencies, including, in our case, we had Chicago; we had state police; we had the FBI; we had everybody join us, eventually. It was it was pretty incredible," he said.

Opitz said at the height, there were at least 100 people working on the case trying to track down the cold-blooded killers, but to no avail.

Then, there was a break in the case six years later. Human DNA from a piece of chicken with only one bite was taken from the scene and preserved.

"Ultimately, the chicken is what saved us in terms of, you know, we had the foresight to freeze that... it took six years before we got the DNA, but it took another three years after that before we figure out whose DNA it was," Opitz said.

It was nine long years since that deadly night before a match was made with technology that didn't even exist at the time of the murders in 1993.

"It was lucky that it was preserved and it was preserved in such a way that we were able to extract that information," said Illinois State Police Deputy Director Robin Woolery.

Woolery oversees the Division of Forensic Services that handles DNA testing. While she didn't work on Brown's case, she said the exponential advance of technology is responsible for the breakthrough, setting the bar for the future of forensics with more improvements on the horizon today.

"We do analysis on touch DNA where we're just using skin cells and we're able to get readable amounts of DNA to do analysis, all the way to rapid DNA, which is a lot of times is being used in booking stations across the country," she said. "So, the technology is amazing."

And Opitz said back in 2002 the technology finally caught up when the case broke wide open.

"Once we got Luna's saliva and it came back to his DNA and the chicken, obviously all hell broke loose. It was joy to the extreme," he said. "We went to Carpentersville to arrest Luna. Then we had detectives make the arrest out in Indianapolis [of] Degorsky and then both guys were brought in at the same time."

The convicted killers Juan Luna and James Degorski are now both serving life sentences with no possibility for parole.

Now, Illinois State Police said they're working to coordinate with genealogy testing companies and labs for even more new ways to track down killers.