Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Friday, 13 April 2007 15:01 UK

US massacre families eye closure

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Fourteen years after a crime which shocked the city of Chicago, a man has gone on trial accused of the murder of seven people in a fast food restaurant.

A police car outside the diner in the aftermath of the killings
The victims were killed on a cold January night in 1993

On a freezing cold night, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and their five employees were tidying up and preparing to close their chicken restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Palatine.

Two young men came in around 2100 and one of them ordered a chicken dinner.

He took only one bite before he and his accomplice pulled out guns and herded the Ehlenfeldts and the five other workers into two refrigerated storerooms at the back of the diner.

Earlier the killers had blocked up the rear exit from outside to prevent anyone escaping.

Killed for $1,800

After taking the day's takings - $1,800 - from the till the pair shot dead all seven employees, the youngest of whom, Michael Castro, was only 16.

One of them also cut Mrs Ehlenfeldt's throat with a pocket-knife.

The pair ran off into the snowy night with their paltry loot and it was several hours before police, alerted by worried relatives, discovered the massacre.

Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, owner of the restaurant franchise
Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49, his wife. Mother of three
Michael Castro, 16, who worked on the till
Rico Solis, 17, cashier
Guadelupe Maldonado, 47, Cook who had recently emigrated from Mexico
Marcus Nellsen, 31, Trainee manager
Thomas Mennes, 32, worked in the kitchen

The murders went unsolved for years and the restaurant, a Brown's Chicken & Pasta franchise which never reopened after that horrific night, was razed to the ground several years later.

But then a young woman came forward to divulge crucial information.

Anne Lockett said her ex-boyfriend, Jim Degorksi, had told her hours after the killings: "Watch the news tonight. I did something."

She said he later told her what happened and persuaded her to cover up for him and his pal Juan Luna.

In March 2002 Miss Lockett told police: "I cannot live with this anymore."

The name Luna rang bells with those familiar with the case - he was a former employee of the restaurant who had been questioned by detectives during the original inquiry.

Armed with Miss Lockett's statement, police swooped on the pair and persuaded them to agree to DNA swabs.

A wreath in Palatine, Illinois, marks the site of the diner, now razed to the ground
A wreath marks the site of the diner, now razed to the ground

Several weeks later the results came back - Luna's DNA was a perfect match for saliva found on the chicken dinner which had been left half-eaten in the restaurant on the night of 8 January 1993.

The evidence had been frozen in a police laboratory waiting for the day when it might need to be tested.

Luna's former girlfriend, Eileen Bakalla, had also spent years troubled by her recollections of that fateful night.

Miss Bakalla told police she picked up the pair on the night of the murders from a grocery store not far from the crime scene.

Incriminating statements

Following their arrests in 2002, both men confessed but blamed each other for the massacre.

Luna claimed Degorski fired all the fatal shots while he himself guarded the door.

But Luna later claimed he had been coerced into making a confession and had not been read his rights.

There is currently a moratorium on the death penalty in the state of Illinois, after a string of miscarriages of justice in Death Row cases.

But so shocking was the massacre at Brown's Chicken & Pasta that the prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Juan Luna (l) and Jim Degorski
He denies any involvement. He intends to plead not guilty and believes that he will be proved innocent at the trial
Clarence Burch
Juan Luna's attorney

Luna's lawyer, Clarence Burch, said of his client: "He denies any involvement. He intends to plead not guilty and believes that he will be proved innocent at the trial."

He told the BBC News website they would be challenging the DNA evidence against his client.

As for the videotaped confession which Luna made, Mr Burch said: "It was a confession made under duress as a result of coercion and intimidation after he had allegedly waived his right to have an attorney present."

Luna and Degorski are to have separate trials. Luna's trial began on Friday and Degorski's will follow later in the year.

Judge Vincent Gaughan is going to be a busy man. He is also due to preside over the sexual misconduct case of R'n'B star R Kelly, which will be sandwiched between the two murder trials.

The trials should have taken place at least two years ago but the case has been delayed by a series of mishaps, including the disappearance of computer hard drives which were used to process the DNA data.

A further delay took place earlier this year when the judge fell off a ladder while carrying out some DIY.

Jury selection

Jury selection has been under way for several weeks during which dozens of potential jurors were disqualified because of objections by the defence, which fears it will prove impossible for Luna to obtain a fair trial.

Kara Spak, a reporter with the Chicago Sun-Herald who has covered the case, told the BBC News website: "The fear was that it would be hard to find someone who has never heard of the case and is not already biased against them."

R Kelly
The same judge will be presiding over the R Kelly trial

She said: "It was a shocking case and it still reverberates in the Chicago suburbs even now. There is huge media interest in the trial."

The families of the victims will hope the outcome may give them a sense of closure.

But the evidence will doubtless be hugely distressing.

Opening the case Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine said some of the victims had been shot in the head or chest, some were stabbed and at least one had their throat slashed.

Mr Devine said a police officer who arrived on the scene saw a hand and a foot sticking out of the freezer.

"He opened up the freezer door and what he saw was a mass of humanity," he told the court.

Luna and Degorski were later jailed for life after separate trials.

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