Jury Selection For Second Man Charged In Palatine Killings To Begin Thursday
Palatine police walk Brown's Chicken & Pasta murder suspect James E. Degorski to a squad car for transport. Jury selection will begin Thurday for Degorski's trial on his role the 1993 killings. (Tribune photo by John Dziekan / May 18, 2002)
Just steps from the former site of the restaurant where seven people were slain in 1993, shoppers recently said they were surprised to learn that perhaps the final chapter in the 16-year saga is about to unfold.
Some acknowledged they don't spend as much time dwelling on an incident that for many remains a touchstone event in their lives. Others admitted they weren't aware the trial of James Degorski was about to open. The other suspect, Juan Luna, was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.
Walking into the Eurofresh Market grocery store near Northwest Highway and Smith Street, Sue Hurt remembered that for years after the killings she avoided the intersection.
"You couldn't really drive by without remembering what had happened there, and I didn't need to relive those memories," said Hurt, 59, of Palatine.
The restaurant is gone, torn down in 2001 after a dry cleaners failed and the building sat empty.
Now the same company that owns the Eurofresh Market owns the land and hopes to develop a new business on the site, according to Rosanna Tenuta, head of human resources for Eurofresh.
"I know there are plans to build some sort of small plaza or shopping center there," Tenuta said. "It's still in talks now. There's nothing official."
Gone, too, is the blow-by-blow media coverage that accompanied the crimes and later focused on a protracted investigation and the 2002 arrests of Degorski and Luna.
The two were charged after a former girlfriend of Degorski's told police the two had confided to her their roles within days of the robbery and shootings.
During Luna's high-profile trial -- he was convicted of seven counts of first-degree murder -- prosecutors relied in part on DNA evidence recovered from a piece of chicken found in a garbage can at the crime scene.
Criminal Court Judge Vincent Gaughan agreed to separate the trials because Luna gave a confession pinning much of the blame on Degorski, whose trial could last for weeks.
The passage of time has seen people like Kendra Rose move into the neighborhood. Rose knew about the incident, but didn't have as visceral a connection as those who woke the morning of Jan. 9, 1993, to learn of the grisly scene.
"I was aware of it, of course," said Rose, 30, who moved to Palatine three years ago from Ohio. "But it was a long time ago, and things like this happen everywhere. It was much more of an important event in the life of my husband -- who lived here at the time -- and his friends."
Relatives of the victims have found it difficult to move on.
Thomas Mennes' body was among those police found in the restaurant's freezer and walk-in cooler.
Now his brother, Robert Mennes, is steeling himself to see Degorski in court, and again hear details of the brutal crimes.
"Day to day it's there, but you don't think about it. You try to put it out of your head, to get by," he said. "But now, with the trial starting, there's a feeling of, 'OK, here we go again.' It's like starting all over again."
"I wish they could have done [trials for Degorski and Luna] at the same time," Mennes said.
It's no surprise many residents have stopped living and breathing the case, said Bob Scigalski, a former FBI profiler who worked with the Brown's Chicken task force from just after the slayings until his 1996 retirement.
"Our justice system is one that really takes care to give people the chance to show they are not guilty of a crime," he said. "So these things take time, and you often see two defendants tried separately, as in this case, which adds more time."
"Plus, part of them doesn't want to remember that there used to be a Brown's Chicken ... where there's now a parking lot, and that a horrible crime was committed there," said Scigalski, a partner in Schaumburg-based Quest Consultants International.
For Rita Mullins, mayor of Palatine from 1989 until this year, the slayings remain part of the fabric of the village, but no longer define it.
"It's probably still in the top 10 things people think of when they think of Palatine, but it's way low, at the bottom of the list," Mullins said.
"I think about it, not as much as before, but it was a stigma. You wanted to erase that blemish," she said.
Mayor Jim Schwantz said the killings are "part of our past and present."
"It is what it is," Schwantz said.
"It's part of the history of what has gone on in town. Certainly at the end of the day, the important thing is that we can achieve closure, and that the victims' families can find peace," he said.
(The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story)
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