James Degorski Found Guilty In Brown's Chicken Murders

11/29/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CHICAGO — A former handyman was convicted Tuesday in the slayings of seven people whose bodies were found in a walk-in freezer and cooler at a suburban Chicago fast food restaurant 16 years ago.

James Degorski, 37, showed no emotion as the verdict against him was read. Jurors, who deliberated for about two hours after a nearly monthlong trial, now must decide whether Degorski is eligible for the death penalty and whether it should be imposed.

About 20 of the victims' family members, some of whom held hands and cried when the verdict was announced, left the courthouse without commenting to reporters after being told by the judge that doing so would preclude them from testifying at Degorski's sentencing hearing, which was to begin Wednesday.

Public defender Mark Levitt said he intended to appeal, but would first turn his attention to "trying to convince this jury that the appropriate sentence for Mr. Degorski is life in prison."

Prosecutors alleged Degorski shot and stabbed two owners and five employees of the Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant in Palatine "because he wanted to do something big."

His conviction came despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime. Levitt noted that in closing arguments earlier Tuesday.

"The prosecution has been scrambling," he said. "They can appeal to your emotions, because we all have emotions. They can appeal to your senses, but what they're lacking is evidence."

Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Tom Biesty noted multiple witnesses testified that Degorski implicated himself to them.

"What's the use of doing something big if you can't tell somebody?" Biesty said.

Juan Luna, a high school friend of Degorski, also was convicted of the crime in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison. Luna was a former employee of the restaurant who told authorities he thought it would be an easy target at closing time.

The robbery netted less than $2,000.

Prosecutors said the men shot and stabbed restaurant owners Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, his wife Lynn, 49, and five of their employees: Michael Castro, 16; Rico Solis, 17; Marcus Nellsen, 31; Thomas Mennes, 32; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46. Their bodies were found early on Jan. 9, 1993.

In Luna's case, investigators had a wealth of physical evidence, including a palm print and DNA that put him at the crime scene. Luna also gave a lengthy videotaped statement to police in which he implicated himself and Degorski.

A brief statement from Degorski after his arrest was far less detailed, and prosecutors had to rely on the testimony of witnesses – including Degorski's former girlfriend – who said both men confessed just after the crime.

Degorski and Luna were arrested in May 2002 after Anne Lockett came forward. She said the pair had previously threatened to kill her.

Lockett, who became one of the prosecution's star witnesses, testified that the motive for the killings was partly curiosity, saying Luna wanted to know what it was like to kill someone and Degorski agreed to help.

Luna himself told authorities Degorski had ordered him to watch Lynn Ehlenfeldt during the attack. Luna allegedly admitted he "got caught up in it" and cut her throat. But he claimed Degorski shot and killed everyone else.

Defense attorneys had focused during trial on false confessions from other suspects, trying to raise doubts about whether Degorski's own 2002 confession was coerced. And they sought to counter portrayals of their client as a cold-blooded killer.

One of Degorski's former neighbors testified he was a "peaceful, considerate and nonviolent person" when she and her siblings knew him in 1993. "We looked up to him," said 25-year-old Jessica Mogilinski.