CHICAGO – A man charged with killing seven people during a robbery at a suburban Chicago fast food restaurant 16 years ago did it because he "wanted to do something big," not because he needed the money, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.
James Degorski wanted to "make a big splash in the blood of seven innocent victims" when he and high school friend Juan Luna robbed the Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant in Palatine in January 1993 and killed its two owners and five employees, Assistant State's Attorney Louis Longhitano said during his opening statements at Degorski's trial.
"Life has a funny way of catching up with you. At the end of this trial, life will catch up to Jim Degorski," Longhitano said.
But defense attorney Mark Levitt said there is no physical evidence tying Degorski to the killings. Police found the bodies of the seven victims shot, stabbed and stuffed into a freezer and walk-in cooler.
"He was not there. He didn't do it," Levitt said. "Over the years memories fade, stories change, but physical evidence does not lie."
A jury convicted Luna of murder in 2007 and sentenced him to life in prison. Luna had worked at the restaurant, and he told authorities he thought it would be an easy target at closing time. The robbery netted less than $2,000.
Killed were 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.
In Luna's case, prosecutors had physical evidence, including a fingerprint and DNA, and a lengthy videotaped statement in which he implicated himself and Degorski in the killings. But a statement taken from Degorski after his arrest was brief and far less detailed, and prosecutors haven't indicated that any physical evidence ties him to the crime scene.
Degorski and Luna were arrested in May 2002, after Degorski's former girlfriend told police that both men confessed about their roles in the crime just after it happened. She and another woman who made the same claim are expected to testify.