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A Look Back On The Brown's Chicken Massacre - 25 Years Ago

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- It was one of the most notorious massacres in Chicago history.

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the Brown's Chicken Massacre.

On January 8, 1993, seven people were shot and killed in a robbery at the Brown's Chicken at 168 West Northwest Highway in Palatine. This incident would later be known as the Brown's Chicken Massacre.

Police found the seven bodies in a walk-in refrigerator. The killers stole under $2,000 from the restaurant.

That discovery lead to a nearly a decade-long manhunt for the killers and one of the greatest mysteries in the Chicago suburbs.

The seven killed were all Brown's Chicken employees, including the owners, Richard E. Ehlenfeldt and his wife, Lynn W. Ehlenfeldt; plus employees Guadalupe Maldonado, Michael C. Castro, Rico L. Solis, Thomas Mennes, and Marcus Nellsen.

Finally after nine years the investigation came to a close in 2002 when a former girlfriend implicated James Degorski and his associate Juan Luna. Luna had worked in the restaurant and his DNA matched DNA found on a partially eaten piece of chicken that had been recovered from the restaurant.

Juan Luna, James Degorski
On Jan. 8, 1993, seven people were shot and stabbed to death in a robbery that netted less than $2,000 at a Brown's Chicken Restaurant in Palatine. Juan Luna (left) was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison in 2007. His accomplice, James Degorski (right), was convicted two years later and also sentenced to life. (Credit: CBS)

Prosecutors said Degorski and Luna wanted to do "something big" that night, when they entered the restaurant around closing time.

Luna confessed to the crime in May of 2002. He told detectives he and Degorski entered the restaurant around closing and ordered a four-piece chicken dinner before forcing employees to the back and executing them.

Luna was convicted seven counts of murder in 2007. Degorski was convicted of murder two years later and WBBM's John Cody was in the courtroom.

"The same criminal court jury that found Degorski guilty of the Brown's killings has now found him eligible for the death penalty," Cody reported.

James Degorski
James Degorski (Credit: Illinois Department of Corrections)

Later that year, in 2009, Brown's Chicken filed for bankruptcy and news coverage at the time blamed the massacre for a substantial loss in business.

A number of things have changed in the years since the murders.

The restaurant was torn down in 2001 and remained vacant until Chase Bank opened a location there a decade later.

The DNA techniques that helped convict Luna and Degorski have become even more sophisticated and common in the 10 years since police matched DNA left on a chicken bone at the scene to a saliva sample taken from Luna.

Some things haven't changed, however. Although closure has been made for the victims' families, they still suffer with the pain and confusion from one of Chicagoland's most notorious crimes.

Michael Castro's parents, as they have through the decades, still visit him at the mausoleum where he was laid to rest. He was only 16 when he was killed. On every anniversary of the murders, his family goes to a special mass in his memory.

His mother, Epifania Castro said the services give her comfort, "because then I know that they're praying for him.

"My faith saved us from all this; you know, to keep us sane."

Twice a day, at precisely six o'clock, she prays at a shrine to her murdered boy, set up in the family living room. Sometimes she remembers the trial and the faces of her son's killers.

"First I said, 'I want to do something to hurt them,'" she admits.

But those thoughts are mostly gone now.

"Just say, leave it to Jesus, he will do the judgement."

Asked if she's forgiven them, she says simply, "Yeah."

At the penalty phase of the trial, the daughter of the restaurant's slain owners, Joy Ehlenfeldt, addressed Luna in her victim impact statement.

"You are responsible for your own family's suffering. Your family will now join ours in the circle of grief," she said.

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