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Drunken Driving Charges Dropped Against Retired Priest Accused In Deadly Hit-And-Run In Orland Park

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Drunken driving charges were dropped Tuesday for a retired priest accused of hitting and killing one teacher and wounded another in Orland Park.

The Rev. Paul Burak, 73, remains charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death in the Dec. 4, 2019 incident that killed St. Michael School teacher Rone Leja and injured teacher Elizabeth Kosteck. He has been indicted by a grand jury on that charge.

Burak is also charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving personal injury.

But the Cook County State's Attorney's office said it decided not to pursue indictment on the charge of aggravated driving under the influence, "as the evidence and facts were insufficient to support that charge."

"Today is a little bit of a stunner for the family, to find out that they're dropping the impaired driving charges," said attorney Joseph Shannon, who represents Leja's family. "All the evidence points to impairment, and the family wants justice here."

Burak entered a plea of not guilty in Bridgeview Court on Tuesday and will appear again before Judge Kerry Kennedy on March 18.

Around 8 p.m. Dec. 4, Burak had just left a Christmas party at the Square Celt Ale House & Grill at Orland Square Mall – shortly after the two teachers. He said he was okay to drive, according to Cook County prosecutors.

Burak told police he takes medication for Parkinson's disease and glaucoma, and blacked out after having a glass of wine and a Manhattan at the party, according to prosecutors.

Surveillance video shows Burak backing up and hitting a car parked next to his, then driving down a service road. Prosecutors said, at some point, Burak thought he'd hit a curb when he heard a noise.

"He remembers that he heard a noise, like someone's chassis out of the car, as if you went over a curb and hit the curb with the bottom of your car. He never thought it was a person. He said he did stop after he felt he hit something. He said he then gunned the car," Cook County Assistant State's Attorney James Murphy said in December.

The noise he heard was the impact of his 2016 Buick Regal hitting Leja and Kosteck as they were walking to their cars. Leja was killed, and Kosteck was seriously injured, but was released from the hospital within the month.

Rone Leja Elizabeth Kosteck
St. Michael School teachers Rone Leja (left) and Elizabeth Kosteck (right) were struck by a hit-and-run driver in the parking lot of the Orland Square Mall on Dec. 4, 2019. Leja was killed and Kosteck was seriously injured. (Source: St. Michael School)

Leja's family, which has also filed a civil lawsuit, released the following statement Tuesday in light of the latest news:

"As a family, we continue to grieve the loss of our sister Margaret "Rone" Leja. We have been touched by the outpouring of support and love for Rone by members of our community.

"In the last couple of weeks, Rone's friends and family have fondly remembered her kindness, her ever-present smile and her selfless years of service as a Catholic School teacher throughout south suburban Chicago. Her dedication and passion for her students will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression on everyone who witnessed it. Her friends remember Rone as a loyal, trusting and fun-loving friend that consistently put others before herself.

"Though we feel exceedingly grateful for the many years we have shared with Rone, we remain heartbroken that she was needlessly taken far too early. This horrible crash reinforces the need for continued diligence in preventing impaired driving and encouraging sensible decision making.

"Failing to hear from the Archdiocese, the family filed this lawsuit in an attempt to get truthful, forthcoming and honest answers to the many unanswered questions they have regarding their beloved sisters senseless death."

Of the drunken driving charge being dropped, Shannon added: "There was enough evidence to bring the charges originally, right? I don't know what changed in the last couple weeks."

The State's Attorney's office said the charges that Burak still faces carry a stiffer penalty than the DUI case.

CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller said even though Burak drove away and field sobriety tests were never performed, DUI charges can still be brought in a case if there is evidence of impairment.

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