CHICAGO (AP) – With victims’ relatives weeping in the courtroom, prosecutors laid out the grisly details of a cold January night in 1993 that ended with seven employees slaughtered inside a Palatine restaurant.
It has been 14 years since the murders at Brown’s Chicken & Pasta restaurant, but the details that emerged during Friday’s opening statements and testimony were shocking, even after all this time.
The specifics included that the first police officer who entered the restaurant said he discovered so many bodies piled in a freezer that at first he couldn’t tell how many victims there were.
The throat of one had a gash 5 inches long and at least a half-inch deep in places.
And prosecutors say at least two tried to flee and were shot or struck on the head with a gun to prevent their escape.
Each new revelation was met with deep sighs and silent weeping from victims’ family members, who packed about a third of the courtroom.
When court adjourned for the day, many stood and embraced.
A row of seats also was occupied by the family of Juan Luna, who was 18 at the time of the slayings and faces a possible death penalty if convicted of the crime.
Prosecutors say Luna went with a friend to rob the restaurant at closing time because he worked there in high school and knew that there would be lots of cash and little resistance.
Defense attorney Clarence Burch said Luna, who now is married and has a young son, was arrested using questionable forensic evidence and unreliable witnesses. He said police twisted the facts so they could make an arrest in the high-profile case.
“Juan Luna is not guilty,” Burch said during his opening statement. “We just ask that you keep an open mind until you hear all the evidence.”
The evidence against Luna includes DNA material from a partially eaten chicken dinner found at the restaurant by police – a dinner they believe was the last ordered that night, Cook County Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine said during his opening statement.
One by one, Devine described each victim and their wounds.
Marcus Castro, the youngest victim at 16, was shot six times – in the top of the head, face, chest, twice in the shoulder, and once in the palm of his hand as he tried to block the bullets.
Guadalupe Maldonado, 46, and Rico Solis, 17 had bullet wounds in their heads, hands or fingers. Thomas Mennes, 32, was shot twice in the upper back and once in the temple.
The skull of Marcus Nellsen, 31, was fractured when he tried to escape and was hit on the head with the butt of the revolver. He also was shot in the top of the head.
Restaurant co-owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt, 49, was shot in the back of the head and her throat was slashed. Her husband, Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, was shot five times – twice in the head, nose, shoulder and upper back.
“The facts are horrific ... but you promised us when we selected you that you would keep an open mind. ... It’s not an open-and-shut case,” defense attorney Burch reminded jurors.
Devine told jurors that evidence would prove that Luna and James Degorski intended to carry out a robbery, which led to the mass slaying.
“They wanted to do something big,” Devine said.
The bodies were found in the building’s walk-in freezer and cooler. During afternoon testimony, prosecutors played a crime-scene video that showed five of the victims, some clad in the restaurant’s red and black uniform, piled inside the freezer. Two of the victims lay face up, their eyes and mouths open and faces covered in blood. A second cooler contained two bodies surrounded by a pool of dark blood, the video showed.
Former Palatine police officer Ron Conley, the first officer inside the restaurant, testified that he saw a mop with what appeared to be blood when he opened an employee door.
After calling for backup, and with his gun and a flashlight drawn, Conley and another officer entered the restaurant, which was dimly lit. Almost immediately, Conley saw a hand and foot sticking out of the freezer. When he opened the freezer door, Conley saw so many bodies that he initially didn’t know how many victims there were.
“The best way to describe it would be a mass of humanity,” Conley said. “One body on top of another, arms and legs on top of each other.”