The Brown's Chicken Massacre

Jacob S. Knabb

'One murder is shock enough. The enormity of this turns it into something horrendous and heinous. I think there is going to be fear. I feel it myself.' Palatine Village President Rita Mullins

They say that the seven bodies of the slain couldn't be moved for some time in order to get an accurate crime scene investigation conducted. Seven corpses stacked and frozen. The families weren't notified until the following afternoon. The victims had been shot through the back of the head—execution style—was what they said to people in Palatine and so authorities feared moving them. The body holds many clues in situations like this where guns are fired and fluids are spilled. They say you can tell how far away the gun was and the caliber of bullet, you can comb through the bowels to determine last meals, the orifices can be swabbed, the skin can be scraped, the crust from beneath the nails can be excavated, the hair and skin follicles can be sampled. They say that you can even determine the exact moment that the body became corpse. But bodies don't always hold their secrets in.

They say you fry the nuggets in the same grease as the fries, in the same grease as the hash browns, in the same grease as the mushrooms, in the same grease as the chicken livers, in the same grease as the chicken gizzards, in the same grease as the chicken breasts, in the same grease as the chicken wings, in the same grease as the chicken legs, in the same grease as the chicken thighs, in the same grease as the corn fritters, in the same grease as the cod, in the same grease as the catfish, in the same grease as the butterfly shrimp. And when you work with grease like that, when you stand above the friers and tend to the grease, they say it clings to you, gets deep into your skin. If you don't wash your uniform, after a short while, it grows stiff, the pants can stand on their own, they say. It all ends up tasting the same. It comes out the same in the end.

They say that two thousand dollars isn't much money, but it is something to a twenty-year-old, as Jim Degorski was and as Juan Luna soon would be. They say that this was the amount stolen from the register. It is something, though. One hundred dollars for each year spent living—fifty dollars each when split between the two. A used car to drive or a month-long binge. A nest-egg to start out in the world. They said it wasn't about the money, really, that this was more about doing something big, about helter skelter, about Hannibal Lector, about whatever it was that Oliver Stone was aiming at in that film he was making that year. Two thousand dollars is a lot of chicken—even now.

They say that there was a lot of blame to go around. The bloody footprints found near the stacked corpses were caused by investigators. The police failed to check to see if all of the doors were locked. They say the families were worried, called and pestered, that one officer shooed a victim's loved ones from Brown's late the night of Jan. 8th, telling them to go home and not to worry, while failing to discover an open rear door that may have been used by the killers. They say that some of the bodies might still have been breathing. They say the police only learned that gunshots had been heard from news stories days later, that it wasn't until the 10th when nearby business owners and employees were questioned.

They say it might have been a bitter ex-cook chagrined at the loss of his job, or three fugitives linked to other area robberies who'd been headed back to Mexico, or a Schaumburg teenager snitched on by disgruntled friends. They say it must have been an inside job. It must have been a rival. It must have been someone with an axe to grind, a knife whetted to the task. It must have been someone unexpected, a drifter, a vagabond. It must have been someone passing through. The killers must be long gone. They say a lot of things over a decade when a murder such as this goes unsolved. They say nobody would be foolish enough to stick around.

There are odd quirks in the horror. They say that only Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat was cut, that Marcus Nellsen died of one shot to the head, but that all of the other victims died of multiple gunshot wounds. But why would the killers cut Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat? Was it something that she said?

They say that they found a bloody broom in the supply closet, that the killers stayed around to conceal the crime. They say that the place was swept and mopped, the lights turned out. They say that they found the bodies stacked in neat piles in the coolers. The killers were thorough, somehow Midwestern in their horrible exactitude, afraid of the immodesty of offal and gore left at random. Things like this just don't happen in a place like Palatine, they say, and they closed down that Brown's as if to prove it.

They say a father of a high school classmate of one of the teen victims would like to slice the killers up and put salt in the wounds. They say that salt can eat away at living-tissue, that it can cause immense pain even in less substantial wounds. They say the history of torture is far more complex than you can imagine. Flaying is one of the worst ways to go, they say, imagine peeling off the skin. They say the best way to remove hair is by boiling the flesh. They say the same goes for feathers. In the end, they say that most of the fat is in the skin.

There are things about the victims. They say that Michael Castro was sixteen and worked cash register alongside classmate Rico Solis, that Lynn Ehlenfeldt was forty-nine and co-owned the restaurant with her husband, Richard Ehlenfeldt, who was a fifty-year-old former political aide. They say the couple was survived by three daughters. They say that Guadalupe Maldonado was forty-seven and a fry cook who had recently immigrated from Mexico—returning just after Christmas, that Thomas Mennes was thirty-two and a chicken breader, that he was single and had a twin brother, Jerry. That Marcus Nellsen was thirty-one and a manager in training. They say that Rico Solis was seventeen, born in the Philippines, a cashier who worked counter with high school classmate Michael Castro.

There are things about the killers. They say that all that was needed to break the case was a 'nugget of evidence.' They say that two men were responsible. One of them was Jim Degorski, who was then 20-years-old. They say that the other was Juan Luna who was then 19, and who worked briefly for the Ehlenfeldts's Brown's Chicken location. They say that the killers will be brought to justice. They say that justice is always served.

They say that, in the end, the case was solved by retrieving DNA from half-eaten chicken scoured from the trashcans which nobody had gotten around to emptying. They say that the pieces had remained frozen all the years in-between, that investigators held on in the hope that a match could be produced, that the killers had eaten Brown's that night. You see, 'The thing about Brown's... it Tastes Better.'

They say that Anne Lockett was the star witness and does not have much of a past, that she has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and can't recall everything that happened during her troubled teen years, years that included several suicide attempts and hospitalizations at a psychiatric facility. But there is one conversation they say that will always stay with her. It's the one where her then-boyfriend Jim Degorski and his high school pal Juan Luna confessed to her exactly how they killed seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta on January 8, 1993. There are some things, they say, you can never forget.