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Monday, April 27, 2015

The Palatine Massacre: 20 Years Later -- January 11, 2013

EDITOR NOTE:  Paul wrote this a few years ago, but due to his lawyer's objections it was never published.  Several readers have questioned how Paul's trial and most likely some of his jurors were influenced by the infamous Brown's Chicken Restaurant murders. The perpetrators of those horrible crimes had not been caught at the time of Paul's trial in 1995. This post provides the details and answers their questions. Because Paul feels he must now devote all his time to writing his own post conviction appeal, we thought it would be a good time to post this (some last names have been omitted for legal reasons):

On January 8, 1993, seven people were brutally murdered at a Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant in Palatine, Illinois. The mass murder created a frenzy of intense media coverage which in turn put enormous pressure on police to solve the crime. A few months later when my former roommate was arrested for a murder in Barrington, he conspired with his wife to frame me for the murder along with the massacre in Palatine. Their statements to police were inconsistent and not believable, but this was an opportunity authorities could not pass up. I was a perfect scapegoat to offer the public and the news media immediately took the bait reporting almost ceaselessly about my suspicion in the mass murder. Television news was the worst with the most hyped, sensationalistic, and biased coverage despite how I was never charged with the Palatine murders. Before my trial, Rose admitted she and her husband were lying, but this was largely ignored by the media and state prosecutors who had already politically committed themselves. Instead of dropping the charges, the prosecutor simply changed theories and at trial argued my guilt in the Fawcett murder through a theory of accountability. The trial testimony supporting this theory was false, but my defense attorney failed to contest it choosing rather to spar with the prosecutor over the law. Due to this failure and almost certainly the cloud of suspicion in the Palatine Massacre, I was found guilty. Twenty years after the mass murder, I continue to brood about the set of events which led me to be connected to the crime. I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole even after the person who tried to frame me was acquitted by another jury.

The day after the Palatine Brown's Chicken murders, I recall television news was pervasively covering the crime. I did not watch any of the reporting, but Robert was fascinated by the breaking news. He talked on and on about what was being reported and attempted to get my interest. When I did not come over to the television in the living room, he commented this was a huge story I was missing. There had not been a mass murder like this in the Chicagoland area since the Valentine's Day Massacre. It figured my wannabe mafia friend would connect the two crimes, although I did not see any similarities except for the body count. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was an assassination of a rival gang with Tommy Guns ordered by Al Capone during the prohibition era which thereafter gave him control of the city's underworld. The Palatine Massacre was apparently a robbery gone awry or thrill killing at a chicken restaurant. I had other things to do and could care less about the crime despite how it seemed to have my friend and the Chicago metro area riveted. Little did I know Robert would later use the mass murder to deflect attention away from his murder of Dean Fawcett and as a possible bargaining chip.

Rose traveled by plane to Florida the day after the Palatine massacre and the following week Bob and I drove to Clearwater. The coincidence of our relocation later gave the impression we were fleeing from the mass murder or murder of Fawcett. However, this could not be further from the truth. Fawcett's body had not been found yet alone identified or considered a homicide. I tend to believe Bob thought he had committed the perfect crime and there would never be an ID of the victim who was dismembered after he was apparently shot. Months later while seeing Bob's arrest on television, I recalled how he had read a book about mafia killings. The bodies were sometimes disposed of so they were never found or identified. The victims just disappeared or were "Houdinied". One story he told me about pertained to Hell's Kitchen, a very violent neighborhood in New York City controlled by the Irish Mafia where bodies were occasionally found missing their heads and hands. A film called "State of Grace" with actor Sean Penn was later made about the mafia controlled area.

The landlord of the Schiller Park apartment was in eviction proceedings before I moved in with them just after my 18th birthday. The judge gave them until January 15th to leave but long before this they were planning to relocate. I think they initially were just going to find another place in the NW suburbs of Chicago, but they began to have troubles with the network of organized crime amongst Italians in the area. Bob married Rosalia who was born in Sicily purely for her family’s connections to the mafia. This strategy seemed to be working out well for him initially, however, their relations in late 1992 began to sour. Bob did not like being a lackey and increasingly bumped heads with those in the syndicate. He even robbed a high stakes poker game and shot an Italian man who refused to turn over his money. People tend to think I knew all about my co-defendant's activities, but this is false. He kept a lot of secrets from me and it was only by accident that I learned about the robbery. A mutual friend of ours was furious Bob never returned his little brother's shoes he borrowed. The friend did not care if he had gotten blood all over them from the shooting and said he should have bought him a new pair after disposing of the shoes. It was amusing they were arguing about a pair of gym shoes while the shooting was irrelevant.

On the evening of the Palatine Massacre, Rose's family had plans to come over to the apartment to say farewell before she moved to Florida. Rose's family did not know I was living with the couple so we hid all my belongings so they would never be the wiser. Rose's parents were from the old country and would be stunned if she was living with two men, even if I was just a friend. Thus, when they arrived, I went out the back door to the parking lot. Robert felt bad about kicking me out and thus met me at the other door and pretended like I had just arrived to visit them. He invited me in and introduced me to his wife's family. They were very warm and friendly, but I did not intend to stay and listen to them talk in Italian. I had already made plans to go the movie theater.

I remember after my arrest the police trying to figure out if I had an alibi. Mostly, I believe it was the media because I do not believe the police ever thought that Robert and Rose were telling the truth. My alibi for the time period when seven people were murdered at the Brown's Chicken restaurant was not a good one because I could not prove it and no one accompanied me to the theater. Furthermore, while my roommates knew where I was going, they were the ones trying to frame me. In any event, I watched the film "Leprechaun" until I could watch no more of the stupid horror movie. I thought the Cineplex owed me a refund or at least another movie and consequently went to another theater and watched "Bram Stoker's Dracula." It was the best vampire movie I ever had seen and satisfied I returned to the apartment. Rose's family was gone by then.

The day after the murders, Rose traveled by plane from O'Hare Airport to Florida where she stayed with her cousin Ralph and his family while she looked for an apartment. I was not too enthusiastic about living with them and it was only meant to be temporary. However, both Rose and Robert wanted me to join them. I was even told that Rose's cousin owned a cabinet manufacturing company where I could work at least until I found something better or while I attended college. I had spent part of 1992 working for Sacco, a kitchen cabinet manufacturer in Frankfort, Illinois and because I knew all about the business Ralph would be glad if I was an employee. During the week before Rose left, Rose and I collected cardboard boxes from local grocery stores to pack all our possessions. Although Rose was flying, Bob and I were driving. I drove a U-Haul truck and towed my car behind while Bob followed in his Pontiac Firebird. We left three days before the body of Dean Fawcett was found. Unlike the couple I shared an apartment with, I was not aware he had been killed.

Rose found a new apartment quickly with the assistance of her cousin in Clearwater. She called her husband to ask what my last name was so she could fill out the lease agreement. As a prank, he told her "Himmler," and Rose being oblivious of the practical joke and only knowing me by the name Viktor told the new landlords my name was Viktor Himlor. The lease was already made out by the time I got there so I felt I had to go along with the alias. I also had to pack most of the remaining property because Bob was lazy. A day or two before we left I learned of his plan to drive across half the country with loaded firearms kept casually in his car. This was moronic or reckless in my opinion so I packed these along with other belongings in the truck. The prosecutor made a big issue of this at my trial, however, I had no idea if any of them were used in the murder of Fawcett. I tend to believe the murder weapon was quickly disposed of by my co-defendant.

While in Florida, Robert began to work at a newspaper/magazine store partly owned by John Fain.  Robert led John to believe he was going to take over Nicholaus C’s half. Nick wanted out of the business and Robert would then be John’s new partner.  Initially Bob had intentions of turning the place into an adult book store. However, when he learned only a quarter of the store could be used to shelf pornography, he lost most of his interest. Bob was lazy and increasingly I did most of the work. John Fain did not personally like me and at trial he made disparaging character inferences such as I was “cold and aloof” and “did not speak much at all.” My attorney was angry and objected to his comments about me, so the judge told the jury to disregard those comments because they were not facts but opinions. Then John surprisingly testified that we offered to sell him a gun like one of his. On cross examination, my attorney asked him why he had not mentioned this to Officers Koziol and Robertson when they traveled to Florida to interview him in 1993, or the following year when he was interviewed by the defense investigator who contacted him by phone.  John said he just didn’t “recall the whole conversation.”

After visiting Las Vegas, Robert and Rose returned to the Chicago area. Although I had ceased to live with the couple, I assume Bob who was a gambling fanatic blew away all of their savings and they had to fall back on family and friends in their old neighborhood. However, for the couple this meant resolving issues with organized crime. Rose went to an intermediary she knew and asked him what could be done. Richard L. said he would try to smooth things out including checks they had used to defraud Italian businesses. At some point, Rose also asked if the private investigator could find out if her husband was suspected in any murder(s).  Little did Rose know her friend was now an informant and although Robert quickly went into damage control, the police were quickly involved, particularly after the mention of the Palatine mass murders.

They were arrested on the 22nd of April after leaving a restaurant with some friends. They both tried framing me and Brian Palasz for the Barrington murder. However, most tragically for me were their assertions that I committed the Palatine massacre. Both of them made up detailed stories incriminating me in the mass murder. Rose said that on the night of January 8th she found a bloody glove of mine in a garbage can. Robert alleged on the trip to Florida when we stopped at a gas station I commented how it looked just like the restaurant I robbed. Amongst these accusations they even said at one point that Bob was driving by the place when I told him to stop so I could get take out. Moments later he said he heard gun shots and screams. Robert took a polygraph test regarding his accusations against me in both the Fawcett and Palatine murders and not surprising to the police, he failed. Bob was an expert con artist, but his lies to professional law enforcement were met with great skepticism if not total disbelief.

On the 28th of April, I was arrested by numerous heavily armed police. They seemed just as willing to shoot me dead and claim the mass murder case was closed as in taking me in for questioning. Although I had nothing to do with the murders, I was not talking to them without an attorney and immediately asked for one as I was being yanked out of my car and thrown face down on the asphalt of Archer Avenue in Chicago. However, police had no intention of adhering to my Miranda rights and I endured hours upon hours of intimidation, threats, and physical abuse. Eventually, I made a few comments to my interrogators which were largely twisted later and became the basis of the prosecution's theory of accountability. John Robertson fabricated a story of how while armed with a firearm Robert told me he was going to kill Dean Fawcett and asked to borrow my car. Although I was grilled about the Barrington murder for two days, only a couple of questions relevant to the Palatine case were asked. I remember toward the end of my interrogation John Koziol asked me if I had anything to say about the mass murder. I ignored him like I did most of the time. He said something like "Oh, come on. You can't even answer whether or not you killed those people at the restaurant?" Finally, with him starring me down, I said, "Fine. I did not do it."

The police arrested a former employee of the Brown's Chicken restaurant the day after the crime. His name was Martin Blake and he was interrogated until the 11th of January. According to Blake's subsequent lawsuit and testimony at a pre-trial motion of mine, his Miranda rights were violated and he was held incommunicado. He also accused the police of not providing him with proper food, drink, or access to bathroom facilities as well as unlawful arrest. Although the Palatine police knee jerk reaction would end up costing the village an undisclosed settlement, police were correct in their instincts. A former employee was involved in the mass murder.

Juan Luna had worked at the fast food restaurant, but because a woman provided him with a false alibi, police did not pursue him as a suspect. It was not until nearly ten years later that he was looked at again. Anne Lockett along with Eileen Bakula finally came forward to tell police they had been with Luna and James Degorski immediately after the murders. The two said the alibi was fiction and the two men had discussed the crime in detail with them, including a never before released bit of information that one of the victims vomited french fries. They showed the women the money they had stolen and gave them a portion of it. Later they were driven to the crime scene which was then surrounded by police and ambulances. With so many leads that turned out to be false, the police were still not ready to arrest the two. Instead, they had Anne call James Degorski and tape recorded him admitting to the false alibi of his friend Juan Luna as well as other incriminating statements. Finally, police who had kept the last meal ordered compared DNA with that of Luna. It was a match and the Palatine Task Force made their arrests in the mass murder.

Both Juan Luna and James Degorski made confessions to police. The former even made one which was videotaped and he described in detail the crime. According to Luna, they forced the owners to open up a safe and after gaining the money began to kill everyone in the restaurant. Degorski fired most of the shots killing the employees using a 38 caliber revolver which was reloaded. In the frenzy of the moment, Luna admitted to slitting the throat of one of the owners of the restaurant. Because he had worked at the place, he knew the best time to rob the restaurant would be at closing time. He had jammed the back door so no one could get out, and he knew he would be let in because the owners and workers knew him. The place was cleaned up after the murders, but Luna thought nothing of the chicken he ate and threw the bones and partially eaten pieces into a garbage bin along with the napkin he wiped his hands on leaving further evidence behind.

Five years after their arrest, Juan Luna was finally tried and convicted of the mass murder. In 2009, James Degorski was convicted also. Both men avoided the death penalty due to a single hold out in their juries. It would not have mattered anyway since the death penalty was abolished in Illinois a couple of years ago. Juan Luna, who initially asked for protective custody, now resides at Stateville and I have seen the vermin a number of times particularly when I lived in the Roundhouse where he was a cell house worker. Initially, he was given a detail in the prison's Health Care Unit, but nurses complained about the threat to their safety. Although I think the cowardly little man is no danger, medical staff thought otherwise. A number of times I have considered clobbering the thrill killer who I blame in part for my prosecution and conviction. However, there are so many prisoners at Stateville with disdainful crimes and it would be absurd of me to expect him to turn himself in to prevent my injustice. Furthermore, it was my friend along with his wife who made up the stories making me a suspect in the crime.

James Degorski was sent to Menard C.C. and although I have met his trial attorneys, I have never met him. I spoke with his lawyers about the denial of my Miranda rights and abuse by my two interrogating officers as well as Robertson's manipulation and fabrication of my statements. Degorski had made claims of police abuse and although I have no affinity for him or his crime, I wanted him to be tried and convicted fairly. My parents told me not to talk to his attorneys because they did not want me to help in his defense and thought possibly the lawyers could use me as an alternative suspect. However, I had no such concerns and in fact would relish the opportunity to testify about the lies of Robertson and how I was used as a scapegoat by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office who would ironically have to defend me to protect their interests in convicting Degorski.

There is no doubt in my mind my suspicion in the Brown's Chicken murders affected my arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentence to natural life without parole. I blame less the perpetrators of the horrific crime than those who accused me of it. Had Robert and Rose not conspired to frame me of the mass murder, nearly everything would have been different. The over 100 strong Palatine Task Force under tremendous pressure by the state's attorney's office and media would have not been involved. Instead, detectives from the small town of Barrington would be in charge of the investigation. Those police would not have questioned me after I requested an attorney, and had no reason to violate my Miranda rights or manipulate anything I said.  Had I still been charged with murder, after Rose admitted she and her husband lied to prevent him from going back to prison the state would have dropped the charges against me. Even had the state's attorney not, there is little chance a jury would have convicted me on what amounts to guilt by association. A judge also would have been under no political pressure to sentence me to life in prison without a possibility of parole particularly when the actual killer was acquitted. He may have even had the courage to grant a direct verdict or overturn any jury's conviction. My life would have been radically different these last 20 years if not for the false accusations in the Palatine Massacre. All I can do now is hope the courts or the governor intervene on my behalf.