Man on trial for 7 deaths at Ill. restaurant

CHICAGO - August 31, 2009 While some say closure is just one more verdict away, others aren't so sure.

Opening statements were scheduled for Monday in the capital murder case against James Degorski, one of two men accused of killing everyone inside a Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant in the quiet bedroom community of Palatine in 1993.

A jury convicted Degorski's high school friend, Juan Luna, in 2007 and sentenced him to life in prison. Luna once worked at the restaurant and told authorities he thought it would be an easy target at closing time. The robbery netted less than $2,000.

Prosecutors said the men shot and stabbed restaurant owners Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, his wife Lynn, 49, and five of their employees: Michael Castro, 16; Rico Solis, 17; Marcus Nellsen, 31; Thomas Mennes, 32; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46.

Victims' families said justice is long overdue, but the emotional ending they hope to walk away with differs.

"I'd like to get it over with so we can get on with our lives," said Robert Mennes, whose younger brother Thomas was killed. "For me, it's just a long, long time."

But Dana Sampson, who lost both of her parents during the ambush of their restaurant, said she isn't looking for closure.

"I cannot say I'm going to shut the door, then it's also shutting the door on my parents' life," said Sampson, who plans to again travel from her Arizona home to attend the second trial. "I want that door open, I want the memories of them."

Degorski faces the death penalty, though prosecutors may have less convincing evidence this time around.

They had physical evidence including a fingerprint and DNA in Luna's case, and a lengthy videotaped statement in which he implicated himself and Degorski in the killings. But a statement taken from Degorski after his arrest was brief and far less detailed, and prosecutors haven't indicated that any physical evidence ties him to the crime scene.

Degorski and Luna were arrested in May 2002, after Degorski's former girlfriend told police that both men confessed about their roles in the crime. She and another woman who made the same claim are expected to testify.

As they did during Luna's trial, victims' families plan to crowd the Chicago courtroom of no-nonsense Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan.

Sampson watched as Luna was tried and convicted. As she prepares for Degorski's trial, she said she doesn't know which is worse: the fear that came with the first, or the anticipation that is coming with the second.

Her aunt, Ann Ehlenfeldt, said she also doesn't know what to expect.

"I don't know what closure is," she said. "I have no idea what I'm going to feel like after it's over. I would imagine a sense of relief."

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