More than nine years after seven people were slain in a Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine, police late Thursday were questioning two men in the case after making a DNA match between one suspect and crime scene evidence.
Police said a former girlfriend of one suspect told investigators she had overheard at least one suspect admit to the 1993 slayings, the worst mass murder in Illinois in three decades.The woman had been picked up about a month ago for questioning in an unrelated case when she told police details of the Brown's murders that had not been made public. She then led investigators to the two suspects, sources said.
Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine confirmed two suspects were being questioned but would not discuss specifics of the case. He said no charges had been filed.
"This isn't pie in the sky," Devine said. "This is not a flier. This is serious."
The case languished over years of controversy, lawsuits and charges that investigators had bungled the case in which seven people were slain around closing time on Jan. 8, 1993. The victims were stuffed inside a cooler and a walk-in refrigerator.
Their bodies weren't found until 2:30 a.m. the next morning when the parents of one employee called police, concerned that their son had not returned home from work.
By the time the police arrived, the restaurant had been cleaned. Leaning against the counter was a bloodied mop that had been dragged across the floor.
Police surmised the brutal slayings occurred shortly after 9:10 p.m., when the store's cash register rang up a final sale: a $5 chicken dinner that included fries, a biscuit and a drink. Officers found the scraps of a chicken meal in a trash can inside the restaurant.
That meal proved critical to connecting one of the suspects to the crime. Law enforcement sources said DNA recovered from saliva found on the chicken dinner matched samples taken recently from the suspect, who was brought in after the woman spoke with police.
A law enforcement source said an informant in the investigation had earlier been an alibi witness for one of the two suspects in custody Thursday.
Members of the victims' families said they learned of the suspects from village officials.
Diane Mennes, whose brother-in-law Thomas was killed said: "We were told one person was in custody, but the cops didn't tell us very much."
Mennes and her husband, Jerry, of Palatine said they were not getting their hopes up about the news. "They've had a couple of suspects before, and it didn't pan out," she said. "So that's why we're waiting. But if it's legit, then we're going to be really happy."
For years, Joy McClain of Schaumburg would stop by the Palatine Police Department to see if there were any developments in the murder of her fiance, Marcus Nellsen, who was an employee at the restaurant.
She did the same Thursday morning, only to be told that the detectives were on other assignments and that they wouldn't be able to get back to her until next week.
"And then this happens tonight," McClain said. "I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that it all doesn't blow up and it's all a mistake. All I want to know is why--what went on and what happened?"
In addition to Mennes and Nellsen, the victims included the owners, Richard E. Ehlenfeldt, 50, and his wife, Lynn W., 49, of Arlington Heights, who had bought the restaurant just months before the slayings after he lost his job in a corporate shakeout.
Also slain were three other employees: Guadalupe Maldonado, 46, of Palatine, the restaurant's cook who had just taken the job after bringing his family back from Mexico; Michael C. Castro, 16, and Rico L. Solis, 17, both Palatine High School students working there part time. When Palatine police found the bodies, it was more than 5 1/2 hours after the 9 p.m. closing.
When officers arrived at the store, they spotted the rear door open at the restaurant at 168 W. Northwest Highway. Inside, they found the seven bodies in a cooler and in a walk-in refrigerator.
The building no longer exists. It was razed in April 2001 after housing a dry cleaning establishment, then standing vacant for several years.
At one point, a 100-member police task force was investigating the case. But that has since dwindled over the years to a handful of officers now working the case.
Police believe the killer or killers entered the restaurant shortly before closing, but the bodies were not found until hours later.
The Better Government Association had been a highly vocal critic of the Palatine Police Department's handing of the case. But a report in August 2000 by a team of lawyers and police appointed by the Illinois State Crime Commission defended police and disputed the earlier criticism by the BGA.
A new crime-fighting technique was used early in 2000, when investigators took DNA samples from former suspects and others connected to the case to compare with human DNA in saliva found on partially eaten chicken meals that had been discarded in the restaurant.
At the time, investigators said the meal and other evidence linked to it backs up a long-held theory: that the killer or killers talked their way into the restaurant at closing time on the pretext of buying food.
Controversy in the case included allegations that security practices at Brown's Chicken & Pasta Inc. were partly responsible for the deaths. The charges were in a suit filed in 1995 by Emmanuel Castro and Evelyn Urgena, mother of Rico Solis. Their sons were among the seven workers found dead in the restaurant.
The 1st District Illinois Appellate Court in Chicago in 2000 sided with the fast-food chain.