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Flashback: Brown’s Chicken Massacre Leaves Grim Mark on Chicago

The murder of seven at the popular fried chicken chain went unsolved for nearly a decade before two men were convicted

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Brown's Chicken took a nosedive soon after the 1993 massacre.

Jose Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Getty

Every native of the Chicagoland area is familiar with Brown’s Chicken, but the fried chicken chain took a tragic hit when a massacre occurred at a Palatine, Illinois location in the early Nineties. Two assailants, who were convicted nearly a decade later, murdered seven people.

The mass murder occurred on January 8th, 1993. The Palatine franchise’s owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt were two of the victims, along with five of their employees. Two of the employees were students at Palatine High School. All seven were either shot or stabbed, with their bodies gruesomely left in the establishment’s walk-in refrigerators. Less than $2,000 had been stolen by the two murderers.

The massacre went unsolved in the quiet northwestern suburb of Chicago for years until a woman named Anne Lockett revealed in 2002 that her ex-boyfriend James Degorski had been behind the tragedy. She also implicated his associate Juan A. Luna who had previously worked at that particular Brown’s Chicken. At the time of their crime, Luna and Degorski were 18- and 20-years-old respectively. Lockett had been dating Degorski at the time and held on to his secret for nine years because he had threatened to kill her if she revealed the truth.

As soon as the investigation began in 1993, Luna had been one of 300 current and former employees to be interviewed, according to The New York Times. Controversy surrounded the DNA tests in the new millennium, with Luna and Degorski’s defense lawyers claiming that the chicken dinner used as evidence that was claimed to have been shared by the pair before the fatal robbery transpired had been mishandled.

Both men were sentenced to life and nearly sentenced to the death penalty, though the juries handling their respective trials did not reach the necessary unanimous vote to impose such a final conviction.

Even though he is still serving his life sentence, Degorski was awarded $451,000 in 2014 after winning a civil rights lawsuit against a former Cook County jail guard who was accused of beating the murderer. The jury’s decision to vote in Degorski’s favor was met with controversy from many Chicagoland residents, especially the families of Degorski’s victims.

“To me, it’s like he was paid to kill,” Epifania Castro told The Chicago Tribune in 2014. Castro’s son Michael was 16-years-old when he was murdered by Degorski and Luna. “He got rewarded and he’s a killer.”

The Ehlenfeldts were parents to three daughters, two of whom had been scheduled to be at the restaurant that night though they were not present when the massacre occurred. Jennifer Shilling, their third daughter, is a Democratic member of the Wisconsin State Senate.

That particular Brown’s Chicken was closed down soon after the bodies were found. It was a dry cleaning business before the building was demolished entirely. Currently, a Chase Bank stands where the restaurant once was.

“I have not walked in there,” a customer at that particular Chase Bank told ABC 7 Chicago in 2013, reflecting the still chilling aftermath of the event. “I’ve just gone through the drive-thru. I won’t walk in the building. To me, it’s a sacred place where people lost their lives.”

Brown’s Chicken took a nosedive soon after the massacre. Over 100 locations were once spread around Illinois and Indiana, but as of 2016, less than 25 remain with zero franchises in Indiana. 

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