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Article posted: 3/2/2010 12:01 AM

Reward finally given in Brown's Chicken murders

Two women will split $98,000

By Kimberly Pohl

Anne England testified last fall she was terrified James Degorski would kill her if she told anyone he was responsible for murdering seven people in the Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993.

She'd move across the country, only to hear from him as if he was keeping tabs on her. She'd pen an anonymous letter to police, only to be paralyzed with fear and tear it up.

"Several people were already gone," England, whose maiden name was Lockett, said during Degorski's trial. "What's one more?"

Fear kept her silent for more than nine years. Then, she made a call to a trusted friend who would provide tip No. 4,842 in the case. It was that tip that would ultimately lead to the arrests of Degorski, who was convicted last September, and his accomplice Juan Luna, who was convicted in 2007. Both are serving life sentences without parole.

Now, England and her friend, Melissa Oberle, are splitting a $98,129 reward, Palatine Councilman Jack Wagner told the Daily Herald Monday. He issued the money to the women over the weekend.

"I've been waiting for this day for nearly 17 years," said Wagner, who started the fund with $1,000 of his own money. "It's the final chapter as far as I'm concerned."

Not seeing a dime is Eileen Bakalla, who hung out with the killers in the hours after the mass murder and learned of the bloodshed later that night from Degorski. She kept the secret until police confronted her in 2002.

Both England and Oberle declined to be interviewed, but Wagner said Oberle was very appreciative when he handed the check over at her Lake County home.

She told Wagner she didn't know a reward existed when she called police on March 25, 2002, to relay England's account of the killers' confessions. Oberle also told Wagner she intends to donate some of the money to charity.

Wagner wired England's cut - more than $49,000 - to a bank near her home in downstate Illinois.

"They were both taken aback. They're both just looking to get this behind them. It clearly took a toll on them," Wagner said. "They retained attorneys to make sure their legal rights were protected, so they probably had some legal expenses. Hopefully this helps make them whole again."

At the time of the horrific murders - which claimed the lives of restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and employees Michael Castro, Rico Solis, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes and Marcus Nellsen - Wagner served as the council's liaison to the police department.

Wagner combed village streets in the bitter cold soliciting donations with the goal of raising $100,000. He has kept an eye on the fund ever since, and was charged with determining its fate.

The councilman said he sought input from former Mayor Rita Mullins, current Mayor Jim Schwantz, Councilman Greg Solberg and others. Current Police Chief John Koziol checked with the Cook County state's attorney's office to make sure the allocation wouldn't interfere with the appeal process.

Wagner was especially interested in consulting former Police Chief Jerry Bratcher. Bratcher agreed an even split between England and Oberle was fair.

"The (police) relied pretty heavily on them," Bratcher said. "Even though (England) waited that long to come forward, she made herself available at various phases, including providing testimony."

There was some thought that given the amount of time that elapsed before England came forward, the reward money instead should be given to charity. But individuals and businesses were given a letter saying their donation would provide a reward to the people who provided information leading to an arrest and conviction. And police were desperately waiting for a tip when England finally stepped forward.

"I like hearing (Oberle) might give some to charity," Bratcher said. "That'd be a classy move on her part."

Everyone involved in discussions agreed Bakalla would get no money, despite her value as a key prosecution witness in both the Degorski and Luna trials.

The reward could have been up to $51,000 greater if Wagner had followed up on old pledges by the medical staffs at Holy Family Hospital in Des Plaines and Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, as well as Brown's Chicken & Pasta owner Frank Portillo.

Ultimately, Wagner decided the reward was sufficient given the fact most of the physicians are gone and Portillo, who previously donated money to the victims' families, recently filed for bankruptcy.

"I didn't want to strong-arm anybody," Wagner said. "I think the amount was ample and the account is now closed. The case is closed."

Reward: Third woman who knew won't get a dime

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