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Article updated: 1/8/2013 11:02 AM

20 years after Brown's murders, daughter carries on

By Kerry Lester Kimberly Pohl

At the end of her first week of work as a legislative aide, Jennifer Ehlenfeldt Shilling sat down on a Wisconsin Capitol bench and wrote her father a letter filled with joy and hope.

It was not so long before that the 23-year-old had watched with wide child's eyes from the sidelines as Richard Ehlenfeldt walked the marbled halls in Madison as a staffer for then-Gov. Marty Schreiber.

Now was her time to carry on the family tradition, Shilling wrote.

It was a letter she never got to send.

Hours later, she was awakened in the middle of the night and told by a family friend that her parents "were gone" -- brutally murdered at the Brown's Chicken & Pasta franchise in Palatine they had purchased to help pay for their three daughters' college tuition.

In the 20 years that have passed since one of the suburbs' most incomprehensible crimes, Shilling, now 43 and a Wisconsin state senator, has been reminded again and again that it is the way her parents lived, and not the way they died, that is their legacy.

"My parents cast a long shadow in a positive way on our lives," Shilling said of herself and her younger sisters, Joy and Dana.

Cook County prosecutors said James Degorski and his friend Juan Luna set out to do "something big" on Jan. 8, 1993, when they entered the Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant in Palatine just before closing time, their pockets full of bullets.

The workers' family members raised the alarm. Worried when their loved ones hadn't come home from work, they began calling police and going to the restaurant at Smith Street and Northwest Highway to peer into the darkened building.

At about 3 a.m., officers made the horrific discovery later described by one as a mass of humanity -- seven bloodied bodies lying together on the floors of a walk-in freezer and cooler.

That night marked the start of a nightmare for the families Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt of Arlington Heights and their employees: Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes and Marcus Nellsen, all of Palatine, and Rico Solis of Arlington Heights.

Together with a stunned community and dozens of relentless investigators, they endured an agonizing, nine-year mystery before Degorski's ex-girlfriend finally came forward, leading to the arrest of Degorski and Luna in 2002.

Luna was convicted in May 2007 and Degorski in September 2009. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt's names will be forever connected to the Brown's murders.

But through politics, Shilling has been regularly reminded that her parents' commitment to public service is their lasting legacy -- one she is determined to carry on.

Her parents drove north from Arlington Heights to be with Shilling, then a 20-year-old junior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, when she was making her first bid for political office -- La Crosse County Board District 5 -- against a 78-year-old incumbent.

On Election Day, Richard Ehlenfeldt phoned from La Crosse County headquarters after votes had been tallied. With what Shilling describes as "pure joy and elation," he revealed his daughter had won her first race.

Shilling, a Democrat, was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2000, taking the seat of her former boss, Mark Meyer. She was first elected to the state Senate in the recall election of 2011, before being re-elected to a full 4-year term last fall.

Walking the Capitol's marble steps, the mother of two frequently remembers moments from her own childhood and young adulthood.

"It is special to walk around this Capitol," Shilling said. "These were the halls that my father worked and walked in."

Richard Ehlenfeldt had spent many years in politics after leaving a Methodist seminary in the 1960s. After getting bitten by what his daughter describes as "the political bug," he spent time working in Wisconsin government, then as a chief of staff to U.S. Sen. George McGovern in South Dakota and doing advance work for President Jimmy Carter.

It wasn't just her father who inspired a career in public service. Both parents, who came of age in the '60s, were dedicated to civil rights, Shilling said.

After moving around the country as her father worked in politics, the Ehlenfeldts moved to the Chicago suburbs when he took a cable franchising job in Chicago in the 1980s.

Having three girls in college at once, Shilling said, forced her parents' hand at a new venture.

"It wasn't their dream to run a franchise like that," Shilling said, "but they very carefully researched (this). I think my dad had that entrepreneurial spirit in him."

While Shilling has made a point not to overly publicize the story of her parents' murders, she said she has also come to grips with the fact that the Brown's murders provided her with a unique perspective on issues ranging from gun control to victims' rights.

"I think it would be a travesty if I didn't use this to talk about the human side of this. About survivors," she said.

At first, Shilling kept her past largely private.

Campaigning door-to-door for state Assembly, she recalled, she met a man one afternoon who made a flippant remark about guns.

"I said, 'That's a personal issue for me.' I talked about how I'd lost my parents and their employees. And it kind of took him aback."

During a late-night voting session in February 2002, Shilling unexpectedly found herself talking about the tragedy on the Assembly floor as the chamber voted on concealed carry legislation.

"It was the middle of the night. We were trying to figure out this rat's nest of this procedural thing that ended up on the agenda," she said.

She decided to speak on the floor in opposition to the bill and went into her office to collect her thoughts.

"I had never talked about my story and the loss of my parents," she said. "And you just kind of feel like you're putting yourself out there to be vulnerable."

During her speech, Shilling focused on one Assembly member -- a Republican representing the district where her grandmother lived.

"I knew she knew my story," Shilling said.

The members, she said, took in her story. It was the middle of the night, so no reporters or visitors were present in the gallery. Still, she felt she had bared herself.

Each member, Shilling believes, comes to the legislature with experiences that shape him or her.

This one is hers.

After the convictions of Luna and Degorski, Shilling began speaking at victims' rights events in Wisconsin.

She also speaks to prison inmates.

"I speak to them from my experience," Shilling said. "I'm not going as a senator."

She does it, she says, because she believes it puts a face on victims' family members, or survivors, as she likes to refer to them, and the hurt and anger they experience.

Many inmates, she said, are familiar with the Brown's murders, and some even ask her questions about the case, or about evidence.

Her aim is to show understanding, not anger.

"I don't want them (prisoners) to come back to a harder, darker place," she said. "They need support on the outside when they get out."

Meyer describes Shilling as approachable, friendly and likable. "After everything that happened, it would be real easy for her not to be the way that she is. But she has maintained a sense of down-to-earth kindness."

Shilling credits her parents.

"They gave us coping skills. I'm grateful they gave us a way to be productive members of our communities. We are kind, loving women."

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