Trial opens in 2006 slaying at former Lindenhurst Burger King
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James Ealy went to his former workplace — a Lindenhurst Burger King — early one morning in November 2006 and strangled his former manager with the bow tie from her uniform before stealing more than $1,700 from the restaurant safe, a Lake County prosecutor told jurors Tuesday in the Lake Villa man's murder trial.
"A dead body brings you, me and him into this courtroom," prosecutor Jeffrey Pavletic said, pointing to Ealy, 48, during opening statements.
The body was that of 45-year-old Mary Hutchinson, who Pavletic described as a dedicated wife, mother and employee of the now-shuttered restaurant on Grand Avenue.
Hutchinson had recently transferred from an Antioch Burger King because she was robbed and was afraid to work night shifts by herself, Pavletic said. She was in the Lindenhurst location early Nov. 27, 2006 only to do inventory.
Hutchinson arrived at the restaurant, turning off the alarm at 3:56 a.m., and was found dead by a co-worker at 5:10 a.m. Her body was in the manager's office in front of an open safe where cash and coins totaling $1,701 were stolen.
An autopsy found puncture wounds on Hutchinson's back believed to be from a screwdriver and marks consistent with strangulation. Pavletic said cash and coins later were found in Ealy's apartment, though the total did not match the amount stolen. On Tuesday prosecutors said Ealy committed the crime for two main reasons — because he could and because he wanted to.
Ealy's defense told jurors there is no forensic evidence linking him to the murder, and ultimately they will be left with too many questions to convict.
"They found nothing, nothing on the scene that connected (Ealy) to the crime," defense attorney Keith Grant said.
Prosecutors' first witness, Leticia Macias, described how she found Hutchinson's body already cold when she arrived to work at the Burger King. Macias said she called out for Hutchinson when she entered the restaurant, but got no answer.
"The first thing I saw was her feet on the ground," Macias said.
Prosecutors played the 911 call in court, where deliveryman James Slack can be heard describing what he found.
"She appears to be unconscious or dead, I don't know," Slack said. "She's lying facedown and there's blood all over her face. We need an ambulance ASAP."
Testimony included details of the restaurant's security system, which did not include video survellience, and how money was put in the safe, something only managers such as Hutchinson had access to.
Hutchinson's husband also took the stand, emotionally describing the last time he saw his wife alive, before she left for work that morning, and the next time he saw her, at a funeral home later that week.
Ealy, who had stopped working at Burger King a month before the slaying, was questioned by police the day of the murder, but initially released. Authorities questioned him again four days later and arrested him on a charge of first-degree murder after the second interview.
Prosecutors say when police arrived to search his apartment Ealy reportedly said, "What do you have on me now?" He also said he wanted to apologize to Hutchinson's family for what he did, according to authorities, but that statement was not recorded by police.
Ealy has remained in Lake County jail without bond since his arrest.
Initially, the state requested the death penalty for Ealy should he be found guilty of murder, but that was changed to life in prison after the state abolished the death penalty in 2011.
That change in state policy, along with a change in judges, and a large amount of legal maneuvering, have resulted in continuous delays in the case going to trial.
Ealy was convicted in 1982 of the strangulation murder of four people inside a Chicago apartment. But a state appeals court overturned the verdict, ruling police lacked probable cause to arrest Ealy. A judge ruled Lake County prosecutors cannot bring the prior conviction to the attention of jurors in the current trial.
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