James Ealy was found guilty Friday of the murder of his former boss during a 2006 robbery of the Lindenhurst Burger King.
Ealy, 48, of Lake Villa, showed no reaction when the verdict was read in court Friday after the jury of seven woman and five men deliberated for about three hours at the Lake County courthouse.
Family members of Mary Hutchison, killed by Ealy in November 2006, broke down in tears when the jury also agreed with prosecutors that the killing was an exceptionally heinous act.
That additional factor means Ealy could be sentenced up to life in prison rather than the up to 60 years a charge of first-degree murder normally brings.
He is due back in court July 3.
"We want to thank everyone involved," said son Richard Nothnagel. "The verdict won't bring (Hutchison) back, but it makes it so he won't murder anyone else."
Friday's quick verdict came after three days of testimony and after attorneys made their closing arguments early Friday morning.
Prosecutors said Ealy drove to the now-shuttered Burger King restaurant on Grand Avenue in Lindenhurst at 4:23 a.m. on a cool November morning in 2006 and strangled the 45-year-old Hutchison using the bow tie from her uniform.
After the murder, prosecutors said Ealy stole cash and coins from the restaurant safe, fled the store, and went to a White Hen in Lindenhurst before heading to his job at Value City in Gurnee.
Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Jeff Pavletic said in his closing argument the coins and cash were found in Ealy's apartment, while phone calls were made from Ealy's cellphone to the Burger King minutes before the murder took place.
"This was a murder based on a robbery," Pavletic told the jury. "He forced her into that (Burger King) office, forced her on her knees, then grabbed a screwdriver and poked her in the back to get her to open the safe."
Pavletic said Hutchison was found dead by a co-worker in the manager's office with her head next to the open safe at 5:10 a.m. the morning of the crime.
Defense attorney Keith Grant argued though that no physical evidence was uncovered by investigators from the Lake County Major Crime Task Force that tied Ealy to the restaurant the morning of the murder.
"James Ealy is innocent," he said Friday. "He is innocent today because the prosecution hasn't proven he is guilty of a crime."
Ealy has remained in Lake County jail without bail since his arrest. He was remanded to jail immediately after the verdict was read.
"We are very pleased with the jury's verdict," said Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim. "We are happy for the family and hope it does provide the family with closure."
However, family members said they would not get closure until Ealy is locked up in prison for life.
"Life in prison is the best we can get," said husband Ken Hutchison. "We have waited a long time for this."
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 lot of legal maneuvering have resulted in continuous delays. It took 6½ years to bring the case to trial.
This is the second murder trial Ealy has been a defendant in. He 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 him.
Pavletic said he was not allowed to present the past conviction to the jury in Ealy's trial. But Pavletic said he will request that Lake County Judge Daniel Shanes allow Ealy's past into evidence when imposing a sentence later this year.