'We still think about them': Brown's case, victims' families had indelible impact on prosecutors
Lou Longhitano was considered a junior prosecutor in 2002 when murder cases were brought against Juan Luna and James Degorski in connection with the murders of seven people at Brown's Chicken in Palatine.
He'd come to the Cook County state's attorney's office two years earlier, after seven years as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. At the time Luna and Degorski were charged, Longhitano said he knew of the Brown's cases more or less like everyone else.
That would change dramatically through his work on a case that had a profound and indelible impact on all involved.
Many memories remain vivid for Longhitano. He considers all the cases he's handled over his long career to be important, but this one has not drifted into a collective memory.
"We lived and breathed and spent every waking hour for years and years for the victims we lost and the family left behind," he said.
Longhitano wasn't on the prosecution team for Luna, who was found guilty in 2007, but was asked to join in advance of Degorski's trial.
"The file on this was the size of a room," he said. "I had to look at the photos. I've seen lots of gruesome photos, (but) I had a different reaction to this."
Images of the Holocaust came to mind, he said.
"It made me kind of sick. It made me angry," he said of what happened at Brown's on Jan. 8, 1993.
With more than 30 members of the victims' families in the gallery, Longhitano said he had the "honor" of giving the opening statement at Degorski's trial on Aug. 31, 2009.
It wasn't a robbery gone bad, he told jurors.
"This was never about the money. It was about the thrill. They wanted to do something big, and they made a big splash in the blood of seven innocent victims," he said at the time.
After four weeks of testimony, the case against Degorski remained largely circumstantial with no physical evidence connecting him to the murders.
But "life has a funny way of catching up with people," Longhitano said in his opening statement.
It took a jury less than two hours to find Degorski guilty.
Among the scores of murder cases he's prosecuted, this one is a haunting reminder of senseless violence and its multifaceted impacts, he said.
That's particularly true for the victims' families who feel left behind as the world moves on, Longhitano said. In this case, the prosecutors and families formed bonds over daily lunches and conversations.
Part of a prosecutor's duty is to be compassionate, he said.
"This case amplified and reinforced that," he said. "It's not just about the battle in court."
Longhitano was the last of the Brown's prosecutors in the Cook County state's attorney's office when he left in July 2021. The team still gets together on occasion, he said.
"If you talk to the families, convey to them that we still think about them," he said.
After Brown's, Longhitano was tapped by former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to build a human trafficking unit and task force. He's now an attorney adviser for AEquitas in Washington, D.C.