Suburban cold cases solved and unsolved: How DNA has played a role so far

Despite thousands of leads, hundreds of interviews and untold hours of investigation, it took nearly a decade - and a couple of strokes of luck - for police to arrest the men behind the notorious Palatine Brown's Chicken murders, the 30th anniversary of which the Daily Herald marked earlier this week.

A key piece of evidence linking the pair to the crime was a partially eaten piece of chicken an investigator found in a trash can inside the restaurant. It took years and some improvements in DNA technology, but investigators eventually matched DNA left on the chicken to Juan Luna, who was later convicted of the murders along with James Degorski.

This week's anniversary got us thinking, and ultimately writing, about some infamous suburban cold cases solved through DNA and some others still awaiting resolution. They involve:

Kristy Wesselman: The 15-year-old Glen Ellyn girl went missing July 21, 1985, never returning from a trip to a grocery store to buy a snack. Her body was found the next day, just off a dirt path between the store and her subdivision. In 2015, DNA from her sexual-assault kit was matched to that of a man who had to submit a sample to a state database after being convicted of domestic battery in Champaign County. Michael Jones, 69, pleaded guilty and is serving an 80-year prison sentence.

Amber Creek

Amber Creek: Shortly after leaving a state juvenile residential center in February 1997, the body of the 14-year-old Palatine girl was found in a wildlife refuge in Wisconsin. She had been sexually assaulted and suffocated. In 2014, an Oklahoma crime laboratory doing cold-case work matched a thumbprint on the garbage bag around her head to that of 36-year-old James P. Eaton of Palatine. Investigators put Eaton under surveillance and watched as he smoked two cigarettes and then discarded each at the Palatine Metra station. DNA from the butts linked him to Amber's murder. Eaton later admitted to first-degree reckless homicide and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Julie Hanson

Julie Hanson: The July 1972 stabbing murder of the Naperville 15-year-old was unsolved until 2021. She vanished after leaving home to go watch her brother's baseball game. Her body was found the next day in a cornfield; she had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 36 times. Naperville police had a forensic genetic genealogy company search for a match to DNA collected from Hanson's body. The firm found potential matches for Barry Lee Whelpley, now 76, who awaits trial in Will County.

Julie Konkol: The 39-year-old woman was found dead in October 1997 behind an abandoned truck stop in northern Lake County. More than two decades later, authorities announced in 2020 that DNA had linked her death to Samuel Legg III, a one-time truck driver who's also charged with a pair of murders in Ohio. He's been charged in Lake County but has yet to appear in court here.

Pamela Maurer

Pamela Maurer: The 16-year-old Woodridge girl disappeared when she went out to buy a Coke one night in January 1976. Her body was found the next morning in a ditch on College Road in Lisle. DNA found on her body was entered into a national criminal database in 2001, with no results. Then in 2019, it was retested using advanced procedures. A profile of the likely killer - the color of his eyes, skin and hair, and the shape of his face - was run through a genealogical DNA database, which identified potential relatives. From that, police narrowed the focus to the deceased Bruce Lindahl, who had been charged in the 1970s and early 1980s with sexual assaults in other cases nearby. They exhumed his body, took a DNA sample and found it matched that found on Maurer. Lindahl died in 1981, accidentally stabbing himself in his femoral artery while killing another man in Naperville.

Baby Hope: Relying on DNA markers, a DuPage County grand jury indicted an unknown woman in 2019 on a charge of failure to report the death or disappearance of a child in connection with the death of newborn Baby Hope. Hope was found dead in a backpack in August 2016 near Wheaton.

Tyesha Bell

Tyesha Bell: The 22-year-old Aurora disappeared from her apartment in May 2003. She was considered a missing person for more than 17 years when a skull found in 2020 at a construction site in Kane County was connected to her through DNA. Two years later, a former boyfriend, Prince L. Cunningham, was charged with her murder. He awaits trial in Kane County.

Still work to do

Despite those successes, the suburbs have dozens of unsolved killings awaiting a conclusion.

Police walk outside a Lane Bryant store at a shopping center in Tinley Park, investigating the scene in 2008 where five women were killed during a robbery. The case remains unsolved. Associated Press

One of the most notorious has its 15th anniversary next month - the February 2008 deaths of five women at a Lane Bryant clothing store in Tinley Park.

In DuPage County alone, the sheriff's office lists 10 cold cases it has investigated, in unincorporated areas, dating back to 1966 that remain unsolved.

The Cook County sheriff's Cold Case Unit has open files on 42 cases. The oldest, dating back to 1957, involves the killings of Barbara Grimes, 15, and Patricia Grimes, 12. The sisters were found dead in a wooded area near Willow Springs about a month after being reported missing.

Prosecutor pleads guilty

We wrote last week about Kane County Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Gay being charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence of alcohol after crashing into a light pole in downtown St. Charles in November.

The update: Gay pleaded guilty on Jan. 5 and was sentenced to 12 months of court supervision. He underwent an alcohol-use evaluation, completed 10 hours of substance-abuse education and has to wear an alcohol-use monitor or use a breath tester for 60 days, according to Kane County court records. Gay's boss, Jamie Mosser, asked an attorney for St. Charles to prosecute the case. The plea was approved by a McHenry County judge.

Court backs Palatine cops

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit accusing Palatine police of falsely arresting a Chicago man on drunken driving charges after he crashed his vehicle into a utility pole during a medical emergency.

According to court documents, Christian Braun of Chicago was driving through town in September 2017 after working his seventh consecutive 10-hour overnight shift at a local pharmacy. When police arrived at the crash scene, they found him confused, slurring his speech, struggling with his balance, claiming he wasn't actually in an accident and that he lived in “Chicago-Miami.”

Oh, and that he had a beer with his brother before driving.

Suspecting it was perhaps more than one beer, police put him through a battery of field sobriety tests. He failed them, and officer Michael Licari arrested him for driving under the influence, court papers say.

But two months later, blood tests showed Braun had no alcohol or intoxicating drugs in his system and the charges are dropped. Braun would later learn he'd suffered a seizure while driving, causing the crash.

The suit, filed about eight months after the charges were dismissed, alleged police should have recognized the signs of his medical emergency and gotten him treatment instead of putting him in handcuffs.

But in a unanimous ruling handed down Dec. 29, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said police behaved appropriately and had plenty of reason to believe Braun was intoxicated.

“Braun said he was not injured, did not suffer from any medical conditions and did not need medical assistance,” Chief Judge Diane S. Sykes wrote. “And his appearance and behavior were entirely consistent with intoxication.”

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