'A testament to my parents': Murders created enduring bond between Brown's owners' daughters
For the first time in 30 years, Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt's daughters will spend Jan. 8 together.
Not since police discovered the bodies of their parents and five of their employees inside the Brown's Chicken restaurant the couple owned have Jennifer Shilling, Dana Sampson and Joy Ehlenfeldt been together on an anniversary of the murders.
It wasn't by design, said Joy Ehlenfeldt. Typically, the sisters mark the date individually, with volunteer work or an act of service, she said. This year will be different. This year, Ehlenfeldt and Sampson will gather with Shilling in Wisconsin for her sons' choral concert.
But music won't dispel the lingering heartache.
"There hasn't been a day that's gone by in 30 years I haven't thought of my parents in some regard," said Sampson, a married mother of four.
"The grief doesn't go away," she said. "It's my life. ... It's part of who I am."
Tragic end to a new chapter
After corporate downsizing cost Richard Ehlenfeldt his job, he and Lynn used their life savings to purchase an underperforming Brown's restaurant on Northwest Highway in Palatine. They had owned the restaurant only nine months when the killers entered just after closing time on Friday, Jan. 8, 1993. A receipt recovered from the crime scene showed a chicken dinner purchase at 9:08 p.m.
By 9:48 p.m., when authorities say the killers cut the power and left, Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, his wife Lynn, 49, were dead. So were five of their employees: Palatine High School students Michael Castro, 16, and Rico Solis, 17; cook Guadalupe Maldonado, 46, the married father of three boys; breader Thomas Mennes, 32; and manager-in-training Marcus Nellsen, 31.
Over the next nine years, police followed up on more than 4,800 leads. None led to the killers.
It wasn't until March 2002 when there was a break in the case. Anne Lockett informed Palatine police her former boyfriend, James Degorski, and his friend, Juan Luna, told her and another woman days after the crime that they were responsible.
Two months later, DNA linked the remains of a chicken dinner found at the crime scene to Luna, who was arrested in Carpentersville on May 16, 2002. Degorski was arrested the same day outside Indianapolis.
Luna was convicted of the murders in 2007. Degorski was convicted in 2009. Both men were sentenced to life in prison.
Growing up Ehlenfeldt
Sampson and Ehlenfeldt recall growing up in a loving home that they laughingly compare to "Leave it to Beaver." Lynn fixed a hot breakfast every day and put notes in the girls' lunchboxes, Sampson said.
Both parents were deeply concerned about social justice, Sampson said. In college, Richard worked to ensure fair housing for minority students. He also worked on several presidential campaigns. Lynn, a social worker, registered Black voters in the South during the 1960s. Members of the Kingswood United Methodist Church in Buffalo Grove, they were involved in the PADS program for the homeless there.
"We grew up with those values instilled in us," Sampson said.
Richard Ehlenfeldt believed duct tape could fix anything, Sampson recalled. When the elbows on a flannel shirt began to fray, he duct taped them and continued wearing the shirt.
Growing up, the Ehlenfeldt girls played soccer. Their mom, who baked the world's best brownies, supported them enthusiastically by ringing a cow bell when her daughters' teams scored.
"My kids play soccer," said middle sister Sampson. "I always have a cow bell with me. That's a part of my mom I bring to my kids."
Long before his daughters married and had children, Richard Ehlenfeldt already had begun collecting Disney films for his future grandkids. Sampson and Shilling's children refer to their late grandparents as Grandpa and Grandma Angel.
The siblings weren't perfect.
"We could fight like cats and dogs," said Ehlenfeldt, the youngest.
When she was in middle school, Lynn and Richard grounded Ehlenfeldt for what she considered pranks but which didn't amuse her sisters. Her dad held her accountable.
"He said, 'There are actions and there are consequences,'" she said. On those occasions, however, Richard always found something for them to do together.
"I'm grateful for those times," Ehlenfeldt said. "I made a lot of memories with my dad."
"I wish they would have been here for the last 30 years," she said. "They did a great job for the 18 years I had them."
Like her sisters, Sampson, then a 20-year-old University of Illinois senior, helped out at the restaurant during school breaks. On that night, her boyfriend (now husband) invited her to dinner with his parents. Lynn Ehlenfeldt took her shift instead.
Arriving at the family's Arlington Heights home early on Jan. 9, she noticed her parents' car wasn't in the driveway and the absence of tire tracks in the freshly fallen snow. Meeting her at the door, Sampson's grandmother told her Lynn and Richard hadn't arrived home and they hadn't been able to reach them.
Sampson and her grandmother drove to the restaurant and encountered ambulances and police cars in the parking lot.
"It was chaos," said Sampson, who initially thought the ambulances indicated her father had suffered a heart attack. Stopped by a Palatine police officer as she went to open the door -- which she reached about the same time as Michael Castro's father, Manny -- Sampson and her grandmother were redirected to the police station. When they couldn't get information there, she and her grandmother returned to the restaurant to find crime scene tape surrounding the building.
As Shilling, 23, drove home from Wisconsin, Ehlenfeldt, 18, joined Sampson at the restaurant. Sampson recalled them standing in snow drifts shouting to officers questions about what happened.
"I'll tell you what happened," Sampson recalled an officer saying. "There are seven bodies in there."
The tragedy brought the already close-knit sisters even closer.
"There's no one else in the world I trust or love more than them," said Ehlenfeldt, who now lives in Washington state. "We're all strong and independent, and it's a testament to my parents."
As years passed without an arrest, she thought the murders might remain unsolved.
"I was just hoping they were not committing other crimes, specifically murder," she said.
Sampson, who now lives in Arizona, was living outside St. Louis when police called to say they had suspects in custody.
"I hated whoever did this and I wanted to know who to hate," she said, but later realized "being angry doesn't benefit me or accomplish anything because it doesn't change what happened."
Ultimately, learning the killers' identities wasn't as cathartic as she had hoped.
"Degorski and Luna weren't a part of my life before this happened and they're not a part of it now," she said. "Hating them doesn't make me feel any better."
"The pain and the grief, that all just stays."