'I could have done it earlier': Brown's murders witness feared killer before coming forward
While her family and friends were celebrating her sister's 1994 wedding, Anne Lockett recalls she was outside the reception being dragged by her hair down the street while beaten mercilessly by her longtime boyfriend.
Even though Lockett would once and for all end that abusive relationship a few months later, the fear from years of physical and emotional abuse she endured at the hands of a man who claimed to love her would cripple her and keep her from revealing a deadly secret that would haunt her for nearly a decade, she said.
Then one day, the dam broke.
"I think I was having an emotional moment when everything comes crashing in on you," Lockett said. "I called my friend and told her today's the day, and that I needed her to get a hold of one of the Palatine police officers she knew because it had to happen today or it wasn't happening."
Within a few hours, Lockett was helping Palatine police solve the infamous 1993 murders of seven people inside a Brown's Chicken restaurant and pointing her finger at that ex-boyfriend, James Degorski, and his pal Juan Luna. While she would later receive money for helping bringing the men to justice, she said she did not know of the reward at the time.
"I think it was honestly the guilt," Lockett said of her decision to finally talk with police. "It wasn't necessarily that they got away with the crime. It was the fact that these people, the victims' families -- their kids, their parents -- were suffering."
Lockett said she thought about the crime regularly during the nine years she harbored the identities of the men who are now convicted of the crime. She worried she or her family would become targets when she and Degorski finally ended their relationship.
"I wasn't kind of a liability," she said. "I'm exactly a liability."
Lockett never spoke with or saw either man in the years after her breakup with Degorski, but their specter lingered over her life even after she moved hundreds of miles away.
"I was always afraid," she said. "And that fear kept me silent."
Lockett speaks matter-of-factly about almost every aspect of her life, her time with Degorski, her knowledge of the crime and her decision to come forward. But she still gets emotional thinking about all the years the victims' families were left wondering what had happened to their loved ones.
"I could have done it earlier, but I wasn't prepared," she said through tears recently while sitting on her couch inside her downstate apartment. "I knew how much I was going to be hated and it was all warranted. I completely understand, and if I was in their shoes I would hate me, too. But I had to prepare myself. I didn't expect anyone to feel sorry for me. And they can never hate me as much as I did myself back then."
Lockett and Degorski attended Fremd High School together in Palatine but met outside school when their friend circles intertwined. She was 14 and Degorski was three years older.
Luna also attended Fremd.
Lockett was shy and unassuming back then. She did not have many friends and suffered through mental health issues as a teenager. She and Degorski were friends before they eventually became romantic in 1992.
"He was never mean when we were just friends," she recalled. "But it was a very awkward dating relationship."
As a couple, Lockett said, Degorski would be demeaning and get aggravated if she was indecisive.
"He spit in my face once when I didn't know where I wanted to go for dinner," she remembered.
Degorski complained that she behaved like his mother.
"And he hated his mother," she said.
Lockett's mental health suffered under Degorski's abuse. She began drinking heavily and dabbling in recreational drugs to self-medicate. It didn't work. She tried to kill herself twice in 1993, she said, the last time just days before the Jan. 8 murders.
Degorski called Lockett at the hospital the day after the murders and told her to "watch the news" because he and Luna had done "something big," she recalled.
When she was released from the hospital, she visited Degorski and Luna at Degorski's home that he shared with his mother.
"We were in his little bedroom in the basement and they asked me if I wanted to know how they did it," she said. "The way they told it was very descriptive, Juan more so than Jim. I remember Jim saying he had to go back and kill some of the people because it was Juan's first time."
Degorski and Luna have maintained they are not responsible for the murders, though both men were convicted by juries and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lockett is unsure if Degorski had killed before the murders at the restaurant.
"He told me he hit a couple people in the heads with baseball bats, and he didn't know if they were alive," she said.
The murders of restaurant owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and employees Tom Mennes, Marcus Nellsen, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado and Rico Solis was a thrill killing, Lockett said.
"They went there to kill. That was their intention," she said. "Juan wanted to know what it was like to kill somebody."
The victims were shot to death, and some suffered knife wounds as well.
"I think it was a crime to see if they could get away with it. They planned. Like, Jim was a good criminal," Lockett said.
But Luna, it turns out, was not.
Luna left behind DNA from a chicken meal he ordered and police had preserved. He also left behind a palm print on a discarded napkin. Police would use that evidence at his 2007 trial to help convict him of the crime. Lockett spent a day on the witness stand at Luna's trial and Degorski's 2009 trial.
At both trials, Lockett came under attack from defense attorneys.
"It was hard because I couldn't really defend myself," she said. "Because I had never reported Jim for the abuse, I couldn't bring it up."
Lockett has no regrets about her decision to testify. Her only regret is how long it took her to come forward.
"There's nothing I can do to ever fix that," she said.
Eventually, Lockett and a friend who helped connect her with police split a nearly $100,000 reward. Lockett paid about $10,000 to an attorney and used the rest for bills and other debts, she said. She couldn't think of one tangible item remaining in her life that she used the reward money to purchase.
The mother of two credits her decision to testify as one of the catalysts that helped her get sober.
"If I hadn't done what I did, I'd be dead now," she said. "I would've drank myself to death or done enough drugs to kill myself."