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Seven massacred in Palatine

Tribune staff reporters

It was dusk before they began removing the corpses from the chicken restaurant. The grim procession-seven body bags in all-confirmed the horror that had transpired inside, but it did little to satisfy the friends and mourners who kept vigil outside and struggled to find a reason for the massacre.

Among those fatally shot in the Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Palatine were the couple who had bought the restaurant just months ago after the husband lost his job in a corporate shakeout; an immigrant cook who took the job three weeks ago after bringing his family back to the United States from Mexico; and two local high school students who worked at Brown's part time.

Police, confronted with Illinois' worst mass murder in two decades, moved with painstaking caution. Authorities did not release the names of the victims until almost 16 hours after the bodies were found in refrigeration units about 2:30 a.m. Saturday in the strip mall restaurant.

They would not say whether robbery may have been a motive, nor detail any evidence that might indicate why the seven were slain.

While those watching and waiting had figured who some of the dead must be, Palatine police said there was a delay in identifying bodies because some were face down, or piled together, and investigators could not move them until they had finished studying the crime scene.

Police would not reveal whether they had found evidence of what kind of gun was used, or if more than one was used. They did not say if they believed more than one person was responsible.

Employees sobbing for their co-workers-some of them feeling guilty that they had gotten the fatal evening off-noted that a safe that sometimes contained as much as $3,000 was visible to customers and located near a rear door that was always left open.

Police sources said an Elgin man, Martin Blake, had been brought in for questioning. They did not say that he was a suspect. A Brown's employee said there was a worker of the same name at the restaurant, a popular gathering place for teenagers in the Northwestern suburb.

Maria Ramirez, who lives next door to Blake in Elgin, said police used her house for surveillance of his home Saturday.

The victims, according to police, included the owners, Richard E. Ehlenfeldt, 50, and his wife, Lynn W. Ehlenfeldt, 49, of Arlington Heights.

Also slain were five employees: Guadalupe Maldonado, 46, of Palatine, the cook; Michael C. Castro, 16, and Rico L. Solis, 17, both Palatine High School students; and Palatine residents Thomas Mennes, 32, and Marcus Nellsen, 31.

When Palatine police found the bodies, it was more than 5 1/2 hours after the 9 p.m. closing. Authorities learned of trouble at the restaurant when parents of one employee called police concerned that their son had not returned home from work.

When officers arrived at the store they spotted the rear door open. Inside, they found the seven bodies, some face down, in a cooler and a walk-in refrigerator, police said.

The slayings stunned other Brown's employees, who rushed to the restaurant at daybreak to learn which of their fellow workers had been killed.

Casey Sander, a 17-year-old Brown's employee, said she heard news of the shooting on the radio at home about 7 a.m., threw on her clothes and rode her bicycle to the store. When she arrived, five or six of her fellow workers ran to embrace her.

"They were really happy to see me. It was a very strange feeling," Sander said. "They thought I was dead, and I thought they were dead."

For weeks, Jason Georgi, 17, of Palatine, had been asking his supervisors at the restaurant for a Friday night off so he could spend it with friends at the big basketball game pitting Palatine High against cross-town rival Fremd.

"I feel terrible for whoever it was who took my place," Georgi said Saturday morning outside the store, where he and other workers waited in the cold most of the day. "If this was any other Friday night, that would be me in there."

Investigators from the Cook County Sheriff's Police Department and a multijurisdictional task force joined Palatine police in the probe. Officers were seen searching the inside of the restaurant and the bushes outside.

Employees congregating at the restaurant at 168 W. Northwest Highway expressed uneasiness about what they said was lax security at the store. Georgi said employees had discussed the establishment's vulnerability, particularly a rear door that usually was left unlocked with the store's floor safe about 8 feet from it.

`It's just a bad situation," he said. "You can't help but wonder what would have happened had that door been locked."

Georgi said the rear side door was left unlocked from opening until past closing because employees used that door during shift changes and to bring in supplies.

The Ehlenfeldts, who have three daughters, purchased the store several months ago. It was a new start for Richard Ehlenfeldt, who had struggled for a couple of years following his layoff by Group W Associates, a supplier of cable programming.

Employees spoke of how the Ehlenfeldts' warmth created a family atmosphere at the restaurant, even as the couple worked 16-hour days to make their venture a success.

The couple recently had completed major remodeling and exterior renovation on the building, according to associates.

"They got the job done," said Mike Nicketta, who worked at the store until November. "It usually took us longer to close because they were still learning and didn't really know what they were doing. But they were nice people."

Mike Jonas of Palatine, a sales representative whose clients included the Ehlenfeldts, said: "They were the kind of people who would take you over to their side booth, give you a Coke or a cup of coffee and talk about their children or where they grew up."

Another victim, Maldonado, was the cook who had returned to the northwest suburbs only a month ago after leaving his home in central Mexico. Maldonado, 46, who was married and the father of three young boys, had lived with his family in the area for five years previously and worked as a cook at a Mt. Prospect restaurant.

Family members said that Maldonado started at Brown's several weeks ago while waiting for his old job to open up at Ye Old Towne Inn in Mt. Prospect. The family was living with Maldonado's younger brother, Pedro, in a Palatine apartment complex.

"We could not believe it," said Juana Maldonado, Guadalupe Maldonado's sister-in-law. "He was such a good man. He didn't deserve this."

Michael Castro, who lived with his family three blocks from Brown's and often walked to work in the summer, was described by friends as a good student who was quiet but fun and who looked after his friends.

"I knew Michael, I know his mother-they are a beautiful family," said Mary Jauch, a neighbor and friend for 10 years who said the family is active in St. Theresa Catholic Church in Palatine. "When someone needed help, he was right there. When my son was cut, Michael brought him to me and made sure he was looked after."

Mennes, who lived with his twin brother, Jerry, was working at the restaurant for two months after being employed by a roofing company, according to his stepmother, Francis Mennes.

She said he liked to watch television, go bowling and frequent a local pub to play darts.

"He was a quiet kind of boy who kept to himself," she said. "He tried to do the best he could in life."

Frank Portillo, president of Brown's Chicken & Pasta, based in Oak Brook, said the company operates 115 stores in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Florida. Half of the stores are franchised and half are owned by the company.

"Myself and everyone at the Brown organization extend our deepest sympathy to the victims of this tragedy,"

"We are a close-knit family and we all feel this loss," Portillo said at a press conference, as he choked back tears.

According to Sam Vignola, the owner of a Brown's store in Rolling Meadows, the chain tells its franchise owners to vary the times they deposit money or remove money from their safes to deter robberies.

Vignola, who said robberies have not been a problem for the chain, called the Palatine franchise a "very high volume store," in the top 10 percent of stores in the area.

In addition, Vignola said that the Ehlenfeldts, though new to the restaurant business, were careful about the way they ran their store and were concerned about the safety of their employees.

Vignola said the Ehlenfeldts often would drive workers home after their shifts.

"I don't know that something like this could be prevented whatever you did," Vignola said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Fred Brown, a son of the chain's founder who is no longer connected to the corporation, appeared at the Palatine police station Saturday afternoon hoping to offer help to the victims' families.

"It's Vietnam all over again," said Brown, a Vietnam veteran who owns four Chicago area Brown's stores. "This gets me in my gut. I'm very sorry."

Palatine's mayor, Rita Mullins, said the murders would add another level of fear to the standard concerns parents have about letting their kids out of their sight. She said her own children had worked "two or three doors down at one time. Most families have a child or a relative working in fast food. But for the grace of God, it may have been one of my children. "

"That seems to be their rite of passage into the work force," Mullins said. "You are proud that your kids are taking on that initiative. . . . They should be able to go to work and come home and be good citizens and not have the fear of being murdered."

Sander, a Brown's employee for the past five months, said pay at the restaurant started at the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour and increased to $5 after six months.

Like other young people, the store's teen employees put the money into their adolescent passions. Castro, for instance, "put most of his money into his car," said Sander.

Students at Palatine High School gathered for basketball games on Saturday, which were not canceled after a vote by the school's teams.

"The feeling was that maybe if we played, it would be an outlet for the kids," said athletic director Doug Chapman. "We want them to get together and get this off their minds."

Officials said the school had arranged for crisis counseling Sunday at the school for students and families.

Rev. David Gardner, pastor of Solid Rock Pentacostal Church, said he would hold a communitywide memorial service at 10 a.m. Sunday even though none of the victims were church members.

"I drove by the scene this morning. There needs to be a lot of healing now," he said.

Daphne Matiu, a cashier at the restaurant from Arlington Heights, said she stopped by Brown's about 4 p.m. Friday to pick up her paycheck and everything seemed normal.

"You know, I remember I was about to walk out of the store, and I turned around and looked at everybody," she said."I don't know why I did that. But that was the last time I saw them."

Tribune reporters Ted Gregory, Teresa Wiltz, Curtis Lawrence, Andy Martin, David Ibata, Joseph Kirby, V. Dion Haynes, Jack Houston, Susan Kuczka, Angela Bradbery and Janan Hanna also contributed to this article.

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