After following false leads for nine years, police working the Brown's Chicken & Pasta slayings found themselves listening to a woman who knew a detail of the killings that had never been revealed to the public.
During the slayings, sources say the woman told police, one of the victims vomited.That unsettling detail put investigators onto the trail of two suspects, who were arrested Thursday, and raised hopes that there could soon be a conclusion to a saga that began Jan. 8, 1993.
Late Friday, authorities were still questioning two old Fremd High School friends, one a former Brown's employee. Palatine police, who have said they would not discuss the case until charges are filed, had scheduled a news conference for 3 p.m. Saturday.
For nine years, investigators have faced charges that they mishandled the hunt for whoever shot seven people, then mopped up the bloody scene.
But time also was good to police.
The years that elapsed since the crime were enough to allow someone to overhear another person talking about the killings--and for forensic science to improve dramatically.
The vital DNA evidence eventually tying one of the suspects to the crime scene wasn't isolated until new tests were begun in late 1999. The source of the DNA was a chicken dinner that had been left in a restaurant trash can and, wisely, preserved by investigators. In 1993, the science was not good enough to find DNA in the trace of saliva on the food.
The developments in recent days have raised the expectations of a breakthrough for investigators; for a community haunted by the murders even after the restaurant itself was demolished a year ago; and, most of all, for the families of those slain.
Even with the two suspects in custody, Emmanuel Castro, father of victim Michael Castro, said he felt little comfort. "There's no relief. Michael is not coming back," he said. "The more we talk about it now, the more difficult it is."
Healing has not been easy for the village of Palatine either. "I don't think the uneasiness has ever really left the community," said Mayor Rita Mullins, a staunch defender of her Police Department in the face of heavy criticism. "We, the village of Palatine and the Palatine Police Department want more than anyone to tell the world that we have a conclusion to this horrible, tragic incident."
The case began to thaw when a tipster told police that she overheard another woman say that her former boyfriend and another man committed the crime.
That woman apparently knew about the murders almost from the beginning. According to a law-enforcement source, she provided the former Brown's employee an alibi when they interviewed him within weeks of the shooting. She said she could vouch for his whereabouts the night of the murders.
After overhearing the woman speak of the killings in recent months, the tipster tried to talk the woman into going to the police. Fearful of the man, she didn't, and the tipster finally did so herself.
Police then went to the former girlfriend. Initially skeptical, they took her seriously when she revealed the key detail that had never been made public.
In mid-April, police took DNA samples from the two men. About 10 days ago, the Illinois State Police crime lab got a match with a piece of a chicken dinner that had been found in the otherwise cleaned restaurant.
Despite criticism of many aspects of the investigation, forensic experts credited authorities with having the presence of mind to save and freeze the chicken samples for tests that were still on the drawing board.
"It shows they were pretty forward-thinking, whoever decided to save it," said David Coffman, supervisor of the State of Florida's DNA database. "Ten or even seven years ago, we would never have thought to test a piece of food that was half-eaten. We wouldn't have had the technology to get a result."
When Palatine police found the half-eaten chicken dinner, the technology for identifying who ate the meal was still poorly developed, experts say. PCR, a method for amplifying tiny amounts of DNA evidence, had been invented only in 1985; the techniques used today for reliably coding and analyzing genetic evidence were first proposed in 1992.
It was clear to some in law enforcement that DNA fingerprinting would soon become a powerful crime-solving tool.
But the crucial technology was gradually refined and gained acceptance only in the years after the Brown's murders.
Samples the size of a pinhead
Before PCR became widely available, tests of saliva or blood typically required a stain at least the size of a dime, experts say. But PCR can make almost unlimited copies from minute traces of DNA, allowing police to work with samples the size of a pinhead.
According to police, authorities in late 1999 or early 2000 began looking into testing the chicken meal left in the restaurant.
Obtaining such samples involves freezing the food, then taking a swab using a Q-tip dampened with distilled water. So long as the samples have been stored in a cold place, the DNA can persist intact for decades or longer, experts said.
Former Palatine Deputy Chief Jack McGregor said he was confident that the chicken meal someday would play a key role in identifying the murderers.
"We were always confident that the DNA was probably from one of the offenders," McGregor said. "That chicken--we were going to keep it forever."
Many critics of the investigation were less confident. The Better Government Association, a civic watchdog group, issued a report that accused Palatine police of letting people traipse over the crime scene.
Three years later, a team of lawyers and police appointed by the Illinois State Crime Commission defended the investigation. But the history of the case made those involved hesitant to declare it solved.
"I have my fingers crossed," said Brown's owner Frank Portillo. "They're being really cautious. If they come out with another Martin Blake, you guys will beat them to death."
Blake was arrested within hours of the slayings, setting up one of the most glaring embarrassments of the case. Blake was held for two days before being released with no charges; he later sued for false arrest, and the village settled in 1997 for less than $100,000.
Other suspects also emerged over the years, including Paul Modrowski and Robert Faraci, two men arrested in the beheading of a man in Barrington. Modrowski was convicted in that case; the charges were dropped against Faraci, but he was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison in a check-writing scam.
But the saliva left from just a bite or two of that chicken dinner matched not them, but one of the two men now in custody--the same man who sources said has given a videotaped confession.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, sheriff's officers in suburban Indianapolis--in conjunction with Illinois authorities in unmarked cars--secured the home of one of the suspects. He is believed to have lived in the house with his brother for the past several months.
Officers carried from the house an assortment of bags filled with items and loaded them into cars.
The father of the suspect living in Indianapolis confirmed Friday that his son had been arrested.
Suspect has criminal record
He said his son has been mostly unemployed, having had trouble getting jobs because of a criminal record that included a battery conviction. Over the years, he did handyman-type jobs with his father.
"His mother and I, neither one of us would even think that he would be involved in something like that," the father said. "He has a mouth on him. He's kind of a lot like his dad: If he has an opinion he doesn't care who he's talking about. But I don't think he's going to kill anybody."
The father remembered driving by Brown's Chicken with his son a few years after the crime. "I asked him, `Did you know about the murders?' He says, `Yeah.' We continued on to our destination. I thought nothing of it at the time."
A former employer of the suspect at Poplar Creek Country Club called him "a very quiet guy. He seemed competent."
But his former girlfriend said in an interview that she dated him before the Brown's Chicken murders, but broke up after he repeatedly beat her.
The wife of the second suspect said that about two months ago, police came to their house and took a saliva sample from her husband--swabbing the inside of his mouth.
He previously told her that police had interviewed him because he had worked at the Brown's restaurant, but that he was not an employee at the time of the slayings.
"He told me he was not guilty of anything," she recalled Friday. "He said, `I tell them again and again that I don't know anything about this. But what can I do? I guess they're just doing their job and asking anybody who might know anything."
Her husband was taken into custody Thursday as he stopped for gasoline after picking up their 5-year-old son from school, she said.
Covering her eyes with one hand, she said, "I assure you my husband did not do this."
Her husband's bosses at a Crystal Lake TV repair shop recalled a trustworthy employee and doting father who often brought his young son into work.
"There was a mistake made here somewhere. He's about the nicest, gentlest guy we know. He doesn't even swear," the storeowner said. "He was easygoing, with a great sense of humor."
His co-owner called the suspect "just a good guy, a family man, devoted father. He works here six days a week, and he was trying to get another job so he could buy a house," the man said. "He's the guy I'd trust with anything."
At its peak, the investigation into the Brown's murders consumed almost half the Palatine police force. Private citizens flocked to form and attend neighborhood watch groups.
More than nine years later, several people a month still ask Councilman Daniel A. Varroney if there are any breaks in the case.
"I think people were frightened," Varroney said. "I think they were scared, and I think that they were horrified with the loss of life in our community. Everybody thinks it can't happen in their community."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun